Life in a pil­lar of the com­mu­nity

A his­toric wa­ter tower has kept its stand­ing as a lo­cal land­mark while be­com­ing an imag­i­na­tive home. Maria Fitz­patrick meets the cou­ple who took it on.

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

Aformer Navy sub­mariner, used to the depths of the ocean, with his sights on a 70ft-tall hill­top wa­ter tower hun­dreds of feet above sea level – it’s dif­fi­cult not to imag­ine the Kevin McCloud mono­logue that would have told Rod Edge’s story, if Grand De­signs had been around in 1988. Rod had “al­ways fan­cied the idea of a derelict build­ing” – his wife, Ni­cola, wasn’t sure; but when the Bar­gate stone wa­ter tower, on the crest of Frith Hill in leafy Go­dalm­ing, Sur­rey, came on the mar­ket, the cou­ple – then liv­ing at the bot­tom of the hill – knew it was “the one”. “It was a wreck, but it got to us,” says Ni­cola, a mag­is­trate. “I think Rod was amazed that I was as ex­cited as he was.” The tower, built in 1880 (along with the Frith Hill reser­voir), was de­signed to hold 28,000 gal­lons of wa­ter to sup­ply Frith Hill, Char­ter­house School, Hurt­more and Shack­le­ford. Wa­ter came from a 60ft-deep well and a strong spring nearby. When it was de­com­mis­sioned in 1974, the tower would have been de­mol­ished had it not been for the lo­cal com­mu­nity who cam­paigned for the hand­some struc­ture, which had served them for nearly a cen­tury, to be given Grade II listed sta­tus. Many plans were drawn up, it changed hands sev­eral times, but noth­ing ever moved for­ward. When Rod and Ni­cola came along, the wa­ter tank and in­dus­trial lad­der had been ripped out, with con­sid­er­able dam­age, but they could see that the shell, stand­ing guard over the Sur­rey sweet chest­nuts and prim­roses, had the po­ten­tial to be a unique home. “The tower is a lo­cal land­mark, so peo­ple were in­trigued about what was go­ing to hap­pen to it,” says Nigel Gam­mon, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor at Hamp­tons In­ter­na­tional, who sold them the prop­erty 25 years ago. “You could look right up through it to the sky, so it was a brave un­der­tak­ing for a cou­ple who had never de­vel­oped any­thing be­fore – es­pe­cially when es­tab­lished de­vel­op­ers had got cold feet.” While oth­ers had pro­posed ways of en­cir­cling the tower, their vi­sion was to link it to a Scan­dia-Hus ex­ten­sion and leave the tower un­ob­scured, “so its beauty could be seen”. “We used ev­ery penny we didn’t have to pay the £130,000 it cost to buy, not to men­tion the 19 per cent in­ter­est rate be­cause there was no hab­it­able dwelling on site,” Ni­cola ex­plains. “Our friends thought we were crazy, and the plan­ning of­fi­cials were scep­ti­cal that we would ever com­plete the pro­ject.” The cou­ple lived in a mo­bile home on site while wran­gling with the plan­ning com­mit­tee, which favoured a more Vic­to­rian in­dus­trial de­sign. Af­ter “set­backs, sleep­less nights and end­less A rare op­por­tu­nity to buy the only wa­ter tower in Lon­don’s Zone 1, which fea­tured in Chan­nel 4’s Grand De­signs as its 100th pro­ject. Some 150 years old (and Grade II listed), the once derelict Vene­tian Gothic-style tower, in Ken­ning­ton, was con­verted into a five-bed­room home last year and has spec­tac­u­lar 360-de­gree views over the cap­i­tal. £4.75mil­lion Hamp­tons In­ter­na­tional (020 7407 3173) and Knight Frank (020 3597 7670). lob­by­ing”, plan­ning and listed build­ing con­sent were fi­nally granted, and the lorry car­ry­ing the Scan­di­aHus tim­ber frame ar­rived from Malmö. Then the freez­ing win­ter of 1989 set in: Rod, while study­ing for his ac­coun­tancy ex­ams, was work­ing around the builders, in­stalling the plumb­ing and electrics him­self, and be­gan most morn­ings de­frost­ing the pipes un­der the mo­bile home with a hairdryer. “It was so ex­cit­ing, though, see­ing it come to­gether,” he says. They moved into the fourbed­room house af­ter al­most a year, their son Cal­lum was born, and, hav­ing run out of money, they had to bide their time on the tower. When a tele­coms com­pany came along some years later, want­ing to put a mast on top, the Edges can­nily agreed on the con­di­tion that they paid to put floors back in. Rod and Ni­cola seized the op­por­tu­nity to use the scaf­fold­ing to restore the first 50ft of the tower, and fi­nally the “seam­less” semi-open­plan build­ing was be­com­ing a re­al­ity. “We were so naive about how dif­fi­cult it would be to pro­ject-man­age ev­ery­thing our­selves,” Rod says, “but we don’t re­gret it.” To­day the sense of peace in the house – par­tic­u­larly on the bal­cony and in the first­floor sit­ting room, which feels like be­ing in a tree­house – be­lies the fran­tic pad­dling be­neath the sur­face, track­ing down rare bricks and work­ing late into the night. There are four “ev­ery­day” rooms in the tower – din­ing, sit­ting and “his and hers” of­fices – but it’s not your typ­i­cal ver­ti­cal liv­ing ar­range­ment; the ex­ten­sion flows into the tower in such a way that the house has a sur­pris­ing sense of breadth and open­ness. By mim­ick­ing fea­tures of the tower (such as the arched win­dows) in the main house, the Edges have achieved their goal of blur­ring “where the tower ends and the house be­gins”. Twenty-five happy years, count­less house guests, par­ties and mem­o­ries later, Rod and Ni­cola have “one more build­ing pro­ject in us” and are mov­ing on. The tower needs up­dat­ing in­side, but thanks to their ar­chi­tect, Sue Kent, a school friend of Ni­cola’s, it’s an in­ter­est­ing, adapt­able space, and the hard graft is done. Nigel Gam­mon ex­pects the next owner will be ei­ther a com­muter want­ing to take ad­van­tage of “be­ing in the pocket of Guild­ford and Lon­don”, or “a fam­ily liv­ing close by who have been aware of the relic and will snap up the op­por­tu­nity to buy a piece of lo­cal his­tory”. “It’s al­ways go­ing to be a lo­cal talk­ing point,” Ni­cola says. “More than once we’ve over­heard lo­cal peo­ple dis­cussing the plan they had for the tower. We’re proud that we did it. It’ll be strange not to be in­tro­duced as ‘Rod and Ni­cola who live in the tower’.” They are go­ing to pass on their photo ar­chive of the wa­ter tower’s past to the next “cus­to­di­ans”, but it will be dif­fi­cult to let go. They can’t help but won­der what the next own­ers will do with it, par­tic­u­larly the un­de­vel­oped 20ft at the top. “Rod al­ways liked the idea of a hot tub in the tur­ret – per­haps they’ll do that,” Ni­cola laughs. “The sky’s the limit, re­ally.” The Wa­ter Tower is for sale at £1.35mil­lion through Hamp­tons In­ter­na­tional (01483 417222; hamp­tons.co.uk)

High hopes: the tower in the past, above left; the Edges at home

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