Period Property of the Month - September 2007
After a hectic life in London, Rob and Julia decided to return to Julia's family home where she lived as a child.
Back to college
College Farm was a house my parents bought in 1963, as the result of a series of family tragedies," admits Julia, wryly. "My poor father was so desperate at the time, I think he bought the first pigsty that came along! I remember it as a gaggle of tiny dilapidated stone buildings." It was a racing yard when Julia's father took it on and young racehorses were taking up every available stable. The place seemed to be over-run with young jockeys, smelly socks in the bath, muddled piles of clothing and dirt everywhere. In fact, elegant country living, this was not!
As a child, Julia secretly aspired to living in London and when she left College Farm to marry Rob, that's exactly what she did. But when Rob's business crashed with the downturn in the economy of the late eighties, they had to sell up and leave their beloved home in London's Notting Hill. So it was another reversal of family fortunes that brought Julia back to College Farm with her husband and three young children. "My father was very ill, and mum was really happy to have us home."
Little did Julia realise, how her whole family would thrive and prosper on her return, and how somehow, bit by bit, she would manage to create the lovely home they enjoy today. "The house as you now see it, has arisen, quite literally, from the rubble of a bygone age," explains Julia enthusiastically, "stone that has been used and reused, on this same parcel of land, over many centuries, to provide shelter for 40 generations or more."
The cottage and the old farm buildings belonged to 'Corpus Christi College' in Oxford - hence the name 'College Farm'. There was once a medieval village, which ran along the valley by their stream, but it vanished at the time of the Black Death. The garden is on a steep slope down to the stream and the terraces were formed by Julia's father, out of the remains of the medieval cottages.
"There's all kinds of interesting stonework about the place," enthuses Julia, "we recently found a roman tile, unearthed an ancient well, a baby's stone coffin and the remains of some stone water pipes, that were once common in this part of the Cotswolds..."
Julia knows every inch of this place and she barely draws breath as she shares her passion for it: "The original cottage on College Farm, was, in fact, a one-up, one-down, with a scullery and an outside loo, which at one time was occupied by a villager and his eleven children." Experts suspect the cottage probably predates the 14th century. The single downstairs living space is now the couple's formal dining room. "I love its huge inglenook. The rich green and reds seem to work really well in this room. We like to dine here by candlelight, and it's the best place I know to sit down to a big traditional Christmas roast," says Julia.
It's true; this part of the house is incredibly atmospheric and it's daunting to think just how old it might be. The second door to the dining room is extremely small, as it was the original front door to the cottage.
Julia explains: "When my parents moved in, they added a sitting room to the original cottage, introduced an inside bathroom and toilet and extended the hall, which provided another bedroom above it.
As you can see, they kept the lovely original mullioned window in the outside wall, which now divides the hall from the kitchen."
Robert and Julia did a lot of alterations in 1992. They added the front porch, Rob's study to the right of the living room, the children's play room and the utility/boot room. This gave them the opportunity to add two further bedrooms above with a large en suite bathroom, a loft room and they also squeezed a shower room and loo into an old cupboard on the landing. They now had a six bedroom house - and it was to grow even further.
They extended the kitchen six years ago, by adding a conservatory and a walk in larder. "Rob is a brilliant cook, he's Dutch and he loves his curries! We now have a light filled kitchen and a lovely informal eating area." They also converted the 'Tallet,' in the yard.
"It used to be seven or eight stables with a hay loft above," explains Julia. "This became my mother's house, where she still lives today, and she absolutely loves it."
Most recently, Robert and Julia, converted the barn on the other side of the yard and this now has a very large double bedroom, a kitchen, shower room and very large sitting room upstairs overlooking the kitchen garden. They rent this cottage out from time to time to provide funds for further projects.
"We now have planning permission for a traditional Cotswold open barn garage," smiles Julia, "even though my children have now all grown up and left us - the house just seems to keep on growing! My favorite part of living here is that I just don't know what to tackle next. There are so many little rooms and corners, which beckon you to take on a challenge. Every day I see something which holds new promise. For instance, there is a stone shed on the patio above the swimming pool, which needs renovating and I have yet to finish the new part of the garden where the old well is. oh, and I need to create an arched walk from there to the beech tree."
So does Julia ever feel wistful for the eighties and life in London's fashionable Notting Hill? "Do I ever! I dread to thinkwhat our old house might be worth now!" she laughs. "But no, going back to 'College', was the best thing we could have done, for all our family, and like our house that has been here for ever - I suspect we shall be here forever too."
In search of local legend
There is a secret underground passage which runs from our cottage, all the way up the hill to another ancient farmstead which still has its own chapel attached. We know that this was used by the Knights Templar in the 14th century - possibly as a place of worship and refuge, as there is a Safe House symbol carved into their fireplace. According to local legend, the tunnel goes from their farm's dining room (which is paved with some beautifully ancient limestone flagstones) and comes out somewhere, in, or close to, our house. Yes, we have all searched over the years, but failed to find an entrance. But we know that it was certainly bricked up in living memory. It never ceases to tantalise our guests who, after dinner, have threatened to go out into the night with pickaxes to find it. I think it's a challenge which might be better handled by Tony Robinson and his 'Time Team'!
Classical Flagstones Ltd (flagstones in kitchen), tel: 0117 937 1960.
John Lewis (Julia's many mirrors), tel: 08456 049 049 or visit www.johnlewis.com
Old Teak (Rob's collection of Dutch Colonial furniture), tel: 020 8312 4400.
The Cloth Shop (Julia's bedlinen and cushions), tel: 020 8968 6001.