for People with a Passion for Period Property

Period Property of the Month - June 2006

Ever wondered about the history of your home? House detective, Mac Dowdy, steps back in time to reveal fascinating hints and tips.

House detective - a grand extension

The south front shows the 19th century  extension with the earlier house.


The grand staircase and entrance hall leads to the principal reception rooms.This striking property is situated in the gently rolling hills of the Home Counties, just north of London in a bijou village that could easily be described as being off the beaten track. Yet, this pastoral idyll seems a hop, step and a jump away from a motorway, ensuring that it takes only 40 minutes to reach the outskirts of London.

The building is called The Old Rectory which, if it proves to be older than the early-17th century, may have once been a manor house. Without doubt, this has been the most bizarre survey I have ever completed. The client wanted to present my illustrated report as a birthday present for his wife, so he stipulated that neither the good lady nor the young children could see me at work; it was to be very hush-hush. All of my visits were arranged through the housekeeper, and the gardener had to keep a look out for casual visitors.

Moving on to the house itself, the exterior view suggested two very distinct houses abutting each other to form one big property. The red brick building was the older and appeared to date to the late-17th/early-18th century. The evidence could be found in the pitch of the roof, the three triangular-pedimented dormer windows, the style of the red brick walls and the white rendered plat-band between the elegant sash windows. The nearer building resembled a classic early-19th-century townhouse. It dated to around 1830 with its low-pitched slate roof, extending eaves, fine doorway with its arched pediment and a classical voluted architrave.

The 18th century window stands in the location where the early-17th century door would have been originally situated.There were a number of salient points to note about the whole of this fašade. The windows in both buildings are identical in form and style, and are in what is termed one-build, where we might have expected them to be different. Also the principal entrance is in the 19th century extension, and there is no apparent sign of an earlier one in the red brick house. It was essential to find the position of the missing door in order to put a date on this building. There were no obvious building scars in the brickwork around the windows, but then I discovered, hidden behind a thorny bush, a faint, yet discernable, break in style with the sills' coving bricks. Here, I discovered the blocked-in door in an early-17th century position!

A walk round the outside of the house revealed more of its story. The crosswing at the east end had only been given the early-18th century treatment where it joined the front range. The rest related to early-17th century proportions including the rear part of the extension directly behind the main door, at the west end. Furthermore, I discovered a mid-17th century red brick range, forming a span parallel with the front, also set between the crosswings. What all of this additive activity means... is money!

Much of the interior had been remodelled and redecorated; it looked marvelous, but revealed little. However, all was not lost as a boxed-in axial beam in the ceiling of a central range room, and another in the east crosswing, confirmed the early-17th century date. The 18 inch thickness of the greater extent of exterior walls along the main range and east crosswing indicate timber-framing; plastered over and cased in brick. The 'guardian gardener' remembered seeing timber studwork in places about the house in his youth. It was the dimensions and construction of the roof timbers over the central range, with more 17th century rafters reused as principals in the low-pitched 19th century extension, that made my day.

There is a good chance that The Old Rectory is older than the conservative early-17th century date I have given. Its early plan shows a hall range with two crosswings; a design that went out of fashion before 1630. Money was spent on modernisation from the mid-17th century until c.1705, and then again in the early-19th century. This is obviously a house with quite a story to tell.