The emotional costs are high when a marriage comes unstuck, but do spare a thought for a lovingly renovated home which also faces an uncertain future in the process. After 19 years in Milborne Wick, on the Somerset-Dorset borders, Henrietta and Paul Stickland have split up, so Mill Court, their farmyard conversion in an acre of grounds, needs new owners.
Eight years ago, they were living a few hundred yards away in Mill Cottage, when they heard that the historic collection of farm buildings, which includes a 16th-century cruck-framed barn, was on the market. With the A303 just 10 minutes’ drive away and trains to Paddington in two hours from Castle Cary station 20 minutes away, they knew it would appeal... but to whom?
Their fears were well-founded; there was talk of a developer itching to turn the barn and outbuilding — derelict for more than 30 years and, remarkably, not listed — into four homes.
From this village, three miles from Sherborne, Henrietta, 42, ran Ragged Bears Publishing, specialising in works by new writers and illustrators and also re-issuing children’s classics. Paul, 51, was a children’s illustrator, author and pop-up book engineer. Both loved Milborne Wick, with its working farms and pastoral timelessness.
Under the nose of the circling jackals, they stepped in and bought Mill Court in 2000 without planning consent. “It was too special a place to compromise,” says Henrietta, who bought it as a place to keep their horses and ponies rather than as a family home for Felix, 14, twins Gus and Kit, 13, and six-year-old Arthur.
They also agreed to a covenant — which is still in place — that, should they develop the farmyard in the future, it would be as a single dwelling. Stabling horses and storing hay there, they got to know the place and did begin to wonder if they could live there.
In 2002, Paul, who is an accomplished self-builder, hatched an imaginative scheme for the barn and buildings, which was approved, enabling him to start work a year later after selling their home nearby for £750,000.
They moved in with the building work progressing around them. The former milking shed, which looks out over the iron-age earthwork dominating the village to the east, is now a vast kitchen and living area, from where you can see sheep grazing on the hill. As well as five bedrooms, there is a north-lit studio with views over the formal garden that Paul has created.
Residential planning is still in place to extend the house to the west of the studio to create 4,000sq ft of offices and garages, but it is the barn that remains the most intriguing prospect. With its buttressed walls, two mighty doors, galleried ceiling and no upper floors, it is a building of cathedral proportions, so much so that Paul and Henrietta did little more than fix the roof and stabilise it.
“We never got further than that and, in truth, we rather enjoyed it for what it has always been... a wonderful barn,” says Paul. “But because it’s not listed, whoever takes it on has enormous flexibility. Permission allows for a truly massive living space for four more bedrooms over three floors, which, while retaining the traditional appearance, allows you to replace an entire end wall with a huge, glazed oak frame to flood light in from the hill behind it. I am amazed we got these consents — it allows you to do so much.”
So what next? Charles Bladon, of Jackson-Stops & Staff, thinks nothing too drastic: “I would say the right people will buy Mill Court. Those that have viewed it have said they would leave the barn as it is or turn it into a studio or library — none have talked about adding floors and five bedrooms.”
If this is the outcome, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings will give three cheers. Matthew Slocombe, its deputy secretary, says: “It is extremely hard — if not impossible — to save much of the character of an old farm building, which had an industrial use, if you add domestic services and try to live in it.”
Jonny Beardsall Mill Court is on the market for £1.2million through Jackson Stops & Staff 01935 810141; www.jackson-stops.co.uk
Moving on: Henrietta Strickland (left) and the farm conversion she renovated with husband Paul before their separation