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Hidden secrets at Manor Cottage in Little Bardfield

PUBLISHED: 22:09 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 14:31 21 October 2015

Manor Cottage, Little Bardfield

Manor Cottage, Little Bardfield

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Manor Cottage at Little Bardfield has seen many political movements as well as changes to the fabric of its own building down the years. Pat Bramley shares the full story of this charming home

If walls could speak, the revelations that would pour forth of political rivalries stirred up by the former Labour Party chairman who once owned Manor Cottage at Little Bardfield would rival the dramas played out in the latest leadership election.

When Harold Laski tried to lay down guidelines for Labour after the landslide victory in 1945, Prime Minister Clement Atlee retorted, ‘You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the irresponsible statements of the kind you are making…I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.’

Laski, political theorist, economist, author, lecturer and uncle of broadcaster and novelist Marghanita Laski, bought Manor Cottage in 1935.

On Christmas Day in 1937 he scratched his initials and those of his wife, Frida, into a pane of glass in one of the bedroom windows — HJL et FL 25 12 37. The inscription is still there.

The Laskis entered into village life. When their friend, the Golden Globe and Grammy award-winning American TV and radio journalist Ed Murrow, was appointed head of CBS News in Britain, Harold invited him to his cottage and bought him a pint in the local pub where he was a regular — ‘the most democratic of all institutions in Britain’ he assured his visitor.

Murrow had arrived with a radio crew in tow, which is how an international audience came to tune into a programme of songs sung by a local poet in a village pub in Essex.

According to one of Harold’s colleagues, ‘he never played the great man’ in such situations. The Labour luminary died of complications after catching flu in March 1950 at the age of 56, by which time he had sold his cottage in the country and moved to London.

Present owners, Maggie and Richard Lhoyd-Owen, have lived in the Grade II listed cottage for 36 years. And Harold Laski wasn’t the only remarkable man among their predecessors.

‘One of them was a GP from a local practice in Thaxted,’ Maggie reveals. ‘He built an aeroplane — minus the wings — in one of the garages and flew it across the Atlantic. When we moved here the garage was lined with polythene sheeting. You could still see signs of the paint he’d used to spray the aircraft. It was a single garage, long and thin, too narrow for most modern cars. We took it down and built a double garage.’

Prior to moving to Essex, Maggie and Richard had been living in Hong Kong. ‘I’d come over to England on my own to find a place to buy — Richard wasn’t able to come with me. It was 1979, a time when houses were selling incredibly fast. When you saw one you liked you had to make up your mind quickly or you’d lose it. It was a big decision.’

Before being posted to Hong Kong for Richard’s job with the multinational company Inchcape they’d lived in Berkshire, but villages like Cookham and Bray, where they were before, were the wrong side of London for an easy commute when he was posted back to the firm’s head office in the City.

‘We didn’t know this county at all,’ Maggie says, ‘but while we were in Hong Kong we’d met a couple who raved about north east Essex. The next time we were on leave we were very pleasantly surprised about how nice it was.’

Manor Cottage was originally built in the 17th century as two workmen’s cottages.

‘They were converted into one when the house was gentrified in the 1920s by Mr Letts, who lived at Little Bardfield Hall. According to local legend, he made his money from a circus.’

Mr Letts not only converted the two cottages into one, extending them while he was at it, he also built three more properties in the village, two houses and a bungalow. All were originally thatched.

‘What we wanted was a house with a garden, somewhere in the country with good state schools nearby for our two sons (then about four and a half and six) and a quiet place but not too isolated. This cottage in Little Bardfield, with a choice of three stations for Richard’s daily commute to London, was perfect. It was everything that bustling, crowded Hong Kong wasn’t.’

The couple have made quite a few changes to both the house and the garden over the years.

‘The conservatory that was on the back of the house was very dilapidated. We built a new garden room in its place. We also built on a study with a further bedroom above. There were four bedrooms when we got here but the fourth was extremely small, so that became a second bathroom.’

They also remodeled the kitchen and the adjoining breakfast room.

Maggie says: ‘The kitchen still has the old brick floor that was built with Essex bricks about 100 years ago when the house was gentrified. We still have the old floor, the bricks are pretty — yellow and pink — the floor isn’t particularly level and it’s a pig to clean,’ Maggie admits with a laugh adding, ‘don’t write that.’

The previous owners had a table in the kitchen but Maggie and Richard took down two cupboards in the breakfast room and moved their kitchen table into there, leaving more room in the kitchen. It works well. The appliances include a Miele fridge and freezer, a Rangemaster cooker with two ovens and a combination of granite and wood worktops.

‘There are lots of places to eat,’ reports the keen cook, ‘the breakfast room, the conservatory and the dining room. We gravitate from one to the other according to the season.’

While the builders were sorting out the plumbing when the kitchen was being refitted they suggested putting in facilities for a shower in the ground floor cloakroom. ‘Although we didn’t need an extra shower room, we had the pipe work put in for a shower. Being next to the study, it could make a ground floor granny suite if it’s needed some time in the future.’

Maggie is artistic. She has a thatched studio in the garden. It’s where she paints pictures with acrylics and also keeps the washing machine, tumble drier and a second large freezer to save cluttering up the kitchen.

She also enjoys decorating and it was through that the couple discovered a hidden cupboard in the dining room.

‘A friend came to visit one day and while we were in the dining room I was explaining how I wanted to change the colour scheme. As I was talking I started peeling the anaglypta paper off the wall and found a cupboard by the fireplace.

So was there treasure inside? ‘No, nothing,’ says Maggie, crestfallen. ‘I don’t know why it was there. There was nothing inside.’ What does she use it for now? ‘It’s where I stuff tall vases.’ The fireplace, meanwhile, now houses a Norwegian wood burner, one of the best there is.

As for the third-of-an-acre garden, they both love it, particularly as the house sits in the middle of the plot. ‘It’s a cottage garden and we’ve done masses to it.’

However, with Richard now in his 80s and Maggie in her early 70s, the couple have decided they need to move to somewhere in a village with all the amenities within easy walking distance. ‘We both drive now, but there could come a time when we don’t and we need to move while we have the energy to cope with the upheaval.’

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