Winging it: Apartment living in Hertfordshire's most magnificent homes
PUBLISHED: 07:30 11 September 2018 | UPDATED: 07:59 11 September 2018
Can't afford a mansion? Well, you may be able to manage a wing. Richard Burton found out more...
I once went to meet the rock star Jack Bruce in a fairy-tale palace of a secluded country mansion. It was the sort of place you’d expect from a member of the world’s first supergroup.
But this wasn’t his home. It was that of his friend, an unemployed session drummer who spoke distantly of the time he’d jammed with the Stones before falling back on roadie work while his ageing 6ft frame was still up to it.
It was Bruce’s first visit and even he was impressed by the long drive, the lines of oak and elder and the sweeping courtyard that carriages would once have used to turn in. The main doorway, however, was out of bounds to us. Our entrance was via a few treads of fire escape at the side.
Drummer boy didn’t own the place; he just rented the upper half of the east wing. Even so, I remember making an ice-breaking comment to Bruce about how the living room was so big “you could probably rehearse in here”.
He replied: “You could do a gig in here.”
He wasn’t far wrong. The house, on the Cornwall-Devon border, is probably a hotel now. It reminded me of one I visited near Wheathampstead last year. This one had ground and first-floor rooms, an entrance hall the size of a hotel lobby, a grand staircase and views over open countryside and more than an acre of lawn, albeit one that was shared with four other households.
These were both homes-within-homes. Spectacular apartments set within spectacular houses on spectacular estates and many of them rich in history and big on impact.
And unlike the often famous former owners, the owners of these homes won’t have to worry about the problems of looking after miles of leaking gutters, acres of lead flashing, woodworm and keeping entire libraries and ballrooms aired and free from damp.
And, what’s more there’s an abundance of them in Hertfordshire.
Such as Hamels Mansion in Buntingford which was, for 72 years, home to The 3rd Earl of Hardwicke before being converted into ten luxury apartments, all of which, thankfully, retain an abundance of period features, including marble floors, original mantelpieces and restored stucco ceilings.
Or the Regency Chorleywood House, near Rickmansworth; built in 1822 and owned by a relative of the Duke of Bedford before becoming a home for wartime evacuees and later, even a public library before its conversion into luxury flats.
And some are on sale. In Bedwell Hall, Essendon, for example, there’s a suitably impressive 2,225 sq ft three-storey apartment on the market with agent Stattons that ticks all the boxes.
It’s one of ten in what is a Grade II listed – and highly distinctive – country house surrounded by 150 acres of private grounds, including a Victorian garden and woodland, all of which run alongside the local golf course to which there is private access. Sales details also tempt buyers with use of the tennis court and a golf buggy.
Even more impressive is a four-bed apartment on the market with Lumley Estates at £3 million. It accounts for a whole wing of Wall Hall Mansion in Radlett, a property that is itself set in 55 acres.
I remember Wall Hall as a teacher training college back in the seventies; I went to an event there and recall being given a tour of the early 19th century Gothic house.
In the thirties it was home to US ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who leased it from the financier JP Morgan Jnr just as war broke out.
A buyer who wants to share in that history could look forward to an apartment which, like many of its genre, oozes space, thanks in no small part to the 26ft x 23ft drawing room and 32ft x 23ft kitchen. This one even comes with its own private garden space and, for those worrying about leaving the Aston Martin out all night, there are secure parking spaces behind electric gates.
Then there’s Tewin Water House, near Welwyn, which has been home to many a notable family and even briefly served as a school for the deaf. It is part of a more modest 10-acre estate but those who live there speak of the wow factor of the enormous rooms and landscaped gardens. There’s currently a £1.6 million four-bed apartment for sale in one of the wings.
So what attracts people to properties like this – and what sort of people are they?
Ben Aldridge, sales administrator at Lumley Estates, says he’s seen wide-ranging interest for the Wall Hall apartment from families to the odd elderly downsizer.
“This one, apart from having absolutely stunning grounds, also has its own garden and patio which is an extra.
“But it’s the sheer quality; not just the build, but things like the sheer quality of the kitchen. Then there’s the sheer space and the ceiling heights. It’s just a unique experience.”
Country houses were always communities, to be fair. Not only because many of them historically accommodated staff below stairs but because they were often centrepieces, surrounded by “tied” cottages.
As times got hard, families were forced to retreat to small corners of them - and sell the silver platters and oil paintings to heat them - before moving out and giving way to developers looking to build hotels, retirement homes and conference venues.
There was a big trend for apartment conversions between the post-war years and into the sixties when estate agents were often advertising them coming with permission for multiple flats or simply that they were “ideal for conversion”.
The worst examples abused the occasional lack of heritage protection at the time and many grand ballrooms and cavernous libraries were defaced with dividing walls to shoehorn in another apartment or two.
But the best, the ones where architects worked with the buildings, made virtues of the space and preserved their historic features - became highly coveted among buyers attracted by life in a stately home without the headaches of upkeep.
The one in which I met Jack Bruce was a bit of a dump to be honest; the rooms had been divided into glorified guest suites and the tenant was sold on the space and seclusion rather than any effort made to present it.
The hippie décor and smell of joss sticks didn’t help. But I do remember getting an early insight into the music scene of the day. It was a few years after Cream had broken up and Bruce was telling me about the eponymous band he had formed.
I don’t remember a great deal of the detail but do recall him raving about this new drummer he had “discovered”; one far younger than the one sitting opposite us.
It was a young Hertfordshire lad called Simon Phillips who was later to become one of the most respected rock drummers of his generation. At the time he’d not long left Bushey Meads school. The same one that was later to produce George Michael.