A word to the Wisemans
PUBLISHED: 11:46 13 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:46 13 April 2015
Chris Mills and his wife Maggie knew they had an historic treasure when they bought Wisemans in Great Waltham, but this Grade II* listed home held yet more secrets
Words by Pat Bramley
BY TODAY’S standards 29 years is a long time to live in a house, but mechanical engineer Chris Mills and his wife Maggie have always thought of themselves merely as the current custodians of their Grade II* listed home in Great Waltham.
There are 43 buildings with the elite Grade II star rating in the Chelmsford area, including 15 churches and a stock windmill, but Wisemans is one of the few houses.
It was originally built as a single storey hall house in the second half of the 1300s, about the time Wat Tyler led the Peasants Revolt against the Poll Tax levied by Richard II.
Maggie explains: ‘We had a posse of experts here from the County Council who can date ancient buildings by looking at the type of joint used in the structure of the timber frame. They decided it was rather earlier than previous estimates.’
The Mills’ house is named after Thomas Wiseman who was a member of a family of rich landowners in this part of Essex in the 1600s. Brasses depicting him and his family are in the parish church.
Wiseman replaced the original hall house with the existing two storey centre section and east wing but fortunately parts of the earlier building have survived, notably a pair of rafters.
The couple believe it was a wool merchant’s shop in the early days, the wool trade having brought wealth to the county from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
At some point in its history the house in Barrack Lane — the road was named after buildings originally used for troops and horses stationed there during the Napoleonic wars and subsequently by the Oxford and Buckinghamshire regiment in World War I — was acquired by the most influential landowners in the area. The mansion and parkland which make up Langleys country house estate have been part of the landscape in Great Waltham since medieval times.
During the Victorian era, Wisemans was leased out as a farmhouse with 165 acres farmed by the Rust family. In the 1848 county directory, Robert and Richard Rust are listed as farmers at Wisemans.
It was later split into two rented cottages, but by 1962, when it ceased to be part of the Langleys estate and was bought by Rudolf Hammer — better known in the village by his second name John — ‘it was empty and derelict, looking very sad with its broken windows’.
Following a top-to-toe overhaul and restoration by the new owner, it was once more a country house worthy of its heritage.
The next owners were the Mills. ‘In 1986 we bought a house which was very sound structurally, but decoratively very tired and old fashioned,’ Maggie sums up. ‘It was a great house to move to with a son aged eight — now the music producer Duncan Mills — and our 12-year-old daughter, Juliet. It gave us lots of space for their hobbies and friends.
‘We’d lived in an old cottage in another part of the village for the previous eight years and restored that house — it was good practice for what we did here,’ jokes Maggie.
What they did at Wisemans was work their way through the house, restoring one room at a time and they knew exactly who they wanted to do the skilled work: Bill Kelsey. He’d worked with them on the renovation of the cottage.
‘He understands old buildings,’ Maggie explains. ‘He’d retired by the time we’d bought this, but we coaxed him out of retirement. He just loves working with wood. He’s an absolute treasure.’
Chris remembers how the project took over their lives in the early years. ‘We did a lot of the work ourselves. We had a ten-year plan, but it took us eight,’ says Chris. ‘I was 42 when we moved here. I’d get home at 7pm, pull on my overalls and get stuck in and work until midnight. We were Bill’s labourers.’
The couple will never forget the day they made an incredible discovery. ‘I was upstairs,’ Chris says, ‘poking around to stop floorboards creaking. I put my hand through the joists and felt some sort of carving. It was an amazing moment. We made a hole in the dining room ceiling below and discovered ornately carved timbers which had been covered up with plaster by the previous owner.’
Having found beams in the dining room they hadn’t known were there, they investigated further and exposed the true heritage of the building, including the crown post in the master bedroom and carved door head at the main entrance, all of which contributed to its listing in the 1960s before a programme of ‘modernisation’ hid them from view. A picture of the crown post in their bedroom was included in a report of the Royal Commission of Historic Monuments.
Living with heritage is a privilege, but, for a family, it needs to be enjoyed as part of a home and bit by bit, a beautiful home it became. Wanting a kitchen door that opened straight onto the garden, they took out a window, widened the gap and then found a smashing stable door perfect for the purpose in a reclamation yard in Colchester.
Chris describes their domestic quarters as ‘a venerable kitchen’, while Maggie calls it, ‘a country kitchen’. She points to the dresser. ‘We’ve been looking after that dresser for a friend in Suffolk for 29 years.’
‘It’s never going back,’ laughs Chris Today the house has five good sized bedrooms, three reception rooms, and they’ve recently converted what had been a brick-built potting shed into a south-facing summer house-cum-studio for Maggie’s art works.
In 1995 they redesigned the half-acre plot with the help of a talented local garden designer with the purpose of including elements found in medieval gardens.
Maggie points out: ‘What we inherited as a sloping lawn now has three levels with a herb parterre, espalier apple trees, a quince, medlar, figs, pear, morello cherry and lots of Alpine strawberries. We’ve also built a double garage and workshop in the style of an old Essex barn.’
When the children were growing up, a large drum kit was centre stage in one of the rooms in the house. Wisemans was the meeting point for band rehearsals, recorder groups, art workshops, teenage parties and all sorts of other social gatherings.
Duncan is now a session musician and music producer — he worked with Jamie Cullum on his 2013 album Momentum. Juliet is a working mum with a job at the Home Office.
After almost 30 years in this landmark house, Chris and Len have decided to downsize but they won’t be leaving the area. ‘It’s a wonderful village,’ Maggie says fondly, ‘with a very strong and supportive community.’