Pride of Place
PUBLISHED: 08:20 07 May 2014
Â© chris rawlings 2014
Living in a 12-bedroom mansion might leave you feeling that you don't quite fill the space, but not if you invite the family to stay as the Johnsons did at Hatfield Place, writes Pat Bramley
Hatfield Place is a bit special. Only 5.5% of the 374,081 listed properties in England are Grade II* and this Georgian mansion at Hatfield Peverel, that Philippa Johnson and her husband bought in April 1999, is one of them.
The couple were looking to move up from London and living in a rented house when they spotted that Hatfield Place was for sale. With four young children in tow, they’d moved into temporary accommodation to give themselves time to find the right place to buy in the Essex countryside, near where Philippa grew up.
When they saw it, this mini stately home standing in almost 16 acres had been on the market for some time. ‘I remembered it from when I lived about three miles away and went to the village school,’ says Philippa with a smile. ‘My parents owned the converted windmill at Terling. That was listed, so I had no worries about buying another listed property.’
Seeing Hatfield Place again years later as a potential buyer, Philippa’s first reaction was that it was beautiful but much bigger than they’d been looking for. The couple were also unsure whether they could afford it.
While they were deliberating, through a fortuituous stroke of good timing, their already successful professional careers took further steps forward, taking care of the finances, and as for how they would fill all the rooms in a 12-bedroom mansion, that was soon sorted too.
Philippa’s mother, who had lived with them once before, accepted her children’s invitation to rejoin the fold and an aunt and uncle decided they’d like to make their home in the self contained Victorian wing of the mansion. Finding baby-sitters was never to be a problem again, with so many responsible adults on hand. In no time at all it became a glorious home for the new owners’ extended family as well as a welcome haven for many of their sons’ wide circle of young friends.
‘I’ve always said whatever house we have, it has to be large enough for friends and family to come and stay and that’s how it has always been,’ says Philippa in her all-embracing approach to family life.
After taking up residence, the first job that had to be tackled was re-wiring. ‘The house hadn’t been re-wired since 1945, it still had lead plumbing and the décor was a little shabby.
‘The previous owners had a big family like ours, but eventually there were just the elderly parents here and >> inevitably it became rather soulless. It needed warming up. The house needed new life in it and that’s what we brought.’
For the past 15 years, Hatfield Place hasn’t so much hummed with life, rather it’s been filled to the rafters with music and song.
All four boys are musical, as well as Philippa. She and three of her sons are singers, some also play the guitar, some the piano and the youngest is now a professional pianist. Most of their friends are musical too.
Until the boys started to move away when they reached their 20s, leaving just one at home with a couple of young friends who have been so happy there they’re now permanent fixtures, they had staged regular performances, often to raise funds for charity.
In fact, you could even say that in modern times Hatfield Place has been the launching pad for the modern day Von Trapps. And just like the legendary Maria and her family of young singers at the castle in Austria, the talented family at Hatfield Place haven’t had to fork out a booking fee for a hall or theatre for their productions.
The ballroom, added to the mansion in the Victorian era along with auntie’s three-bedroom annexe, is, according to the lady of the house, ‘a fantastic place for musical theatre productions and for rehearsals. It has a dais for a stage, we have the biggest dressing up box ever and everybody comes when we’re putting on a show. There’s always someone sleeping over here. Sometimes we’ve had up to 50 young people sleeping on the floor after a production. You trip over them when you come down for breakfast. Our youngest son is coming up to 21. He’s hoping to have a 21st birthday performance here, rather than go out somewhere to celebrate.’
As soon as the Johnsons moved to Hatfield Place they set aside the four bedrooms and the bathroom at the top of the main house as the boys’ floor. With so many friends staying over and such a large family, it’s lucky that there are lots of rooms, other than the ballroom, where they can spread out. There’s a cinema room, billiard room, dining room, library, three cellars and a big kitchen with two dishwashers. It’s also a huge blessing, given the amount of entertaining and that Philippa enjoys cooking.
‘I love it,’ she laughs, ‘I have lots of large pots. It’s nothing to cater for 10-15. >>
At Christmas there are normally 16-18 sitting around the table in the dining room and a huge tree in the hall that rises up to the first floor.
‘There’s a TV room that the children can vegetate into and a verandah room overlooking the garden where I like to sit with a cup of tea. We’ve always had what we call a posh room – the drawing room – which the children aren’t allowed to mess up.
‘I’m a firm believer that rooms should be lived in – I can’t be doing with the sort of houses where you have to be careful not to dent a cushion – but I won’t allow the kids to leave rubbish and cans of coke lying around in the posh room. And I don’t do their washing. I say, “there’s a laundry room downstairs, you do your own washing”.’
Sadly nothing lasts forever, no matter how idyllic. Phillipa realised that there were weekends last summer when the house was silent. She has a dread that, as time goes on, there will be just two of them there with loads of empty rooms that no-one enters.
‘This is a house that needs to be enjoyed by a family,’ she says emphatically. And the Johnson family have certainly made the most of the experience. n