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
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee