There will be room for the tallest Christmas tree at Louis Taylor and Ana Barbosa’s new loft-style home at The Galleries, where the central room has a spectacular double-height ceiling held up by a superb array of thick timber roof trusses. The three-bedroom home used to be the clocktower wing of Warley Hospital in leafy and wooded Brentwood in Essex, and is now part of a sensitive, historic conversion forming a new community of 131 apartments and houses.
Louis Taylor is the director of the Maison Française Institute in South Kensington (which provides accommodation and research facilities for visiting academics) and commutes daily. “We love the individuality of the development. Before moving here we lived in a bog-standard new house in Sussex. This building was previously a Victorian mental asylum, and people do ask us if its past worries us, but the past is the past and we have only good feelings about what the hospital has become. The high-quality restoration lifts the spirits,” he says.
Such Victorian asylums make perfect conversion projects. The architecture was always impressive and often high up, allowing patients to gaze over the high boundary walls to the open countryside beyond.
Asylums were strategically located close to the railway network and had lavishly landscaped grounds, orchards, follies and prayer chapels. The Warley asylum became a hospital, and when it closed some years ago, it fell into neglect, which presented a challenge and an opportunity for heritage conversions specialist City & Country, a family business run by Tim Sargeant.
Over the years it has accumulated knowledge and craftsmen and now handles the conversion of barns, churches, mansions and former council buildings, as well as hospitals — keeping the raw beauty of the original structure and adding the luxuries of metropolitan interior design.
Rural Hertfordshire and Essex are favourites with City & Country as counties close enough for London commuters to enjoy the countryside. The company acquired run-down Warley Hospital two years ago and set about restoring the fabric of the building — decorative stonework, Gothic arches, cast-iron columns, timber beams, oak staircases, mouldings and fireplaces that over the years had been covered up or damaged.
Discovering the hidden architectural detail behind the grey panelling is one of the joys for these builders. Sargeant, 42, who lives with his family in the wing of a monastery, argues that whenever possible they work with what they have and are reluctant to destroy any detail unnecessarily. The properties are often listed, which creates puzzles to solve.
Most of the homes at The Galleries have been carved out around cloistered courtyards. Grim communal corridors have been opened up and now form part of the converted residential space. Original needlework blocks where patients spent their time have been split into apartments, and the deconsecrated chapel is to become a triple-height, 2,500sq ft residence. Research has discovered the plans of the original garden designs, which are now being reinstated.
No two homes are the same — some one-bedroom apartments extend to more than 900sq ft. Interior design is contemporary but easy on the eye. Prices start at £295,000 and rise to more than £700,000. Call 01277 202122 for more details.
Louis Taylor, 53, is still discovering the area. Formerly a British consul in Portugal, he moved back to the UK in 2003. Barbosa, his partner, was head-hunted for a post with a financial services company and was offered a job in Brentwood. “We were priced out of London and it came down to quality-of-life judgments. We like the fact that this is surrounded by beautiful countryside yet is only a 35-minute commute to Liverpool Street.”
Coming soon from City & Country is another hospital redevelopment — St Michael’s in Braintree, Essex. The company is also converting Balls Park, a listed Jacobean mansion in 63 acres of parkland near Hertford. The mansion is regularly used as a location for films and television dramas, including Bleak House, and the recently released movie, The Golden Compass. It will be split into 130 homes.
By training and employing local crafts-people and having a knowledge of the painstaking business of heritage conservation, City & Country is often chosen by planners, who know the company will be able to cope in situations where volume house-builders would run into difficulties.
Tim Sargeant’s home, the former St Osyth Priory, forms part of a rambling 383-acre estate on the banks of the River Colne, where he lives with his wife, Lorna, and four children. It is an extended family affair — his brother and parents also live on the estate, which is a scheduled ancient monument with remains dating back to the 13th century. “It is a long way off completion but we want to do it properly. It’s a lifetime project,” he says, modestly. And, yes, it is haunted, but the ghosts aren’t as scary as town planners.
Woodham Park in Woking, Surrey, is a gated development of nine detached houses backing on to the Basingstoke Canal. Some houses have moorings and a combined open-plan kitchen, drawing room and conservatory spreading across the width of the house at the rear. With five bedrooms, they are priced from £1.08 million. The developer is Millgate Homes. Call Hamptons International on 01372 469279.
Mayfield Grange is a Gothic Victorian pile in East Sussex designed by Edward Pugin, son of Houses of Parliament architect Augustus Welby Pugin. Weston Homes is converting the main listed house, with its Great Hall and chapel, into 11 grand apartments with vaulted ceilings, ornate stonework and original floor tiles. Twelve new homes and 39 apartments are being built in the 20-acre grounds. Prices are from £395,000 to £1 million. Call 01279 873333.
Douces Manor in West Malling, Kent, was requisitioned by the RAF during the Second World War, and later the listed 18th century mansion saw life as a convalescent home, hotel and offices. Developer Beechcroft is creating six elegant apartments in the main house and building 18 new courtyard homes, using bricks reclaimed from original outbuildings on the 12-acre estate. Prices are from £750,000. Call 01732 873078.
Upper Meadow in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, is an Arts and Crafts-style development of 48 homes in eight acres bordering green-belt land. Apartments are priced from £350,000 and houses from £650,000. Call developer Cala Homes on 01753 890210.