Sleep in the stables, cook in the dairy, relax in the timbered full-height barn: how tenacity and an unforgettable dream found a happy ending at 18th century Oxhey Hall Farm
Dennis Potter must be turning in his grave. The cantankerous screenwriter, who penned Blue Remembered Hills and Lipstick on Your Collar, built a notorious if cancer-killed career stoking the remaining embers of post-war English society’s bucolic nostalgia before squirting a heady mix of sex and booze on all of it – to the ire of moral crusaders. So it’s odd to find he is the inspiration behind a restored complex of 18th and 19th century farm buildings in Oxhey Hall village outside Watford.
David, one half of a couple who have lived all their lives in the area, most recently in the sedentary comfort of a large 1950s semi-detached home in the village, had been keeping a keen eye on the site for years. ‘I put it down to watching his drama ‘The Darling Buds of May’, all set in a rural idyll where they lived off the land and frolicked among run-down barns…I felt really influenced by that vision,’ he tells me. ‘And while it was derelict and clearly not the best barn in the world, it had the all rudiments of those rustic feelings.’ I’m sure the dead Potter would see a wry irony in the creation of a dream eked from a face-value reading of one of his satirical dramas and a patch of countryside on the edge of Metroland.
It was serendipity that they even got the site; formerly owned by a water utility, which had over the years, says David, put in multiple and ever less ambitious planning proposals for the barn, dairy, stables and abattoir. By the time it gained consent, the barn was set to be split down the middle and converted into two five-bed homes. When it was put on the market in 2014, the clients mustered enough for a low offer but lost out to a big developer.
‘Central gabled midstrey… braces from posts to tie beams – all straight. Queen struts to collars clasping purlins. Cambered tie beams in midstrey with angled struts clasping purlins’. Sounds like one of Potter’s saucy screenplay directions, but Historic England’s description of the barn’s structure was an intimation of the scale of the task – something the new buyer quickly balked at. When the sale fell through, the water utility remained keen to liquidate; so much so that ‘We got a call from them out of the blue, asking if we wanted to put in the offer again; so we just said yes,’ recalls David. Its timbers and weatherboarding might have been decrepit and psoriatic like Potter’s Singing Detective; but truth be told, they got it for a song.
Once the clients had reassessed their hand and decided to throw all they had at the project, Kingston architect Fletcher Crane came on board in early 2015. A couple of initial quotes from local builders, combined with its own surmising on the amount of work needed, meant it wasn’t long before the firm set to it. Toby Fletcher, formerly of Scott Brownrigg, and Ian Crane, ex-PRP, joined forces to create the new practice; and while both had been associates at their practices, both were hungry to see their own projects through from inception. The clients were impressed: ‘Ian and Toby were half our age but they came to the project respecting the heritage and with a modern take we hadn’t even considered. We saw the site’s potential but we needed their expertise and foresight to drive it forward.’ And they used it – over the next 18 months, the resubmission to turn the period buildings into a modern, four-bed, single family home demanded the full gamut of planning services – all beyond the client’s ken and at times, perhaps, even the new firm’s.
By turn Fletcher Crane grasped the gravity of its position; the buildings they took on were derelict, pigeon-infested and part burned-out in an arson attack. Crane remembers his first visit. ‘Walking around it, I was so excited I felt the hackles rise on my neck,’ he recalls, ‘but we went back to theirs – a nice, cosy semi-detached home in suburbia – and it became quickly apparent that they’d never done anything like this before.’ And that first client meeting is a reflexive thing, the architect sussing out too how much buy-in to their ideas they will get, but Crane felt reassured: ‘David had run his own business and had entrepreneurial spirit and though they were approaching retirement, they both had energy and we sensed they were up for it. But it was a huge financial commitment on their part and responsibility on ours; we knew we couldn’t end up with a half-finished building and with them having nowhere to live.’
The architect felt the £500,000 budget, gained by the client selling the business, cashing in pensions early and using bridging finance, made the project ‘difficult but achievable’. But it involved some logistics – Fletcher Crane set to work first on the adjacent burned-out annexe, inserting a steel structure and turning it into a two-bed property. The client later moved into it to speed the sale of the family home; it’s now let out to help pay the mortgage. While the client’s son was a builder by trade and keen to be involved, his vested interest and desire to expand his own firm’s portfolio weren’t enough to convince the architects of his experience to take on the whole job – family relations needed managing too. So works were split into two contracts. Between Time, a contractor with solid conservation experience, set about consolidating the main fabric on a JCT Intermediate form, with the client’s son’s firm assigned interiors on Cost Plus basis. It was savvy procurement, thinks Crane, playing on the strengths of both contractors and allowing the client to realise the project ‘on a shoestring’.
It was a blessing in disguise for the son. The barn needed major work, not least underpinning, which involved stripping the structure completely, building scaffolding inside and lifting it on its trusses far enough in the air to dig out the foundations, cast new concrete ones and ground-bearing slab over soil, and sit the whole lot back down on its brick base eight months later. ’It was like hanging a skeleton off a coathanger,’ says Crane evocatively, adding that the by the time it was ‘dropped’ the timbers had been soda blasted and back-fixed with anti-racking lime render carrier board, breather membrane, wood fibre insulation and Douglas fir weatherboarding. In addition, Between Time was responsible for the two-storey bedroom block inserted under two end bays of the barn. This feels a little mean against the 100m² living/dining space but its en-suite, open plan guest bedroom, set in the adjoining stable, is a pure joy; the bed even sits between its timber stalls.
With the barn the star of the show; internally, apart from the gestural flourishes of the curved bedroom block wall and the route to it from the dairy block, architecture whispers rather than shouts. Lime washed trusses crown the former dairy, now kitchen, and its old brick wall is wire-brushed and exposed. This, along with the poured concrete floor replete with its steel tray edge shadow gap, was first contested and is now loved by the client. The architect had to settle for IQ Glass’ budget Hedgehog range aluminium glazing, but the thicker, black-painted sections, Crane feels, were ultimately in keeping with the building’s muscularity. Similarly, a deep black-painted steel door reveal intimates shifts from one building to another – a fact perhaps evinced only through occupation. More obvious is the architect’s polycarbonate wall between barn and dairy, where daylight ingress is only impeded by the ‘bones’ of the barn itself, like some huge X-Ray; all are modern takes on the site’s industrial nature.
But among the details the real success is one big spatial move. David’s pride and joy is the home’s brick-floored entrance, and there’s a reason for that. Like a Japanese genkan channelled via Lewerentz, its generous area is a soldier’s height step up to the kitchen’s poured concrete floor. Just as you leave you’ll spy through the clerestory light above the Douglas fir front door, the undersides of clay plain tiles, atop the rafters of the fletton porch, showing clearly how it all came together. But for now,the distraction of the bright, spacious kitchen and country view beyond will serve to render the glance left that you’ll make almost incidental. And then – Bam! There it is. •