A galvanised steel and Douglas fir extension allows customers at the formerly sleepy Alice Hawthorn pub in Nun Monkton, Yorkshire, to hit the hay in a dreamy reimagining of stables and barns
Despite appearances, there’s something of the night to Nun Monkton – due, in no small part, to its siting. For while the medieval village is nestled firmly inland, less than 10 miles west of York, it lies at the confluence of the Ouse and Nidd rivers; and with Mill Sike stream to the north, occupies a natural peninsula surrounded by water. This was perfect at the height of its powers when, before the dissolution of the monastaries, it boasted an affluent priory and four hostelries serving the fishermen’s revels. Now, approaching from the east along the only road into the village, the sense of time coming to a standstill is accentuated by having to trail in behind a herd of cows lazily roaming the working green. Beyond the last straggler’s swishing tail, I sense a rural silence as immense as the dropped pin of a maypole ahead, to which the village proper now seems to be tethered.
Nun Monkton. Even the name could make your thumbs prick, summoning either a tautology of religious fervour or the desertion of God’s ministry. Until the mid-19th century, this place dug up a rudely-carved, wooden effigy of St Peter every June’s end and paraded it around for a week before re-burying it under a sycamore tree, in a ritual named ‘Rising Peter.’ Past the green’s ancient Buttery Pond – where witches, you’d imagine, went for a final dip – only one lane, The Avenue, takes you on: eastwards to the 12th century St Mary’s church and priory; after which, you’d plunge into the Ouse yourself.
So perhaps, in this forgotten corner of Yorkshire, the night really is thicker. It certainly seemed to be for the Priory’s current owners, Kate and Richard Harpin, for whom the impending closure of the failing Alice Hawthorn, the village’s last pub in 2013, precipitated the drastic if indulgent action of buying it outright. ‘Coming home on a winter night, it was always there twinkling warmly,’ says Kate, recalling her unease at the time with the thought of the lights going out. ‘It felt like the beating heart of the village.’ But having saved it for the community, they faced the thorny issue of how to keep it alive. Harpin concedes the pub was a ‘cash haemorrhage’ until, in 2017, proven local gastro-pub supremos John and Claire Topham were brought in to take a long, hard look at the books and see how they might balance them.
But Nun Monkton’s splendid isolation was a major impediment for a hospitality industry where profit margins are hard-won. ‘There was the problem of making a country pub that had no passing trade viable – after all the road here goes nowhere but to the river,’ says Harpin. The Tophams convinced them that the only way to make the pub work was to keep the punters there; and thus the idea of creating their modern day inn was born. Harpin had, over the years, worked with York architect Guy Bowyer on the steady renovation of the Priory, so when she approached him for design advice, he suggested the architect that he was working with at the time on York Theatre Royal, London practice De Matos Ryan.
The firm’s scheme for the extension of the grade II-listed 18th century inn picks up on the analysis of the specific grain of the village and is a play on the notion of the ancient Norse ‘garth’ – a crofting space or grassy cloister that would sit in the middle of a simple collection of agricultural buildings. De Matos Ryan director Angus Morrogh-Ryan says that, as it’s a conservation village, there was no escaping a forensic investigation of the vernacular; pre-app meetings with local planners had highlighted their desire to maintain the established views past the homes fronting the green towards ‘working’ farmsteads behind – the barns, outhouses, vegetable gardens and orchards that mediate between the settlement and open countryside beyond. After much ‘critical’ community consultation, De Matos Ryan settled on a simple grouping of four buildings behind the refurbished inn, forming a notional courtyard space that followed the ancient precedent of concentric farm types dispersing away from the old green.
Its broken-down grouping of field barn, stables, tack room and shed forms a loose, open rhomboid shape in plan, respecting those views out to the fields. Morragh-Ryan says that adhering to the boundary lines in part drove the plan form, but it was also the programme. This was a new type of working building; an old hostelry now with four refurbished bedrooms but also augmented with eight new luxury en suite rooms behind, ancillary spaces for overnight staff, linen store, laundry and cleaner’s room as well as a car park to the rear. The hierarchy is such that these ‘serving’ spaces line the driveway in, while bedrooms further back nestle around the new courtyard behind the pub, past the restored red brick barn.
The choice of a timber frame structure in this village of brick seems strange but is perhaps deferentially expressing its position in the vernacular pecking order. Sustainable strategies were certainly on the practice’s mind – it adopted ground source heat pumps for instance – but it turns out it was more than that, with Morrogh-Ryan adding that he wanted to produce a building that spoke of its elemental nature rather than the usual sophistry of layering fabric over structure.
This led the firm to a Douglas fir timber structure where cloister columns engage into galvanised shoes sitting on cast concrete upstands. Externally, this has a single layer of tight-grained larch cladding, and internally an expressed sarking layer of poplar ply. Subtle distinctions between the three are further blurred by an Envirograf intumescent white oil that helps give the buildings their one-hour fire rating. It renders the whole in a satisfying, milky homogeneity; kind of apt, when you consider the cows grazing on the green just yards away.
The elemental quality gets expression on the roof too. Harpin says the idea of a dark zinc standing seam roof was dropped in favour of galvanised steel sheeting. This also extends down over the working, boundary side of the elevations, and it was a wise decision. On the day I visited, the fresh, shiny new roof sheet was reflecting the nuances of a constantly changing May sky, but the way it will weather and deaden down is what intrigued them more. ‘We hope that after a few years it will become more tarnished and muted and give the sense that the animals have just moved out and the people just moved in,’ explains Harpin. Notion of ‘in’ and ‘out’ is picked up too at the external cloister overhang, where the roof structure rises past clerestory glazing to give glimpses of the rooms’ internal structure.
Once inside, the agricultural language makes itself more evident. Douglas fir structure rises off the concrete upstand with chunky cross-bracing sitting in front of poplar plywood in such a way that you can imagine knocking the whole thing together yourself. Above it, the expressed roof sails over both bedroom and bathroom. In the stables block the clever detail of a clerestory mirror panel on the bathroom party wall suggests the ability to pop your head over the stall and see next door. What Morragh-Ryan terms a ‘Loos-inspired fictive space’ is, in this intimate context, a cheeky trompe l’oeil that reminds us that serious architecture can be playful. Rooms have picture windows or rooflights so each space feels unique. And in them all, to leave the structure to speak for itself, fabrics and furnishings are chosen for their understated nature; wool pile carpets or thick, felt Kvadrat curtains that can be drawn over the hefty glazed timber doors.
But in a Faustian pact, making the building look so simple, the dark art of concealment is also at play. ‘If you want an elegant, minimal solution, you have to work hard to hide all the things that could potentially screw it up,’ Morrogh-Ryan explains; so try looking out for the conduit runs for lights and blinds, switches, extracts or fire detectors. Most run along a cavity below your feet; with separating walls meanwhile stuffed to the gills with fibre insulation and fire retardant Magply board to give the compartmentalisation fire and acoustic heft. It might have been inspired by agricultural materials, but at around £3200/m², the quality of feel and attenuation is high-end.
The new courtyard has proved to be a lifesaver for the pub during the pandemic and was on my visit dotted with lunching customers; one of the few sightings of non-bovine life since I’d arrived in the village. According to Harpin, the Alice Hawthorn, named after 18th century England’s most famous racehorse, is champing at the bit to get out of the gates – and so are new managers the Tophams, ready to work their own culinary magic. As Claire Topham speeds me west past the maypole along the pot-holed road out of the village, she informs me they live elsewhere, admitting that Nun Monkton’s ‘a bit quiet’ for them. She’s right – it’s like the place is draped in a night’s silence even by day; so it dawns on me why Harpin needed her resurrected pub to shed a warm evening glow on the green. And, buried in the cold earth beneath it, so does St Peter.
building emission rate (new build)
primary energy use (new build)
Client Kate & Richard Harpin
Architect De Matos Ryan
Project manager R Pickering
Quantity surveying Aspect 4
Structural engineering Price & Myers
MEP services P3r
Acoustics Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design
Sustainability Award Energy
Main contractor Gem Construction
Douglas fir timber framing Timber Workshop
Galvanized steel cladding Varla
Timber cladding, doors, windows & carpentry Lee & Micklethwaite
Mechanical services Warmaway
Electrical services Switched Solutions
Wardrobes House of Elliot
Signwriting The Brilliant Sign Company
Intumescent decoration Paul Crosby
Fire resisting plywood Poplar Fireshield
Fire resisting sarking Magply