Robert & Sarah Turrell had the details of their medieval hall house in their file for six weeks before they could summon up the enthusiasm to view it. "It was pretty dilapidated and didn't have a very attractive front aspect including a cracked concrete yard so it didn't really appeal to us," recalls Robert, a freelance conductor and viola teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.
But within 20 minutes of viewing the property he and his wife Sarah, a professional potter, made an offer. "The estate agent was a bit taken aback and asked if we wanted to think about it," recalls Robert. "But we knew we wanted it."
On first approaching the property down several country lanes, Sarah admits she had been a bit worried about its isolated aspect. "We had lived in a Queen Anne farmhouse in Sevenoaks on a very busy road," she recalls. "I was keen to move to have the quiet but I wasn't sure how I'd get on in what I initially thought was the middle of nowhere."
However, once inside the property her worries were soon put aside when they realised that a wealth of medieval features were still intact hidden beneath a 50s renovation consisting of acres of fibreboard and ply. "The house was very clean and well loved, but the decoration was not very sympathetic to the architecture of the building," recalls Robert. "Most of the timbers were covered up, but when we went into the attic, we were amazed to find a fantastic carved crown post roof, all with the original smoke blackening from when it was an open hall house - and that decided us, we put in an offer there and then!"
It also transpired that the property wasn't really isolated after all. Although in a very quiet backwater with amazing views of the Weald, it was only 10 minutes from the motorway and two miles from the small market town of Headcorn, with a train service to London.
After completing the purchase in February 2003 the couple and their children Millie, now 18 and Luke, 15, rented accommodation nearby and Robert took a 10 month sabbatical so that he could act as the site manager for the renovation. He and Sarah were always there at 7.30am every morning, using an old caravan left on the land as a site office. "However, our hands were very tied for the first three months," recalls Robert, "because we had to get listed building consent and then when we eventually got it in June, all hell broke loose!"
The roof was the most pressing job. "It was incredibly rickety after it had been damaged by a doodle bug that landed in a nearby field during the war," explains Robert, "a strong wind could easily have blown the whole lot off." So they got Anthony Hicks in to repair the rafters (including 85 roof rafter ends) and to rebuild the hips. Karl Terry Roofing Contractors also sourced 8,000 18th century Kent peg tiles to replace ones which were too damaged to re-use. Meanwhile, on receiving the listed building consent, Robert & Sarah got to work ripping out false ceilings to expose the wonderful oak beams and also delaminated the walls. Robert then replastered the walls with properly haired lime plaster which he learnt to make himself on a course run by Essex County Council.
Work then started on the new oak built traditionally crafted jettied extension they had planned for the back of the house. This was first errected by conservator Anthony Hicks in his yard and then dismantled and rebuilt at Hecton, using a 35 tonne crane to position it over three days.
"The dirt was the worst bit of the building work though," remembers Sarah. Although Robert says his worst moment was when the whole building was held up by just 25 acro jacks whilst the rotten sole plate on the back wall supporting the whole of the building was replaced. "It was a pretty scary two weeks!" he recalls.
The Turrells could have done everything a lot more cheaply but as they had intended to stay in the house forever they wanted to do everything right and pay great attention to detail. "We spent a lot of time researching it all and were often richly rewarded," says Robert. "For instance, when we were ripping off some fibre board, we discovered a hand carved castellated Dias beam which had been mostly hacked away, but we got Anthony Hicks to copy what remained and then refaced it." They also discovered the markings where the doors had been in the cross passage and had these reinstated in English oak along with the original cross passageway layout. Everything was done right down to the smallest details. "All the ironmongery for instance is hand forged," adds Sarah, "Because I feel if this is not right it really screams at you when you go into a period house." However, the couple found they were not averse to adding a few modern touches. For instance they discovered that brushed stainless steel toggle light switches look great in a medieval house.
Once the detached 18th century barn was renovated and the ugly concrete yard dug up and replaced with gravel, the family could finally sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour and Sarah found she positively relished the peaceful surroundings. "We have gone from one extreme to another - from a stream of traffic to now only about half a dozen cars a day passing - but I find I love the calmness." However, the family have loved the calm surroundings so much they are shortly going to up sticks again and move to somewhere even more peaceful - a property in rural Tuscany where they can also offer music and pottery holidays which is being filmed for the BBC 2's 'Get a new life extra'. Getting a new life, it seems, is something they are very good at!