Kent country houses get a new lease of life
Adding modern amenities needn’t spoil a house’s period character
Not so long ago, buyers of English country houses loved the idea of taking on a special house ‘in need of total renovation’, but that heroic notion largely went out the window when the crash came. Down in the garden of England, however, a few intrepid souls saw things in a rosier light, embarking on restorations that have injected new life into some of Kent’s most appealing country houses.
one of many ancient farmhouses that have ‘grown like Topsy’ over the years, the core of historic, Grade Ii*-listed Sussex House Farm, a mile south of the pretty Wealden village of Cowden on the county border with Surrey and Sussex, eight miles east of Tunbridge Wells, is a small, 2½storey, timber-framed house dating from 1580. For sale through Knight Frank (01892 515035) and RHW Clutton (01342 410122) at a guide price of £5.5 million, the house (previously listed as Sussex Place Farmhouse) stands in 203 acres of picturesque grassland and woodland, which has been carefully farmed and managed with conservation in mind.
After the Second World War, the farmhouse was owned by the actor Sir John Mills and his wife, the playwright Mary Hayley Bell, and was the treasured childhood home of their children, Jonathan, Juliet and Hayley, before the family moved to Denham, Buckinghamshire, in 1975. The farm was then bought by the children’s writer Roger Hargreaves, who churned out many of his 46 ‘Mr Men’ and 33 ‘Little Miss’ books there, between 1975 and 1982.
Approached down a long, tree-lined driveway leading to a pretty stone rear courtyard,
Sussex House Farm has been the subject of an inspirational refurbishment and extension by the current owners during their 15-year tenure. Interestingly, planners in these parts tend to favour a clear definition between old and new when dealing with consent for the renovation of listed houses. This allowed the owners to install a striking contemporary kitchen in an oak-framed glazed extension overlooking the terrace, the swimming pool and the land beyond, while retaining the authentic Tudor architecture of the interior.
In all, the main house provides 6,665sq ft of living space on three floors, including a large, panelled entrance hall, four principal reception rooms, a family room and four first-floor bedrooms and bathrooms, with the master bedroom suite on the second floor.
Secondary buildings include a converted barn, three cottages, numerous farm buildings and superb equestrian facilities, including 10 stables, an outdoor sand school and a large indoor manège. Beautifully landscaped gardens, laid mainly to lawn, are bordered by herbaceous beds and privet hedging, with stone steps leading to a heated swimming pool. To the east of the house is a floodlit tennis court.
At the opposite side of the county, Grade Ii-listed Bilting Court at Bilting, in the dreamy Stour valley, six miles north-east of Ashford, was described by selling agents Strutt & Parker as ‘imbued with character and charm, but now in need of updating’ when it came to the market in 2009, following the death, at the age of 89, of its pre- vious owner, the prolific Society painter John Ward. Famous for his portraits of the great, the good and the royals (he gave sketching lessons to The Prince of Wales), which earnt him a CBE in 1984, he and his wife moved from London to Bilton Court in 1954.
Ward’s wife predeceased him by several years and so the house, covered in handpainted pastoral murals across its walls and ceilings, was in need of a serious overhaul when its present owners bought it. Originally a 15th-century hall house, Bilting Court has seen many alterations over the years, including a major remodelling in the fashionable Lutyens-esque style in the early 20th century and, most recently, the addition of a garden room and a newly constructed range of outbuildings. Now, beautifully renovated, it’s back on the market, still imbued with character and charm, at a guide price of £2m, again through Strutt & Parker (01227 451123).
Centred around its magnificent medieval hall, the house has 4,952sq ft of comfortable living space, including splendid entrance and reception halls, two main reception rooms and a fabulous kitchen/dining room overlooking the gardens, the adjoining farmland and the Wye Downs—views shared by the newly built oak-framed garden room next door.
A fine oak staircase leads to four firstfloor bedrooms, the most impressive of which is the master, with its original timber
framing and crown post and stylish contemporary bathroom—a nice touch of luxury that blends happily with the rustic charm of the ancient timbers.
The same love and attention to detail have been lavished on the garden, which has been landscaped to fit the surroundings of the house, with a meandering brick path running past lavishly stocked herbaceous borders to a circular bed with a restful seating area. From here, lush lawns lead to a lightly wooded area at the end of the garden. In all, Bilton Court has almost 6½ acres of gardens and grounds, including a kitchen garden, a pond and a paddock.
Trailing clouds of imperial glory, the 80acre Langton House estate at Langton Green, two miles west of Tunbridge Wells, was the childhood stamping ground of Robert Badenpowell, the founder and first Chief Scout of The Boy Scouts Association, whose family reputedly built the house in the early 1800s.
Recently launched on the market at a guide price of £6m through the Sevenoaks office of Strutt & Parker (01732 459900), the estate boasts some enviable trappings of a grander age, including a large cricket ground maintained by a professional groundsman and ownership of much of the village green, not to mention an underground nuclear-bomb shelter built in the garden by the Sufist thinker Idries Shah, who owned it from 1964 to 1989. Since then, it’s been the cherished family home of its current owners, who are looking to downsize.
Widely regarded as the finest house in the immediate conservation area, Grade Iilisted Langton House is built in classic Regency style of brick, washed white with blue shutters under a slate roof with a colonialstyle verandah. Ideally positioned on the edge of the village, it stands in lovely mature gardens and farmland that guard its privacy in an AONB that is the gateway to the Kent and Sussex countryside beyond.
It retains many original period features throughout its more than 8,000sq ft of living accommodation on three floors, which includes three main reception rooms, a kitchen/ breakfast room, a family room, offices, nine bedrooms and a self-contained one-bedroom annexe. A detached coach house, currently used as garaging, could provide additional living space, subject to the usual consents. Other amenities include stabling, a tennis court and a bluebell wood plus some 58 acres of arable pasture currently producing an income of about £5,000 a year.
A striking contemporary glazed extension has added to the considerable charm of historic Sussex House Farm at Cowden. £5.5m
The stylish renovation of Bilting Court at Bilting has combined Tudor charm with all the comforts of 21st-century living. £2m
Heart of the community: the 80-acre Langton House estate at Langton Green includes much of the local village green. £6m