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.
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