Named Britain’s richest town in a 2008 Daily Telegraph survey, the south Buckinghamshire town of Beaconsfield, in the Chiltern Hills AONB, stands at the junction of the roads from London to High Wycombe and Oxford and from Windsor to Aylesbury. Given its closeness both to the capital and the ‘dreaming spires’, it’s not surprising that, over the years, the elegant Georgian and Victorian houses of Beaconsfield’s historic Old Town have attracted an eclectic mix of actors, artists, writers, poets, politicians, businessmen and thinkers.
Such was the background to life at pretty, Queen Anne Widgenton House, in secluded Wycombe End, for successive generations of the hospitable but eccentric Pelham Burn family, whose home of the past 90 years is for sale through Hamptons (01494 677744), at a guide price of £2.75 million, following the death of Diane Pelham Burn, aged 79, in July last year. Mrs Pelham Burn’s youngest daughter, Robina, currently director of the Stephen Spender Trust, has vivid memories of life there as a child in the 1960s and 1970s, amid the comings and goings of a constant stream of visitors from all walks of life.
Widgenton House, £2.75m, Hamptons
Initially leased by Miss Pelham Burn’s grandfather, Archibald, from the nearby Hall Barn estate, Widgenton House, built in 1710 on the site of an earlier house and listed Grade II, was eventually bought by her father, Michael, on his marriage to the American-born Diane Hess in 1964. When, shortly after his son’s birth in 1923, Michael’s father, a fervent apostle of world peace, decamped to north Buckinghamshire, where the hunting was better, his mother, Phyllis, carried on happily as chatelaine of Widgenton. She loved to entertain on a grand scale, and regular visitors included local residents G. K. Chesterton and Lord Reith; the actress Katherine Hepburn also came to stay.
During the Second World War, Mrs Pelham Burn drove ambulances with friends such as Nancy Astor, always kept a canister of arsenic handy ‘in case the Nazis invaded’, and got to know Polish airmen stationed nearby, many of whom were fine musicians. This led to some notable wartime concerts being held at the house, often featuring the Steinway grand piano that Harrods had moved there for safekeeping.
When Michael Pelham Burn and his wife took over Widgenton House in 1964, they had the red-brick Victorian stables converted to a two-bedroom cottage for his mother. When she died a couple of years later, the cottage became home to Robina, her younger brother, James, and their nanny until, aged six and four respectively, they were deemed grown-up enough to live in the main house. ‘My mother didn’t like small children’, she explains.
Later on, the old stables and another three-bedroom cottage were often let ‘at ridiculously low rents’ to friends and acquaintances; the actor Patrick Macnee was a tenant at one point. Diane Pelham Burn was a sculptor, who, encouraged by an aunt in Chicago, started a collection of thimbles and other needlework tools on arriving in England, which led to a lifetime career lecturing and writing on the subject. She also created a classic English garden-still much admired by visitors to the property-in Widgenton’s 2.2 acres of grounds. With the help of her trusty resident gardener Mr Gegg, she established a ‘huge vegetable garden’, which the children were regularly exhorted to help keep in check, but without much success, it seems.
On the other hand, her daughter’s gifts as an editor and linguist were undoubtedly nurtured here: she recalls often curling up with a book on the oak window seat of her favourite room-the converted 16th-century barn that was incorporated into the main house in 1910. Time has stood wonderfully still at Widgenton House, but although acknowledging that its five reception rooms, six bedrooms and only two bathrooms now need some judicious updating, Miss Pelham Burn hopes that its next owner will respect and realise the ‘amazing potential’ of this much-loved house.
The genius of Grade II-listed Clock House at Cowfold, near Horsham, West Sussex- currently for sale through John D. Wood & Co (020-7908 1108) at a guide price of £2.5m-is its designer, the Arts-and-Crafts architect Richard Barry Parker, who, with his partner Raymond Unwin, designed Hampstead Garden Suburb. Commissioned in 1913 by James Rolls-Hoare as a wedding present for his eldest daughter, Muriel, on her marriage to Sir Edmund Loder, Clock House was the heart of a model country estate that originally incorporated farm buildings, a water tower, a pumping station, hunting stables, garages and houses for the coachman, head gardener, chauffeur and head cowman. The estate cost £20,000 to build and employed 100 men.
Clock House, £2.5m. John D Wood & Co
No expense was spared in creating the 10,000sq ft main house, which, although a mere 100 years old, looks authentically Elizabethan, and incorporates 16th-century timbers and stonework recovered from a nearby farmhouse, and the frame of a massive timber-framed barn that was cut in half to form the two projecting north elevations.
The bricks used in the construction were made in a nearby field. Barry Parker was an ardent supporter of William Morris, and Clock House is a sublime expression of the finest Arts-and-Crafts principles. Inside the house, these include fine oak panelling and carvings, notably the intricate Moorish screen in the impressive entrance hall. The main family rooms radiate from the panelled entrance hall and the grand staircase, and the great hall, drawing room and dining room have far-reaching views across the Edwardian gardens to the South Downs.
When Lord Loder was killed in the First World War, the estate was left to his son, Giles. The house was requisitioned by the Canadian Army during the Second World War, and in 1942, a log falling from an untended grate is thought to have started the fire that gutted the second floor. In 1951, Clock House was rebuilt and leased by the Loder family before being sold in 1976. But it was only in 2011 that listed-building consent was obtained by Alan Woods, founder of his family’s fleet of luxury Thames river-cruisers and the current owner of Clock House, to reinstate the second-floor dormer windows and provide a further two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a dressing room. For most, the present accommodation- which includes the original grand reception rooms, a library (the former estate manager’s office), a playroom, a kitchen/ breakfast room, eight bedrooms, six bath/shower rooms and various domestic offices- would be more than adequate.
And there’s always plenty to do in the seven acres of immaculate gardens and grounds around the house, which comprise the original formal terraces of rippled Horsham stone, the sunken rose garden, an octagonal stone gazebo, terraced formal lawns and walled borders, together with an array of mature trees, a biodynamic garden, an orchard and an one-acre paddock.
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