Period Property of the Month - September 2008
Moving south into a converted barn has been a resounding success for this Northumberland couple
Beauty and the Beam
Moving closer to London made sense for Ian and Sylvia Vickerman when two of their three sons relocated south. Having retired, the couple also decided they did not need so much land - their large farmhouse in Northumberland had six acres, complete with orchards.
"We first moved near to Eye in Suffolk, thinking that was a long way south and easily commutable to London," Sylvia explains. "We lived there for about four years, but found our frequent journeys were still taking up too much time, so we began looking further south, on the Essex/Suffolk border."
They eventually found the 15th Century converted thatched barn that is now their home, snuggled in a dip of enfolding fields. The barn, one of the oldest surviving structures in the area, had been painstakingly restored two years before. Local planners and conservation officers had stipulated that every beam should be numbered and recorded as it was dismantled, before being put back together again.
"It has certainly been lovingly restored," says Ian. "We've been very impressed by the quality of the workmanship and the high specification of the fixtures and fittings used to turn what was a derelict barn into a well laid out home."
Sylvia agrees: "We just love it here. I find I adore open-plan living after spending so many years tied to my Aga and the kitchen in our Northumberland home!" The barn is a typical timber-framed and black weatherboarded building with a ridged and gabled thatched roof. Inside are perpendicular style arch-braces. Every timber was cleaned and treated before being put back jigsaw style, providing a three-bedroomed home with three en suite bathrooms.
The open-plan ground floor has underfloor heating, with a sitting room, dining area and breakfast space with a compact kitchen to one side, and a utility room opposite.
Galleried areas on the first floor provide a study and a separate dressing room. "We've been here now for just a year, but we've settled so quickly," says Sylvia. "When I walked in, I felt I had come home. I love the feeling of it, and find it very relaxing.
"There have also been several amazing coincidences which have made us feel this was so right for us - for example, it wasn't until we moved in that we found the antique pony plough we had in the gardens of our old home had 'Made in Ipswich' on it, a town just 12 miles from here!
"And we'd always loved Titchmarsh & Goodwin furniture. We have several pieces, hand carved in oak, it is made so well.
"Shortly after moving in, we were driving through Ipswich and saw a sign for Titchmarsh & Goodwin.. so we zoomed in, and had a tour of the workshop. We were so excited, it felt we had brought the furniture home!"
The couple haven't encountered any problems with keeping their barn snug and warm, even with the open-plan layout and lack of conventional ceilings.
"I think the underfloor heating is the answer. We are delighted the builders thought of that in the first place," says Ian. "And we are so pleased our bedrooms are all off the main living space and have 'normal' proportions."
Over the years, Sylvia and Ian have built up a collection of antiques and contemporary furniture, which blend perfectly with the scale of their property. These include an antique Dutch chandelier, a Victorian oak rocking chair, and a long French oak dining table with refectory benches and chairs.
"We were very lucky, as everything had been done before we bought the barn," Ian continues. "The oak flooring in the living area, the bathroom fittings, and the kitchen were all in place. All we had to do was furnish the space, which can be quite difficult when it is such a large area. Too-small sofas, for instance, would look silly with these vast ceilings. Fortunately we had the right-sized sofas and armchairs, which we bought 16 years ago."
The majority of Sylvia's silk curtains from their previous home have been adapted for the barn, including the master bedroom and the large window in the breakfast area. Sylvia has just added blinds where necessary, such as in the kitchen, breakfast area and bathrooms.
One fixture they particularly thank the developers for is the central vacuum cleaning system. "It is like a vacuum cleaner, but the motor is outside. You just have a hose which can be plugged in to a number of sockets, which have been fitted in every room. As this is an old barn, we do have a lot of spiders with cobwebs, and this long, flexible hose is adept at sucking them from the timbers," Ian explains.
"The dust all gets sucked down through vacuum ducting, which is linked to the motor and the storage canister outside in a small shed. We reckon we won't have to empty it for four years, it is quite amazing..."
With the beams providing the focus of the living space, Ian and Sylvia have wisely kept paint colours neutral, enhancing the natural tones of the wooden structure and the pale oak flooring.
"I would definitely recommend living in a barn," smiles Sylvia. "I don't feel at all compartmentalised by rooms - it's very liberating. For example, after lunch, if I want to sit down on a sofa and relax, I can, without leaving and going to another room which, in an old farmhouse, might not have been heated. Here, everything is to hand. And we are also much closer to our sons and grandchildren, Jamie and Elissa. Our third son is also hoping eventually to move south to join us. We are thrilled we found this spot."