Britain's best homes: The proud owners of some leading contenders invite us through their keyholes
A new television series is aiming to find the nation's most desirable residence
'AN ENORMOUS PRIVILEGE TO LIVE HERE'
Castle Hedingham, Essex
Owned by: Jason Lindsay, 40 (former Art dealer)
"Hedingham has been in my family for a long time. It was handed over to my father by my cousin, a wonderfully eccentric woman, in 1980.
My wife Demetra, who is an architect, and I moved here about three-and-a-half years ago. It's a marvellous place to live – there's tons of history and we've got a 950-year-old Norman keep in our garden. But it's a big job to keep it all up.
Doing the interior is never-ending. I've never counted the rooms, so I'm not sure how many we've got; we keep doing things as and when we can. We can't just write out a huge fat cheque for things, so we do things with as much imagination as we can. We have to be realistic, and we're very hands-on.
We were lucky enough to be approached by a company called Warners, who make silk. They could see what we're trying to do and wanted to help, so they provided enough material for us to do up five rooms to show off their new collection, and we ended up with wonderful curtains and sofas. If I'd had to pay for it, it would have been a very painful exercise.
After the war, my cousin had to sell off a lot of the land to keep things going, so traditional ways of generating income for the upkeep of the house have evaporated. Instead, now we have a lot of weddings here in the castle, followed by receptions overlooking the lake. We also have corporate events and classic-car days, and get about 25,000 visitors a year through the doors. I think people like the fact that it's not too municipal, and there aren't too many signs – and also that the interior of the house is a bit woolly round the edges.
The value of Hedingham is irrelevant, really – I wouldn't have a clue how much the property is worth. It's not about the value of the place, anyway. It's an enormous privilege to live here. Ownership is a strange thing with an inherited property such as this. You can choose either to take it on and make a go of it, or to sit back and let someone else do it, or to sell it. I feel that to hand it over to English Heritage or the National Trust would be a tragedy." EW
'LIKE BEING IN A BOUTIQUE HOTEL'
Owned by Lucinda Black, 27 (property developer)
"We bought the house in 2004, but realised there was so much we wanted to do to it that it would be more cost-effective to pull it down and build on the site. It took a while – we only moved in at the end of August last year. In total the project cost us £1m, but the house is now valued at £2.5m.
One reason it took us so long was that we couldn't decide what we wanted – either really modern or traditional. We had two architects working on plans that kept changing. In the end, we met somewhere in the middle.
The house looks very modern from the outside, but inside we've made it into a comfortable family home for us and our daughter; a lot of people say they expect it to be quite cold and are surprised at how warm and cosy it is.
My partner, Marc, and I did almost everything ourselves, although we did have help with the soft furnishings, because the house is predominantly black, so I was thinking 'Oh my God, where do I start here?'
I'm really proud of what we've done with the hallway. It's a really big space – 400 sq m – and we didn't want it to be either really empty or filled with stuff. It's got a boutiquey, hotel feel to it, which I wanted, and we've got an 18th-century circular chair, made up of four seats with their back to each other – you find them in hotels a lot.
The dining room is fantastic. We've got Swarovski crystals hanging down on either side of the room, and one wall is taken up with a bronze mirror.
We're very lucky that not only were we able to build our dream house, but that it comes with a garden. Two German designers, Barth and Schrang, designed ours. It's got a Mediterranean feel: palm trees, white walls and decking, and there's a reflection pool too. I don't think I'd change anything about the house; we put a lot of effort into it and it's exactly what we wanted." EW
'THE ULTIMATE BACHELOR PAD'
Owned by Anthony Williams, 60 (retired)
"I've always wanted to live right by the sea. I bought the house from a friend's uncle when I retired, and had the intention of making some fairly dramatic changes, really opening it up and making it a modern sort of property.
It's called Admiralty House because it was built in the 1860s as a Coast Guard headquarters. It had no particular redeeming features, so I asked a friend of my children's, who is an architect, to come up with the plans.
In total, I had about 18 months of work carried out. I turned the four bedrooms into two luxurious ones, with my bedroom and en suite on the seaward side. By using sliding glass, you can open up virtually the whole house on a nice day.
My bedroom is my favourite room. I can lie in bed in the morning and, being a gadget freak, I can press a button to raise the bed and then press another button and the curtain slides back to give an excellent sea view. My favourite gadget is my thumbprint scanner; I use it instead of a front-door key. It's wonderful to go out in the evening and not worry about keys.
I suppose you could call the house a bachelor pad, but I'm a bit wary of that phrase. First, it is not very kind to my girlfriend, and second, it's a bit hackneyed. The house just reflects my style and how I want to live.
It is a hard house to value as it does not compare to any other two-bedroom properties in the area. Several friends who are estate agents have said they'd put it on the market for well over a million pounds. But it wasn't about money for me; I designed it the way I did because I intended to stay here. It was a project to keep me amused, but now it's finished I think I need a new one. Luckily, when I built the garage I made sure it was heated and comfortable, so I think I'll enjoy it now and invent something, or maybe build a kit car." JM
'I BELIEVE IT'S A MASTERPIECE'
Owned by Grant Duncan, 43 (fitness centre owner)
"We bought the land in 1998 and sat on it for two years. The site was located within the walled gardens of a 1750 mansion that lay around 400m to the north. Then it took two years to design and build, with us moving in during May 2002. It was a long process because the design was so intricate.
We were very lucky to be guided through it all by the award-winning architect Gareth Hoskins, who is based in Glasgow. We interviewed around eight Scottish architects, and even though Gareth had only just opened his practice and didn't really have a track record, I hired him on a personal basis. We really got on. It's very fortunate that he's so successful now. I'd say the property is worth at least £1m, which is a big deal in Scotland.
To begin, Gareth asked me to pull together a "mood board". This was a collage of cut-out pictures of everything that inspired me. Basically, if I thought there was anything particularly well designed I would put it on this "mood board" and then hand it to Gareth. It was everything that made me tick – from David Mellor cutlery to the buildings of Mies van der Rohe.
As such, the design is very contemporary. There's lots of glass, lots of lights, limestone floors and white render. It's not a gadget house, though. The innovation has more gone into the way it looks, which I love.
My home is essentially four bedrooms, and a round study, as well as an open plan lounge and dining area. The circular space is my favourite. It's pretty large and wonderful for acoustics, and that's where I listen to my music. What I like most about the property is that it is very private. The walls around the garden are 11ft high. It's almost like a big secret; you can't overlook it or see it from the outside. There's something magical about it.
I believe it's are a masterpiece. Even though I've been there six years I don't take it for granted. I still appreciate all we've achieved." RS
'IT'S A VERY BIG HOUSE'
Owned by Martin Dyer, 51 (retired)
"We lived in the New Forest before we bought The Mill, and we were looking for a period property to do up.
We moved in three-and-a-half years ago. The house was in good structural condition but the interior was very dated. It's a very big house but just two people lived here before and there was a very small kitchen. The electrics and lighting were all below par, and we wanted modern bathrooms and a more modern TV and cinema room.
The most important thing was to remodel the kitchen; we've got three children so we wanted to open it up to make it bigger and more of a hub. The house, having been redone, is now worth about £3.7m. The kitchen was our greatest expense – it was all handmade and cost £60,000 to £70,000 – but it's now where we spend most of our time.
The biggest task was the garden. Like the house, we did most of it ourselves. It was very rambling and overgrown, and there were trees overhanging the house. The maze, which was there when we arrived, also takes a bit of maintenance; it took me three weeks to cut it the first year we were here.
The house is to our liking now, although there are always things to be done. I'm still thinking about fitting something to the weir to generate electricity. The one thing we'd planned to do but didn't was to attach a glass room to the kitchen – not a greenhouse or a conservatory, but a glass box. The thought of doing battle with the listing people put us off.
I'm most proud of the way that all the rooms are different with their own style, but are also all of a piece. We had a lot of Asian furniture to incorporate and I think we did it well." EW
'A WORK OF ART'
Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire
Owned by Sina Capaldo, 42 (interior designer)
"My husband and I moved into Ambleside 10 years ago when it was in a bad way. Now our agents describe it as an American colonial-style villa, but I always think of it as more Georgian-looking, except for the palm trees, pool and colonial shutters.
When we moved in we ripped everything out, left just the walls and extended the house from there. Ten years down the line, we are still doing a few things, but it's more or less finished. Now it's a large five-bedroom property, with a massive garden, two summer houses and our own media room in the converted loft.
The media room is certainly my favourite room. It sounds very Del Boy, but we've put a bar and a home entertainment system in and we love to entertain our friends up there.
The whole property takes inspiration from films and the places we have visited. There is a little maze inspired by a visit to Hampton Court, the water feature in the pool is inspired by the Bellagio hotel from the film Ocean's Eleven and a skylight above the kitchen is designed to look like the Louvre.
It sounds very pretentious but I think it is nicely done and what I'm saying is that anyone can look at something on holiday or in a film and spark an idea from it.
Because my husband and I spend so much time at work, we built the house to be our own holiday home. We created lots of different areas in the garden – for instance, I'm in love with the Eastern arts, so we have a Japanese area with a Thai summer house, complete with bonsai and ornamental furniture.
We have no idea what the house is worth. When we finish it we'll have it valued, but it's a bit like a work of art: you always want to add to it a little bit more, but you can't put a price on it. It is my home, and I would never want to sell it." JM
'WE CHRISTENED IT TINDALE TOWERS'
Bishop Auckland, County Durham
Owned by Mike Keen, 51 (owns furniture distribution company)
"We spent a year planning and designing and two years building the house. We christened it Tindale Towers, after the name of the house originally on the site, which we demolished – and we also wanted to make it sound grand. It has, after all, four storeys, and a real sense of size. The five bedrooms each have their own bathroom. Three are for my children; then there is a guest bedroom, and a penthouse suite that takes over the whole top floor.
The brief I gave our architect, John Lavender, was simple: I wanted everything I could possibly think of. I wanted it to be big. I was keen on it being more like an office block or a hotel than a home. I was after some real scale. Style-wise, we decided to go with something approaching Art Deco, or like a Spanish villa.
One of my favourite parts of the house – apart from the swimming pool and specially built dance floor, which my lady likes to use when she's had a drink – is the kitchen. It has this curved work-surface against a curved wall. We had all these contractors up from London who said they couldn't properly craft curved counters. But we hired a local joiner who made a granite-topped oak job without much fuss.
My next favourite room is the bar. I can sit there and still have a cigarette with my pint of lager. You could get 50 people in there, easy. We've got all the trimmings: a squirty Coca-Cola gun and beer from the barrel, which we get straight from the local wholesaler.
Although the house didn't cost very much to build, I reckon it's worth about £5m. The garden came to around £25,000, and has been crafted by a landscape gardener in a Mediterranean or Beverly Hills style. We didn't want anything English." RS
'IT TICKS ALL THE BOXES'
Owned by Ken MacKay, 48 (Architect)
"Originally, this was the Barbican development's estate office in the 1960s. It has an awful lot of space. All we've done since buying it is to put in a mezzanine, which is our bedroom, some partition walls for the kids' bedrooms, and a 75-case wine cellar.
Because it's a very theatrical space, we've been careful about the lighting. We have tried to light the columns with up-lighters to wash the concrete with light, so if anything it is underlit. To compensate for the quantity of concrete, we have contrasted it with dark wood and white walls.
We made a feature out of the courtyard by installing a 25-ton steel staircase with a waterfall within. It's the biggest free-standing element in the Barbican, and had to be lifted into place in one piece by a crane.
Oddly, my favourite feature is the kids' bathroom. When we renovated, we found the original 1960s smooth concrete. That's architectural history.
The property ticks all the boxes for us, as an architectural masterpiece and a family home. Most people are shocked that we live on a major street in central London. They don't expect to see a home surrounded by banks and law firms." JM
'I CALL IT URBAN-SUBURBAN'
Owned by Yvonne Spektor, 60 (artist)
"We bought the property off a lovely old lady who had great taste, and had kept all the art deco features. So there were wonderful wrought-iron works and fabulous art deco-shaped basins throughout the house. After we moved in, we carried out a major extension to turn it into our family home while keeping as many of the original features as possible.
Almost three years ago now we decided that, with the kids grown up, we'd knock down all the downstairs walls and turn it into an open-plan living space. We had the choice of selling up and downsizing or transforming the house entirely. My husband and I are both South African and just love light and open space, so open plan was perfect for us. I call it urban-suburban, because we have the style of a Chelsea penthouse in suburbia.
It took us two years to find somebody prepared to do the work we wanted. First, we had an interior designer in, but they gave us such a ridiculous price that we could have built a new house. Then we had an architect, a dental patient of my husband's, and he had a great plan but no builders would touch it because it required considerable cantilevering. Finally, on holiday back in South Africa, we met a fantastic German designer who, from some photos, put together some great drawings, and Ken's uncle, an architect, managed the project for us.
We lived in the house for 14 months while the work was going on. I was practically confined to my bedroom, but the hardest part of all was working out what to do with the blank canvas we were left with when all the building work was finished. When you have separate rooms you can plan space for furniture, but with an open space it is much harder to use furniture so that it flows. Luckily, just like in my art, I love adding colour to a blank canvas, so the whole project was so enjoyable for me.
We've had the house valued at nearly £2m, which is ridiculous considering we paid £210,000 for it. You couldn't buy anything like this for that price today and I think that unless somebody loves what we've done, they'd strip it out. In this area people want seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms and three receptions, not houses with character. We don't plan on leaving for a good 10 years, though." JM
'WHAT A BLANK CANVAS!'
Holmfirth, west Yorkshire
Owned by Martin Swaine, 46 (runs a chain of off-licences)
"I came across the property in the Yorkshire Post in September 2003. The ad just said, 'Derelict chapel for sale, just off Holmfirth town centre'. It was a Wesleyan chapel, a massive building in a very bad repair: no floors, no walls, no ceilings. Some of the roof tiles were missing. It had a fantastic stained-glass window that was dirty and covered in mesh and suffering from years of neglect. It was like an empty cathedral.
I thought, 'What a blank canvas!' It's a lovely location, overlooking a graveyard which, believe it or not, is very beautiful. We look across fields to the other side of a steep valley. And what got me hooked is that there's a solitary black horse in one of the fields. It just eats grass, but we enjoy watching it.
I had no building experience. I was just looking for a bit of a challenge. Mine wasn't the highest offer, but I kept ringing up the owner and eventually badgered him enough that he sold it to me. It was a daunting prospect – so big, and in such a state. I had no idea what to do with it or what it would cost.
We preserved every bit of the building's original character we could. I'm especially proud of the way we worked around the stained glass; we built a double-height space so that you can see it from the ground and middle floors. It's the centrepiece of the house.
We moved here in December 2005. The family is myself, my wife and two children, 10 and 13. They've always got their mates around trashing it. But there's space for everybody, even the cat. I've got about 9,000 sq ft of living accommodation on three floors.
The ground floor is completely open plan, with a utility space, a dining area, a snug bit, formal areas and a study area. We didn't want lots of rooms, because we like a lot of light coming in. One space flows into the next. The design is contemporary: all travertine, walnut, stainless steel and glass.
Each of the four bedrooms has a walk-in bathroom and dressing area. The top floor, a completely open space with all the beams and rafters on show, is a play area for the kids with a ping-pong table, pool table and gym. We've got mood lighting and a media system that works throughout the house with different sound zones, allowing you to have, say, a DVD playing in one area and DAB radio somewhere else.
I've never had it valued, but the entire project cost £850,000, including buying the building. I'd estimate it's worth £1.2m to £1.5m." TW
"I Own Britain's Best Home" starts on Five on Thursday 20 March at 8pm
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