You can take the Priory out of Flowton...
PUBLISHED: 16:08 14 September 2015 | UPDATED: 16:10 14 September 2015
Harpenden's notoriously well-loved historic home has a lesser known secret or two. What's more - it's up for sale.
In the notoriously green town of Harpenden, Hertfordshire, sits Flowton Priory – a Grade II listed Tudor mansion with an especially unique story. Aside from the fact that its owners have included a member of the Flower Brewery Dynasty and a racing car entrepreneur, the house itself boasts a well-known yet rather incomplete back-story.
“It really is “The House” of Harpenden,” says Nick Ingle of Savills estate agents. “It’s the most talked about property in the area; not least because of its history but its presence, the land it comes with and the fact that it fronts onto the common.”
The common he refers to is West Common, one of the many picturesque stretches of land that surrounds and winds through Harpenden. The parish is so delightfully rural that you could pinch its cheeks, known for its history of straw-weaving and steeple chasing. The area attracts buyers looking for an out-of-town but not drastically isolated homestead, usually at the higher end of the market. Case in point: Flowton Priory, which is in fact for sale.
Nick Ingle is a man on a mission. “I get tremendous excitement selling this kind of house,” he says, adding that Savills think it a privilege to be at the helm. “The challenge, when managing the sale of this property, is waiting for the right person to come forward. It’s an enjoyable yet frustrating exercise. The country market has been more challenging than any other sector over the past 18 months, but now it’s picking up.”
This is most likely be the reason for Flowton’s price-drop from an original asking price of £9 million to the current guide price of just under £6 million; but the ever see-sawing property climate doesn’t change the fascinating story that comes with the house.
Built in 1525 it was originally a priory - timber framed, red brick nogging and plinth, plaster infill and a plain tile roof. Since its construction it has been altered, as can be seen from the handmade model of the original structure that comes with the house. Being listed, English Heritage has ensured that all amendments, additions and modernisations have honoured the original heraldic fashion of the building.
It was altered most notably in 1932 by its then owner, a member of the Flower & Sons brewing line, followed by a major modernisation project undertaken by current owner racing driver David Pinkney (who put his plans to emigrate to Monaco on ice in order to live at Flowton). The project may have nudged this Tudor manor into a new era, but by no means did it contemporise it to its detriment.
“In my 25 years as an agent I’ve never met anyone quite as passionate about his home. David cares about everything from the architectural aspect of Flowton down to each grain of gravel on the drive.”
And what a drive! When arriving at the property you approach via a sort of pre-driveway, passing the beautifully carved “Flowton Priory” signage before you reach the majestic gated entrance. This then leads onto a tree-lined gravel avenue flanked by manicured lawns and its own lightly wooded copse, with the priory itself standing at the head. Towering above are the manor’s impressive chimney stacks, isosceles apexes and high gables.
The house retains every bit of its 16th Century heraldry, but its passionate owner has sprinkled 21st Century convenience throughout.
“There is a misconception around listed houses; a resistance about being able to tamper with them. But Flowton is a great example of how things can be done,” explains Nick.
Since 1997, Flowton has been re-wired and re-plumbed. The floors upstairs were lifted by 15mm in order to run 22ml copper pipes across the length of the house. It is essentially a period home with all the mod-cons. It even sits on a damp proof course, which can’t be said of most protected buildings.
You may wonder how on earth they managed this – which leads to the most spellbinding part of the Flowton Manor tale: it used to be in Suffolk.
In 1928 it was entirely disassembled and taken from Flowton near Ipswich (hence the name) where it was originally built 400 years earlier, and moved to Harpenden. This allowed for more modern methods of design to be incorporated into the reconstruction of the house, in its new setting.
It’s truly a wonder how this operation was carried out – but it happened. And the most painfully frustrating thing about it is that no-one seems to know why it happened.
A bit of historical sleuthing tells us that the Flower family originated from Marden Hall, near Hertford. Edward Fordham Flower, born in 1805, founded his brewing company after serving as an apprentice for his close relatives, the Fordham family in Ashwell, in 1831. One can assume, given the family’s ties in the county, that a future descendant decided to relocate back to Hertfordshire having ended up in Suffolk somewhere along the way – perhaps to reconnect with his routes, perhaps to set up home closer to Stratford-Upon-Avon where the brewery was based. Said descendent obviously couldn’t stand to leave Flowton in Flowton.
When originally moved, the timbers were numbered so as to guarantee exact replication when re-built. The land it was put on was simply a field with a soggy ditch (now a bountiful pool, flush with coy carp).
The Flowers extended it slightly and improved upon the Tudor inconveniences, but the house then fell victim to the unflattering trends of the 20th Century as it was passed to other owners over time. “When David came here, the kitchen was half as big, decorated with 70s Formica,” Nick explains. “The house became his project.”
In the late 90s, Flowton was extended and tweaked, restored and rejuvenated. The coal hole under the stairs was turned into a washroom; the fixtures and fittings selected to carry the Tudor torch, but installed using modern plumbing.
The kitchen was made larger, its new beams made from virgin oak to abide by English Heritage’s instructions. The seven smaller bedrooms were upgraded to five bigger bedrooms – some with en suite bathrooms, most still fitted with linen fold carved wardrobes. The stained glass windows – which feature Cardinal Woolsey’s coat of arms – were either made more secure in their casements or were replicated by local restorer Alan Barker.
Continuing the old-meets-new motif, the vintage deep reds, dark oak and wrought iron was replaced by a more Farrow & Ball colour pallet. Some of the beams have since been painted cream or white in order to lighten up certain rooms; canopies have been lifted from four poster beds to give height here and there; and a whole extra wing doubles up as guest house complete with floor-to-ceiling wine refrigerators.
All of these updates have made life that little bit simpler for Savills. “When you’re working closely with a client who is prepared to listen it helps enormously,” says Nick. “David is so enthusiastic about the place anyway; he has done so much to it already. But on top of this he is happy to titivate and paint to make the place even more appealing – which is a good tip for anyone selling any property of any age.”
Does this mean that house hunters aren’t interested in traditional properties any more? “They are!” Nick insists. “But they want the modern trappings too.”
This makes sense; after all, we are in 2015. A place like Flowton is all about the aesthetics. As much as we’d all love to live in a home dripping with historic charisma, we want our toilets to flush properly too.
Today, architectural trends often lean toward a mergence of past and present, sometimes teetering on the edge of uninspiring. Flowton Priory is definitely still very much about the past – but the house’s history is so revolutionary that it’s simultaneously ahead of it’s time. Dissect the property and you have an extremely practical home – a party house and a family house rolled into one. While the historic aesthetic promises the dweller or visitor a truly ripened tone, you’ll still be able to get online without hanging out of Christopher Wren’s windows.
David Pinkney’s zest for the house has been almost endearingly pedantic. On sowing the avenue of ornamental ‘cherry globe’ trees in the lawn leading to the Italian garden, he consequently uprooted and re-plated them after finding that the formation wasn’t to his liking. Given that there are around 20 trees in that avenue, many people would have just left it.
“When you build up a relationship with the owner you become even more motivated to get the sale,” Nick says of Flowton’s reigning monarch. “He will be sorry to go. Many people consider their property simply as bricks and mortar. There’s often no sentiment attached to a home. But here, there is.”
For more information on Flowton Priory visit this link or call Savills on 01582 465 002. And follow the Herts Advertiser property Instagram for more stunning shots in and around this spectacular home.