Period Property of the Month - February 2007
Once the home of writer Elspeth Huxley, this rambling country home has gracefully stepped into the 21st century.
The writing's on the wall
Woodfolds, a beautiful sprawling 17th century Cotswold house near Cirencester, was once the home of writer and journalist Elspeth Huxley, who also planted the wonderful cherry tree in the garden. This was soon after she and her husband Gervas moved there in 1939.
Now Woodfolds is the home of antique dealer Hoggy and Mark Nicholls, a business adviser, and their two boys Archie, 12, and Rory, ten. In fact, Mark was brought up here during his teenage years when his parents owned the house. Coincidentally, they now live in another cottage at the end of the drive, also previously owned by Elspeth until her death in 1997 at the age of 89.
Then, at the request of Elspeth's son Charles, Mark's parents Miriam and Nigel Nicholls held a wake in the garden for Elspeth's friends and relatives. And in honour of her time there, Hoggy (nicknamed this from her maiden name Hogg) has arranged a circular bench around the cherry tree. "Now we can sit on the bench and look up into the trees and remember her life and her novels," says Hoggy.
In fact, trees seem to have been very much a theme in Elspeth Huxley's life, as she is best known for her best-selling book 'The Flame Trees of Thika' which was televised in the 1970s. However Elspeth wrote another, lesser known book about the village of Oaksey itself, called 'Gallipot Eyes, a Wiltshire Diary' which recounted her years at Woodfolds and later at the cottage.
When Mark's parents decided to sell Woodfolds four years ago, he and Hoggy decided to buy it from them. Drawing on Hoggy's talents for interiors, they set about bringing the Grade II Listed, six bedroomed house into the 21st century without losing its character.
"We hoped to find more hidden treasures as some years before - in my parents' time there - we had discovered a lovely inglenook fireplace behind a small modern one in the snug," says Mark. "The whole family had spent a Sunday afternoon demolishing the brickwork in search of this gem."
The first thing they did was to update the kitchen. "It was rather basic for a family who enjoy entertaining," says Hoggy. "Mark's parents had extended the original tiny kitchen when they had moved in 25 years before, but it was of very utilitarian design. My mother-in-law is an artist and had used it as her studio. They also had a log-burner range in there, which tended to smoke and stained the walls. The floor needed replacing too and fortunately our friend, Jamie Robb, owns Marlboorough Tiles so we chose some ceramic ones from him."
So Hoggy, who buys and sells decorative and nursery antiques, sat down with her friend Penny Coaker of Alderman Kitchens, to design the new kitchen. "First, we got the local builder Colin Ettles to disguise the RSJ across the ceiling with an oak beam found at Cirencester reclamation yard and add two more oak lintels to go above the windows.
We also removed a stud wall between two little rooms at the back to create one big utility and dog room for our three black Labradors, Breezy, Tilley and Mulberry.
We also replaced a rather plain plank door leading to the terrace with a stable doo," smiles Hoggy. The couple then asked Woodchester Kitchens to build and install the units (with beech worktops and belfast sink) which Hoggy's friend painted an apple green (blending two shades) and waxed them.
"I wanted them to have an aged look," explains Hoggy. The cream four-oven Aga stays on all year, providing a focal point as well as hot water.
"We boil in the summer but can't turn it off as we still need to cook," says Hoggy. "I also have a Neff electrical oven for backup when entertaining. We don't have a hob of any sort as I didn't want to break up the run of the workktops." There are some beautiful timbers in the converted attic area, which were sprayed for woodworm as a precaution while the building was vacant. "Luckily, my father-in-law has engineering and do-it-yourself skills," says Hoggy. "In fact, because of the way he works his way through the house, we call him the Giant Woodworm!"
However the second biggest job was the bathroom next to the main bedroom, which has now become an en suite. "For such a little room, it was an enormous amount of work and money," explains Hoggy. "It had to be rewired and replumbed and the old suite removed, which all proved more awkward than expected. The top bathroom also needed a new floor and they had panelling put in round the bath. "Until Elspeth Huxley arrived here, there were no bathrooms at all," says Hoggy. "She added all three during the 1940s and they are all on the west side of the house and when we came along they still had huge old-fashioned baths. We kept two of them, but as we totally changed our en suite, we got rid of the third."
The main sitting room, which was previously farm outbuildings and is now called the Long Room, had rough plaster walls so the couple had them replastered. As for the top of the house, where there used to be an office and a bedroom, it was a complete tip. An old Heidelberg printing press belonging to Mark's brother, Mikey, stood there and the only way to get rid of it was to dismantle it.
A couple of years ago, the couple had the cowshed roof rebuilt and recovered with cedar shingle tiles; it now doubles as a storage area and garage for Mark's Triumph TR4A. "We're also restoring the parterre, originally planted by Elspeth, with the help of our friend and landscape gardener Helen Sunderland who also sourced the wire arches from Garden Requisites of Bath," beams Hoggy.
So with such strong family ties, and a personal link with history, it seems that Mark and Hoggy's house will continue to remain in the family for years to come.
The life of Elspeth Huxley
Elspeth Huxley and her husband Gervas bought this house in 1939 and carried out extensive restoration and modernisation, costing more than £3,000 - a considerable sum in those days. The end result featured in Country Life in May 1941 and Elspeth continued to live here during the 1960s.
Elspeth was born in 1907 and went with her parents to live at Thika in the then British East Africa when she was five, then returned to England and the USA when she was 18, to study. Later she married Gervas Huxley, had a son and travelled widely.
She wrote 30 books in many genres, including the best-seller 'The Flame Trees of Thika' (memories of an African Childhood), but her finest is considered to be 'Red Strangers', reprinted in 1999 by Penguin Books and again in 2006 by Penguin Classics. But without a doubt, Hoggy's favourite is 'Gallipot Eyes' as it centres on Oaksey and their home.
A touch of red...
Hoggy has a warm and cosy red to brighten up this small bathroom. Throughout history, red has been a colour which symbolises excitement, sensuality, danger, life and death and used in the right room shades of crimson, deep claret and maroon, can bring warmth and a sense of luxury to the space. For a small windowless or north-facing bathroom, choose pinks to warm the room up a touch.
Garden Requisites (garden furniture), tel: 01225 851577 or visit www.garden-requisites.co.uk
Jotul (enamel wood-burner), tel: 01527 506010 or visit www.jotul.com
Penny Coaker of Alderman Kitchens (kitchen design), tel: 07968 464471.
Sharland & Lewis of Tetbury (antiques throughout), tel: 01666 500354
Woodchester Kitchens and Interiors (kitchen units), tel: 01453 886411 or visit www.woodchesterkicthens.co.uk