Grand Designs in Dedham
PUBLISHED: 12:30 24 November 2015 | UPDATED: 12:30 24 November 2015
There wasn't much about The Stour Coach House in Dedham to commend it when Richard and Ruth Abel bought it in 2010, but their passion for transforming old buildings has resulted in quite a transformation. Words by Pat Bramley
When friends you haven’t heard from since they moved home say their new hall is large, you might not take them too seriously. But if they then tell you there were old cars parked in it when they first got there, you start to get some idea of the scale of the place they bought. Richard and Ruth Abel purchased Stour Coach House in Dedham in 2010.
‘There was a small amount of residential accommodation here but it was a dumping ground really,’ says Richard. It hadn’t been used for 50 years; it was pretty well a wreck.’
When it was first built around 1868 it was one of 39 properties on an 800-acre country estate owned by a Victorian industrialist. The industrialist lived in the big house, Stour House, and the estate staff were billeted in the two wings of the coach house.
Originally the space in the middle of the outbuilding would have been used as a garage for the horse-drawn carriages used by the family and the interior layout remained unchanged long after the private estate was split up into lots and put up for sale in 1920.
The two main properties were bought by the MoD as Stour House became a recuperation centre for Army officers — Colchester Barracks is only about eight or nine miles from Dedham — and the coach house was turned into living quarters for the medical and support staff for the patients convalescing in the country home up the road.
Not much had been done to the property after the Army left the village in the late 1960s. Richard explains: ‘We bought the coach house from the estate of a couple who had bought it after it was sold by the MoD. The owners had died. It was being sold by their children.’
The Abels weren’t fazed by the size of the project they were taking on. ‘Our first house was an old Victorian fire station in Halstead. The station had closed at the end of the Sixties. We got permission to convert it about 25 to 30 years ago – when we drive past now it still feels like our house. My family background is in building and as a child I grew up around period and listed buildings.’
Although Richard chose to make his career in the motor industry instead of construction, the love of old buildings is evidently in his genes. His little black book of skilled craftsmen who have proved their worth as masters of their specialist field would go to the top of the best seller list if he ever published it, which he won’t.
But the urge to bring new life to redundant buildings which otherwise could end up as white elephants is a shared passion. Ruth is a freelance interior designer, so it’s no wonder they move on more frequently than other families might. They can’t resist a challenge.
After the fire station, they’d progressed to creating enviable homes out of a series of old places by the time they heard the Coach House in Dedham was on the market.
The building stands in four acres at the highest point in the village where the views over the beautiful Dedham Vale are legendary. Both John Constable and Sir Alfred Munnings are credited with inspiring visitors from all over the world to come to Constable Country to see the landscape made famous by these two artists.
Richard says: ‘Many people in the village didn’t know the Coach House was here. From the lane, it’s screened by mature trees – you can’t see it. It’s on the edge of the village, away from the visitors who come in the summer for holidays. The only time we’d been to Dedham before was, like most people do, as tourists.’
The Coach House is virtually the same size as Stour House – huge. ‘It needed a lot of money spent on it, but I was bowled over by the quality of the engineering. Everything is over engineered, that’s how it was in Victorian times. Buildings like these were built to last. It’s basically fantastic.’
The new owners with their two children, Scarlett, now 15, and Max, now 14, took a rented house nearby to avoid the builders having to work around them. The job to turn Stour Coach House into an amazing home took a year. ‘It would have taken a lot longer if we’d stayed in situ. It’s always the cheapest option in the long run,’ adds Richard. ‘You save money by moving into rented when you are doing a building job on this scale.’
All the essentials had to be renewed and everything was done to industrial standards, not domestic. Although they haven’t made any major changes to the overall layout of the Coach House, there was only one bathroom when they arrived. Now there are five – five bedrooms and five bathrooms. ‘We had to have a brand new water main laid from the lane to get the right pressure for the new plumbing system we installed. Now all five baths can be filled with hot water at once and the supply never dwindles to a dribble.’
All the slates were taken off the roof, the roof repaired and the slates put back, while all the windows had to be replaced, like for like.
Richard points out: ‘A problem with restoring huge houses is being able to find the materials you want in large enough quantities to replace originals which are beyond repair. All the original doors in the Coach House were beyond repair. The previous people had taken them off but fortunately they hadn’t scrapped them, they were still there for exact copies to be made. Through my contacts, I knew the right people. It took the craftsman who made them three to four months.’
To give an idea of the scale of the job, Richard explains that when visitors arrive at the two doors at the entrance, most people’s heads are on a line with the bottom of the glass panels in the doors. It took four men to lift each front door into place, and two to hang each of the interior doors.
The new floor in the massive entrance hall, now more like a hotel-sized drawing room (it’s 30ft by 30 and then some) has a gleaming parquet floor laid over the original concrete base. ‘It came out of a ballroom in a mansion somewhere in the north of England. I found it on an architectural reclamation company’s website,’ adds Richard.
The 36ft kitchen which flows into a 30ft family room in one direction and 17ft dining room in another, was designed by Ruth. The kitchen units were made for them by the Suffolk company, Churchill Bros. The granite for the island unit is one enormous slab, so there are no joins. It’s the largest area ever supplied in the 70-year history of a family business called Wood for Stone. The floor throughout this area is French rustic oak, 22ml thick and seasoned for ten years.
As for the impressive collection of gin bottles lined up on the shelves above the sink? ‘I’m not an alcholic,’ Richard laughs, ‘and my wife doesn’t drink, but she does like collecting things. When she saw the space between the sink and the windows, it wasn’t deep enough for cupboards, but it was an ideal space for long display shelves. It’s amazing how many different types of gin bottles there are.’
The Coach House isn’t listed. Nevertheless, Richard believes the greatest compliment they received after the work was finished came from the listings inspector, who had come round out of interest. ‘After her visit, she wrote us a letter saying the standard we had achieved was well up to the standard of the work she sees on buildings which are listed,’ Richard adds.