B ACK in the 18th century, there was something of a vogue for grafting what were then startlingly modern brick-built facades onto the front of much older timber-framed houses. The result: that harmonious blend of styles that is a defining feature of so many fine old houses.
The same tradition lives on in the efforts of present-day owners to extend and modernise older properties sensitively. A perfect example is Blakes, a lovely 17th- century farmhouse crowning a hill (the second highest point in Essex) on the outskirts of the village of Pleshey.
Of considerable historical significance – the original design having reputedly provided the template taken to America by the Pilgrim Fathers to be widely copied across New England – Blakes is today a simply stunning family home, with some 4,200 sq ft of living space, comprising five reception rooms, a cellar room, a superb fitted kitchen/breakfast room, and four double bedrooms, including a three-room master suite and one further en-suite – all set amid some five acres of peaceful and secluded formal gardens, paddocks and stabling, complete with swimming pool and tennis court.
However, it was a different story 33 years ago, when David and Janice Payne first saw the property. "The house was much smaller then – just the middle section as it stands today," Janice recalled. "It didn't even have mains water. Instead it was served by its own well, with an electric pump." Remedying that was one of the first projects they undertook once the house was theirs. "We had the mains brought up the lane and, when we decided to have an additional supply piped across it to the paddock, the specialist we employed to do the excavation work broke so many drill bits that he said the surface of the lane probably hadn't been disturbed for hundreds of years."
Since 1980, as well as raising a family in the house, David and Janice have undertaken a major programme of extension and modernisation. This was completed in two phases, always employing local craftsmen for the work, and wherever possible using reclaimed materials such as old wooden beams. The existing 17th-century house was extended at both ends, and a new rear wing was also added, together with additional single-story extensions, containing the cellar room and office, to link with the separate bake house. Janice believes that to be even older than the original part of the house, since it contains a particularly striking inglenook fireplace.
However, despite all the care and attention to detail that has been lavished on every aspect of this ambitious extension programme, the Paynes have made no great attempt to disguise the newer parts of the house – although, looking at the main front of it from the outside, you would be hard pushed to see the joins between old and new. The former bake house is typical, having been converted into a superb garden room, with glazed doors opening on to a decking area overlooking the pond and moat that partly surrounds the house.
Far from being a museum piece, the net result of this intelligently balanced approach is that Blakes today offers all the style and creature comforts that mark out the finest modern homes – but combined with what is almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of period charm and character.
The front door opens into an impressive entrance hall, with stone flooring, a very impressive exposed brick inglenook fireplace, and ceiling timbers. In contrast, the L-shaped living room exudes stylish modern comfort, with its halogen downlighters, its working stone-surround fireplace, and its views over the gardens to both front and rear. Leading off this room is the purpose-built home office with exposed timbers (both David and Janice work from home) and a family/cinema room.
On the other side of the entrance hall – and similarly comprising part of the original house – lies the dining room, which also features a working fireplace and exposed timbers. The part-vaulted kitchen/breakfast room likewise boasts a wealth of exposed beams, and leads to the newly fitted utility room, rear hallway and ground-floor cloakroom.
Meanwhile, upstairs are the four double bedrooms – all offering stunning views over the surrounding gardens, paddocks and open countryside beyond. The master suite comprises the bedroom itself – again, with exposed timbers and a vaulted ceiling – a separate dressing room and a bathroom incorporating a wet room. Bedroom two also has an en-suite shower room, while bedrooms three and four sharing the family bathroom.
Outside, the property – which is partly enclosed by a beautiful old wall of mellow red brick – is approached via a gravel driveway, leading up to a three- bay car port with single garage and further double garage. The well-established formal gardens, laid out by well-known landscape architect James Blake of Lavenham, open into extensive paddocks, affording beautiful views of surrounding countryside towards Danbury. In total, the grounds amount to approximately five acres.
Of course, beautiful though it is, Blakes will always be something of a work in progress, as each generation of owners seek to make their mark. Indeed, planning permission already exists for an additional rearward extension, opposite the existing wing, and providing a further 840 square feet of accommodation – as well as completing the classic U-shape of so many fine old houses and creating a sheltered rear courtyard.
But for David and Janice, their children having grown up and left home, it is time to move on. But they won't be moving far. "When we saw Blakes all those years ago, it wasn't just the house that we fell in love with, but the potential lifestyle that it promised," Janice explains. "It is wonderfully quiet and private here – perfect for entertaining and for long walks or rides in the surrounding countryside. But at the same time, it is far from isolated. Pleshey is a lovely, lively village with a great sense of community. And with all this, we are still just five minutes from the A120. Chelmsford is only 20-minutes' drive away, and we can reach Cambridge – which we visit quite regularly – in under an hour."
Will the Paynes choose another renovation project on a similar sort of scale as Blakes? Maybe not – but then again, Janice admits, both she and David relish the challenge…
Blakes is currently on the market through Beresfords, with a guide price of £1.6 million.