Gatehouse to a country idyll in Coggeshall

PUBLISHED: 16:25 28 August 2013 | UPDATED: 16:25 28 August 2013




Jim Furze and his wife Sandie looked at 40 properties before they came across their 16th century farmhouse at Coggeshall which they fell in love with back in 2001. Jim, a business executive who trained as a land agent and who has since spent 35 years in the wine trade and drinks industry, admits he’s probably a frustrated builder, although it’s never been his day job.

‘I do it for love rather than to make a fortune,’ explains Jim, who has gained considerable expertise through the project management of restoration jobs lesser men would have found daunting. Buildings erected in the 1500s are his speciality and he does it all in his spare time with the aid of hands-on, skilled professionals.

He had already renovated two Tudor houses before he embarked on the 20-months it took to complete his greatest challenge yet: the showpiece home he created for himself and Sandie and their three daughters at Gatehouse Farm in Ambridge Road, just two miles from the village of Coggeshall.

Jim and his wife started their married life in a two-bedroom thatched cottage he renovated when he was single. ‘After we had children I extended it, but eventually we needed more space and we swapped houses with my widowed mother.’

She moved into the cottage and they moved into the Tudor farmhouse which had been the family home in his youth. To help him achieve what he wanted with that, he gathered around him the same team of craftsmen who’d worked with him on the cottage.

Jim says with a smile: ‘I can always see the potential in a house. I saw straightaway what I could do with Gatehouse.’

He believes the two most important factors when they were househunting in the new millennium after they sold his mother’s former farmhouse were aspect and location.

‘We wanted to be in the country but not too far out in the sticks. We wanted a house that was flooded with natural light. Old buildings tend to have a lot of small rooms. Most of them are never used. We wanted to open up the ground floor and make it more open plan because that’s the way we like living. It brings the entirety into play. This house had been pretty neglected for a number of years. The main stud work was OK but the sole plates [the first pieces of wood laid in a timber-framed building] had gone.

‘We stripped the whole place back to the shell and put it together again incorporating modern Cat 5 wiring to keep abreast of advances in high tech communications and home entertainment. With houses like this there are always unexpected challenges – that’s the fun of doing it.’

By the time they tackled the Gatehouse, the couple’s eldest daughter Rachel was studying architecture at Cambridge. Her input along with that of their employed architect ensured they finished up with a house that matched their blueprint.

Although the house is Grade II listed and they had added a clapboard extension at either end, Jim says the conservation officers were generally supportive.

‘We installed horizontal sash windows in keeping with the architectural style that’s traditional in west Essex, but they wouldn’t let them be double glazed, which was a pity because it reduced the effectiveness of the high level of insulation we put in.’

One of the first things you see when you walk in the hall is the Tudor fireplace which had been walled up before it was uncovered, much to Jim and Sandie’s excitement. ‘We’ve kept as many original features as we could. There are lots of lovely beams and fireplaces in the old part,’ Jim continues.

The farmhouse had five bedrooms and two bathrooms when they bought it. ‘A lot of people wouldn’t have changed that, but we have three daughters. We wanted four, good-sized double bedrooms and four bathrooms.

‘Each of the girls – the others are Belinda and Harriet – was given a free hand to design her own space. We wanted them to feel they had contributed to what we were doing.’

Downstairs the predominant feature in the opened up layout is the glazed end wall with double height apex in the garden room providing as big a view of the sky as you can wish for. The room flows out of the kitchen/breakfast room and was partly built on the footprint of a demolished wood shed.

Jim adds: ‘The planners said the extension in this part of the building had to be single storey. Our architect came up with the idea of creating the glazed end wall looking south with windows on the two other sides giving a sweeping view of the grounds.’

Again, when they moved in, the Gatehouse had not much more than an acre of garden, but Jim has since bought extra land from the neighbouring farmer and now their holding is 11 acres.

‘We commissioned a landscape architect to draw up an overall plan with an area of parkland, woodland and a lake as well as a formal garden. The lake is fantastic for attracting wildlife. We have two or three geese, mallard, teal, coots and moorhens. We get swans occasionally, but they don’t stay.’

The indigenous trees planted in the parkland for the benefit of future generations include chestnut, ash, willow and three Lebanese cedars.

Although the couple now have planning permission to convert a granary into a two-bedroom guest cottage and permission to build a four-bay cart shed for a car port, they’ve decided it’s time for a new family to enjoy their countryside idyll.

‘The girls have all left home now and the grounds are a bit too much for me to keep up with,’ says Jim. ‘I work in London now mostly and spend my time in the car. I want to be able to walk to the village shop and church. I want to be in a village. We’re thinking we might buy a pied a terre in London and also something smaller but more central out here.’

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