If it had not been for a chance encounter with a screwdriver 26 years ago it is possible that Paul and Rachel Jacques might never have discovered the full riches of the Medieval gem in which they have lived for the greater part of their married lives.
Paul and Rachel, now in their mid-sixties, bought what they thought was a rambling old 13-roomed Oxfordshire farmhouse, dating mainly from Victorian times, because it had two staircases and they thought it would appeal to their three sons.
When the couple bought the house in 1977 it had appallingly primitive plumbing and vegetation growing through a hole in one of the rear walls on the ground floor. The Jacques were determined to use their practical skills to do as much of the restoration work as possible.
It was while Paul was trying to install central heating pipes inside a cavity in the drawing room that he dropped a screwdriver, and a discovery was about to be made. He fetched a torch, shone it into the cavity in order to try and locate the tool and nearly fell backwards when he was confronted with wall paintings. "They had a feathered pattern and I realised immediately that they were old," Paul says. How old he did not know until he called in conservation officer Dr Malcolm Airs, an expert on historic houses and now Professor of Historic Conservation at Oxford University. He immediately recognised them as dating from the late-17th century.
Before long a large section of the lath and plaster walls that lined the timber-framed walls of the dining room was removed and Paul and Rachel had embarked on a thrilling journey of discovery that went on to last for 12 years, in the course of which the house became Grade 1 listed.
Fortunately Paul and Rachel have never regretted buying the house, despite the years of hard toil and the constant maintenance. "There have been masses of plusses and very few minuses," says Paul. The couple feel that their three sons have been influenced for the good by being brought up in the house, and all the help they received from Malcolm Airs and his extensive network of contacts, and from English Heritage, has been invaluable.
The English Heritage grant that Paul and Rachel received covered 40% of the costs of removing all the lath and plaster in the drawing room and conserving the wall paintings. It also helped with much of the outside work including removing all the render and repairing and conserving the oak frame beneath. The grants also covered work on the windows, the magnificent arch-braced collar roof, dating from around 1480, and the screens passage which has been dated to around 1240.
When four archaeological digs took place in the space of two years, the family simply moved around the house, after all, there are 13 rooms, including six bedrooms. However Paul does believe you have to be a certain sort of person to appreciate a house like this. "Fortunately we have always seen eye-to-eye on this sort of thing. I am quite practical and Rachel is a farmer's daughter and a former professional gardener. In addition she was brought up in an old house, so I reckon all this was in her blood far more than mine really." smiles Paul. The family admit they have made lots of friends and feel they have been able to add to the community in Chalgrove.
A few years after the discovery of the drawing room wall paintings Paul discovered a second, and far older, set in one of the bedrooms. They are dated from around 1580 - about 100 years older than the paintings that occur in the drawing room. They are an unusual silver/grey colour and are painted on the beams as well as some of the plasterwork.
Another surprise came three years ago when stripping the modern paint off an internal door. Paul came across some extremely old red paint, called in an expert and it turned out to be the original 15th century paint and has now been expertly conserved.
The latest discovery was made by some visitors from English Heritage who came to show some students round. They discovered a set of quite deliberate incised marks around some of the doorways. These are known as apotropaic marks and are thought to have been a form of appeal to a deity to keep the house free of evil spirits.
Over the years the couple have had many ups and downs carrying out all the work, but they were able. They were able to complete the story a few years ago when the title of the manor came up for sale and they were able to purchase it from Magdalen College, Oxford. "Buying the title at a sale in London was quite an experience. We were under the glare of all the media," Paul says.
Today the three boys have all grown up and gone away, but Paul and Rachel never feel they are rattling around because there is always so much coming and going because so many people are still showing such an interest in the old house.