Through the Keyhole: a couple’s dream forever home
After years running a huge 16th Century manor house, Alan and Sue Elmes wanted to downsize. Sort of. CHRISSY HARRIS went to see their very bespoke country home…
Winding Wood, near Axminster in East Devon is a bucket list house. With its beautiful indoor swimming pool, modern kitchen and breakfast room and yards of under floor heating, it has been designed to indulge its owners. And boy do they deserve it.
Alan and Sue Elmes spent the best part of a decade restoring and maintaining a Grade-ii* listed Elizabethan manor house in nearby Hawkchurch.
They loved Wyld Court but it was year-long-round backbreaking work, stoking dozens of log fires and maintaining all 8,000 square feet of the historic building, where King Charles II is said to have spent the night before fleeing to France after the Civil War.
No one could blame the Elmes for wanting something a little more suited to their needs as they headed into their sixties.
So they built their dream home from scratch.
“We just thought, well, this is our forever house and we just wanted what we felt we needed now,” says Sue, 61, explaining the decision to sell up and start afresh. “We wanted enough bedrooms for our family, a nice sitting room, kitchen, dining room, study and that’s it.”
And a luxurious indoor swimming pool?
“That was one of the most important things,” says Sue, laughing. “We had an outdoor pool at our old place but we probably only used it about three times.”
“Yes, I’d be running round trying to heat it up while all our friends were in enjoying the water!” says Alan, 62.
“And I’d be there serving tea and cake,” adds Sue, admitting constantly entertaining was tough going sometimes.
Now, every morning, Sue makes a cup of tea in her modern kitchen and takes a dip in what is quite possibly the most incredible indoor pool I’ve ever seen, complete with seating area and stylish finishing touches, such as the art-deco inspired window.
When they’re not swimming, Sue and Alan say they spend a lot of time in their study, the smallest but cosiest room in the house, overlooking the garden, which is surrounded by acres of woodland in this idyllic spot.
Up the grand wooden staircase are five perfectly finished bedrooms – just enough space for the couple’s two daughters and grandchildren Charlie, six, and Jack, five who live nearby but love coming to stay now and then.
On the top floor is Alan’s ‘man cave’, as he calls it, a state of the art cinema room with big, soft chairs and a giant screen.
The whole house has been built with comfort in mind – and there’s not a log burner in sight.
“Yes, we don’t do real fires anymore,” says Sue, recalling the days at Wyld Court when she and Alan used to haul wheelbarrows full of wood around to keep the place as warm as possible.
“There were moments when it was amazing and we do miss it in some ways but we realised we couldn’t be there forever,” she adds. “So we’ve gone from one extreme to the other.”
The couple built Winding Wood after looking around East Devon for the perfect plot. They came across a bungalow on a three-acre site in the grounds of a former school.
They fell in love with the shape and size of the land and decided to go for it, with a view to knocking the bungalow down and building a new house towards the end of the garden, on the site of some existing tennis courts.
After some stressful months trying to secure the sale, the Elmes were good to go and set about working with an architect to design their perfect home.
Sue and Alan lived in the bungalow for 18 months while the build took place.
“Have you ever been on holiday in a caravan?” says Alan, who
‘Alan always says that we’ve gained 20 years by moving down here, and I think he’s right’
“It’s nice at night, too because all the lights that come on,” says Sue. “We’re really pleased with it. Last summer, we were working hard in the garden and it was lovely to come in here and cool off, with the doors open.”
admits they struggled with their rather cosy living quarters. “Well, it was like that. But for months and months.”
“It was pretty miserable,” says Sue. “But at least it was warm….”
The couple’s builder son-in-law Wayne Fowler did most of the hard graft, along with project manager and local craftsman Mervyn Fisher.
“He was great,” says Alan, who spent years running a successful logistics firm in London before retiring to Devon in 2005.
Alan admits he found the much more relaxed pace of life down here hard to adjust to at first and had struggled with previous building projects. Winding Wood was easier, he says, thanks to his top team.
“Merv is well known locally and he doesn’t take any prisoners,” says Alan, who was project manager throughout the build.“i told Merv from the start: you tell me what you want and when you want it I will sort it,’” says Alan. “It was brilliant. Wayne was great, too.”
The couple moved into the Georgian-style Winding Wood in August 2016 and are making the most of their new, very low maintenance lifestyle.
“We’re starting to settle in and enjoy it now,” says Sue, adding that there are plans for a hot tub in the pool area and the garden still needs some work. But there’s plenty of time for all that.
“Oh we’re not going anywhere,” she says. “Alan always says that we’ve gained 20 years by moving down here, and I think he’s right.”
This is certainly a well deserved forever home.