PUBLISHED: 09:46 16 June 2015 | UPDATED: 09:46 16 June 2015
Gwyneth Sommerlad and her husband, Brian, bought the The Old Vicarage in Writtle in 1988, when it was in quite a state. Within 11 months it had seen a dramatic transformation and become a rejuvenated family home. Pat Bramley tells more of the story
Gwyneth Sommerlad is a very happy lady! ‘Our house has never ever been so tidy,’ she announces proudly ‘not since our youngest son held his wedding reception here, which must be about five years ago. When my friends came in, they couldn’t believe how tidy it was.’
In the past, the table in the dining room at The Old Vicarage in Writtle has been covered with books belonging to Gwyneth’s husband, Brian, one of the world’s leading surgeons in the reparation of cleft palates and lips. But now all the surfaces in the 20-room house have been cleared of anything that could be classed as clutter.
Gwyneth, a retired dermatologist, is as impressed by the transformation as her friends are. ‘This isn’t really me,’ she admits, laughing, ‘but I do love the tidiness.’
The reason Gwyneth and her treasured domestic help have made such an effort to show off this Grade II listed Georgian vicarage in all its glory is because she and Brian have decided to put it on the market.
‘We’ve decided to move while we still have the energy to cope with the upheaval,’ explains Gwyneth. ‘I’m 66 and my husband is 73, and still working full time. If we don’t go now, we might never go, and although I’m quite emotional about leaving it, we believe the time is right.’
The mother of five wasn’t mad keen to put in an offer when the diocese decided to build the vicar a new house in 1988 and invited closed bids for the draughty 18th century house that was way beyond the means of a cleric, on what was probably a meagre stipend, to live in much comfort. The old vicarage is surrounded by an acre of garden in what is described as, ‘one of the loveliest villages in England’.
‘The house was a wreck,’ Brian reports. ‘The main part had been empty for about three years. Parties had been held in one of the top bedrooms, vandals had lit fires in the fireplace in the living room, there was a self-contained flat which had been divided from the rest of the house by a brick wall and rented out and they’d also divided up the garden to give the tenants their own small garden. All that had to be sorted out.’
‘There were 61 broken window panes — I counted them!’ Gwyneth remembers. ‘There were gaping holes or fungus growing in the ceilings, but we’d been looking for a large house and this has eight bedrooms. At that time our children were aged between five and 15, our eldest son was doing his GCSEs and we wanted to be close to Chelmsford for the schools — Chelmsford is two-and-a-half miles away. I also wanted somewhere with enough space where my mum and dad could live with us if they needed to as they got older.’
Gwyneth continues: ‘There wasn’t a lot to like about the house when we bought it, but what attracted us were the high ceilings and the scale of the rooms, the views and the position, so we put in a closed bid.’
And yet, it took just 11 months to complete the transformation from wreck to a fine example of Georgian architecture with the classic symmetry and proportions of houses from that period. Bakers of Banbury won the renovation contract.
‘They were the only ones who gave us an estimate and told us they could start within a month or so,’ Gwyneth says.
And a first class job they made of it, say their clients, with the family living on site throughout. While the builders restored one side of the house, the Sommerlads took up residence in the four rooms which had been let by the diocese as a self-contained flat and when that was finished they swapped sides to enable the project to be completed. Gwyneth is still in awe of how they completed the job on time and to budget and to the standard that had been promised.
‘They never disappeared for a day or a week and there were so many of them. I remember one day counting 17 workmen on site,’ Gwyneth adds.
The house now has a living area of almost 6,000sq ft. Four small rooms were knocked into one to create the farmhouse-sized kitchen/breakfast room with its Aga, hand-built solid wood cupboards, wooden worktops and terracotta tiled floor.
Although some of the fireplaces had been ripped out, there are still four fireplaces on the ground floor, one in the kitchen, one each in the drawing room and dining room and a wood burner in the morning room. Three of the bedrooms also still have fireplaces. The cellar is now sub divided into two rooms — as you’d hope, one is for wine.
Upstairs are eight good-sized bedrooms and four bathrooms spread over the two upper floors. The master suite has a dressing room and private bathroom with roll top bath. No doubt the old vicar, and particularly the vicar’s wife, would have praised the Lord had they lived there long enough to enjoy the comforts of modern plumbing and central heating.
Other than the bedrooms, there are also offices and studies and other useful spaces dotted around. One such is the expansive second floor landing where the consultant plastic surgeon maintains his fitness level for the challenges ahead on his rowing machine.
The improvements to the vicarage were not at the expense of the Georgian character. Huge sash windows in the drawing room and dining room still have the original shutters. These two rooms also have big bay windows which weren’t there when the vicarage was built, but add to the charm. A grand piano sits in one of the bays — that’s how big they are.
The ceiling in the hall which runs from the front to back of the vicarage is 3m high, while the sash window on the half landing on the way up to the first floor almost matches it in size.
It’s always hard to part with a house which holds so many memories and it is no different for the Sommerlads. After her mother’s death, Gwyneth’s father lived with his daughter and son-in-law for three years before he died at the age of 91.
‘It was a joy to have my father here. He was the best man at our eldest son’s wedding. How many boys would ask their grandfather to be their best man? He was such a friend to his grandchildren. After the children left home he used to ask, “How many of the troops will be coming back this weekend?” If we were going to be on our own I’d suggest going up to London. He was always up for that.
‘This house is not at all fancy. We don’t have curtains with swags. I like antiques but a lot of it is old pine,’ says the doctor, who although she had help when the children were young, switched to part-time to bring up her children.
‘A lot of the furniture has blue stickers on now,’ she points out. ‘The children have been here choosing what they want.’
Now she and Brian are moving to a mews house in Bloomsbury. ‘We bought it five years ago. It only has two bedrooms, but we also own a ground floor flat in the house next door. We’ve applied for planning permission to knock down the dividing wall. If that happens we’ll have four bedrooms and four bathrooms, but it will still feel small after this.’
The woman who had said there was not a lot to like about The Old Vicarage when they bought it is finding it hard to come to terms with leaving it after all the work they did to give it back its soul. But she’s determined the time is right. And, anyway, look how tidy it is.