Interiors: Knights Of The Round Tower

Jonathan and Patricia Knight took on a relic of Edwardian civil engineering and made it their home. Lesley Jackson hears about the years they spent getting it water-tight

POST-INDUSTRIAL BRITAIN is littered with properties which have outlived their original functions. Disused factories, warehouses and mills offer anyone with a little imagination and a lot of elbow grease the chance to live in a home that they can mould precisely to their own lifestyles and needs. Warehouse conver- sions may be the most typical, but more extravagant buildings can hold even greater appeal.

Although loft-living is the current vogue, for some, shunning the constrictive anonymity of the semi-d started long ago. But can you really imagine taking on an architectural curiosity and converting it into a home, without the resources of a property developer, or the experience and teams of skilled craftsmen of the Landmark Trust? Jonathan and Patricia Knight did just that. In 1980, the newlyweds bought a disused water tower. Their verdict? "It was incredibly hard work."

Eighteen months is probably longer than most of us could reasonably tolerate being deprived of home comforts. The resilient Knights, however, have spent the past 18 years making their water tower first inhabitable, then comfortable, then a thing of beauty - at the same time as earning a living and raising three children, David (13), Julia (11) and Frances (eight).

The Knights were living in a modest flat near the Oval in south London when they came across a small ad for the tower. Trish was a recently qualified nurse and Jonathan, who was working as an engineer for an oil company, had just decided to change career entirely and launch himself as a furniture-maker. They were therefore free to move out of the city.

The building that had grabbed their attention was a five-storey octagonal water tower on the edge of Finedon in Northamp- tonshire. It had been built in 1904 to service the sanitary needs of the expanding local population, but had long been out of use. Now Grade II-listed, the tower, technically Edwardian, has all the ornamental panache more usually associated with the Victorians: red-and-cream striped decorative brickwork, projecting corbels and buttresses, and an extravagant pitch-roofed entrance porch. Some of its features, particularly the tiers of Romanesque arches around the top, were inspired by early medieval churches. Architectural historians have, rather grandly, described it as "freely adapted in the Norman style".

On one side of the water tower there are houses, shops and amenities, open fields on the other, and a garden behind. Finedon is a settlement halfway in size between a village and a small town, within easy reach of hospitals for Trish and not too far from Jonathan's parents' home. The water tower provided the ideal facilities for Jonathan's new furniture workshop, with more than enough space for accommodation above. "We had always envisaged this as a family house," says Trish.

Although listed, there were no grants available for the conversion; but despite limited resources, the Knights were determined to make the tower into their home. They knew the refurbishment would have to be gradual, with Jonathan doing as much of it as possible. The plumbing and wiring, as well as the basic building work, are his - he learnt as he went along.

When the Knights moved in, living conditions were primitive and the pair struggled to survive those first few months. Initially camping out on the first floor, they lived on bare boards surrounded by exposed brickwork, with a minimum of furniture and virtually no facilities. They'd only had access to the tower during the week before they moved in, which barely gave them time to clear out the skip-loads of junk inside. The huge water tank on the top floor had never been properly drained, which made the whole place very damp, and they arrived to find it full of stagnant water. Ironically, though, given the building's original function, there was no mains water supply nor any drains, deficiencies they had to put up with for nine long months.

During this time they relied on a chemical toilet, and their only water source was the old tank above. Trish took showers at the hospital where she worked, while Jonathan had to make do with regular hosings-down at the local sports centre, and combining social visits with quick baths.

Three-phase electricity was laid on fairly quickly, thankfully providing illumination and a power supply for cooking and carpentry. But it was a further five years before central heating was installed, and in the meantime the Knights kept themselves warm with gas-cylinder and electric fan heaters.

While there were no bats, rats or other rodent infestations in the tower, woodworm was rife. This meant that the Knights had to replace most of the existing timber. Listed Building Consent had to be obtained before this, or any work, could be under- taken, and no alterations were allowed to the exterior or to the original characterful - but somewhat drafty - cast-iron windows. Fire regulations were also stringent, and meant replacing the basic open flights of wooden stairs, which ran up the walls in between the windows, with fully enclosed central staircases, complete with fire escape doors at each level.

Because of its size, the tower gobbled up building materials. "It took 350 sheets of plasterboard to line all the ceilings and walls," says Jonathan, and he should know, having carried out most of the work himself with help from Trish after a hard day (or night) on the wards. "The dry lining made the house much warmer and dryer," says Jonathan, "but it was after we'd installed the central heating that the house became a home."

In a tower, vertical living is the order of the day, something which the Knights' teenage son David says he finds rather a bore at times. The family occupies three floors in the middle of the building, with Jonathan's workshop below. An attic and the remains of the old water tank are on the top two floors, so there is still plenty of room for expansion, should they outgrow their present quarters - although after their 18-year marathon, Jonathan and Trish agree that they have achieved most of what they intended.

The main living area is on the open-plan first floor which is double height in the centre, giving this vast interior a dramatic quality. It is lit on four sides by large windows with arched lintels, making the space wonderfully airy - when I first entered this remarkable expanse, my impulse was to pirouette. The reason for leaving this floor open rather than carving it up into segments is obvious: to preserve a sense of the octagonal form of the building. Instead of conventional rooms, there are four "activity zones": for cooking, eating, playing and for reading.

The kitchen area immediately attracts your attention, mainly because of its exquisite wooden cupboards. More like cabinets than kitchen units, they were custom-made by Jonathan. Most of the furniture in the house is his own, and although he modestly refers to these pieces as "left-overs" - work from exhibitions rather than commissions - most of us would be more than happy to give them room in our homes. Particularly impressive, not to mention extremely practical, is the large elm dining-table in the centre of the room.

The second floor is a mezzanine built around the soaring walls of the first floor, and is reminiscent of the balcony of a theatre-in-the-round. Whereas the first floor is very much a family zone - a place for playing games, doing homework and eating meals - the balcony area above is "for best", the open-plan equivalent of the old-fashioned front parlour. From there you can look down over the octagonal wooden balustrade (Jonathan's handiwork again) to the activities arena below.

This second floor is the Knights' own creation, inserted into the first floor and propped up by four huge wooden columns which rise majestically through the interior and support some equally mighty beams. Whereas the activities zone downstairs has a practical polished-wood floor, the mezzanine has a more luxurious feel, with white carpet, cuboid armchairs and pink velvet curtains.

A calm, restful, gallery-like space, it acts as a foil for some of the best examples of Jonathan's furniture. He is self-taught, and his work falls into no obvious stylistic category, ranging from fine cabinet- making to naturalistic pieces in the John Makepeace vein. Jonathan is a member of the Society of Designer-Craftsmen and works mainly to commission for people who appreciate individuality of design and quality of workmanship.

The two spiral staircases linking the first, second and third floors are his tour de force. Jonathan is especially proud of the top one, which combines pale green-stained timber and natural wood. This staircase leads from the mezzanine area to the sleeping quarters, which were installed eight years ago as the family burgeoned. Builders were brought in to slice the third floor into four "pieces of pie" (one bedroom for the parents, complete with custom-made bed, and three smaller ones for the kids), with a bathroom placed in the central well. This radiating bedroom arrangement, and the perfect geometry of the water tower as a whole, seem to symbolise the unity of the family which has chosen to inhabit this strange but inspiring building.

While the Knight children take living in an octagon for granted, in the early days their unusual home gave them a certain kudos at school. Julia was particularly proud when, at the age of six, her class was brought on a group visit to see her unusual home. "She insisted on being treated like everyone else," says Jonathan, "and being taken on the guided tour."

The children may not recognise how unusual their home is now, but in the future when, like the rest of us, they will probably end up living in a box, they will surely appreciate their parents' remarkable achievement.

Jonathan Knight can be contacted for commissions on 01933 680 807, or at jfknight@globalnet.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick