History's footprint

With carbon residue from the Great Fire and the remains of a medieval ship, Rectory House in London lives and breathes the past. Mary Wilson discovers an immaculate restoration
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Terry and Lucy Collins have built a few new homes in their 30 years as developers, but their real passion is rescuing and restoring architectural gems. "There might be a lot more money to be made in building from scratch, but it would drive me crazy. Working with historical houses is far more satisfying," says Terry.

Terry and Lucy Collins have built a few new homes in their 30 years as developers, but their real passion is rescuing and restoring architectural gems. "There might be a lot more money to be made in building from scratch, but it would drive me crazy. Working with historical houses is far more satisfying," says Terry.

The latest "gem" is Rectory House, a fascinating property right in the heart of the City of London. Although it's close to all the razzmatazz of city life, it's situated in a peaceful oasis at the end of a cul-de-sac next door to the Prudential headquarters in Laurence Pountney Hill, EC4.

This property is unique in many ways. It is the only residential house in the Square Mile to have a garden. Part of it dates back to the 14th century, with a section of original Roman wall in the lower floors, and an unusual triple-arched Veneto-Byzantine feature: three arched windows set into the front façade.

The property was found for the couple by an inspirational Swiss architect, Andrea Cenci, who is equally passionate about old properties and owns the oldest house in the City in Cloth Fair, next door to Smithfield meat market. Cenci's sympathetic restoration of his own home won him the City Heritage Award in 2000, given annually for excellence in building renewal and refurbishment. Rectory House won the same award last year.

"We bought Rectory House in 2002 from a shipping company. Although it was originally a home, it had been used as offices for many years. Because the floors slope quite dramatically in some rooms, it was a very inefficient building for them because they could only use about half of the 6,000 square feet," says Terry.

Rectory House, which had to be rebuilt in 1678 after the Great Fire of London, still has markedly sloping floors, but in general they just add to its attraction as a home with real character - although, after a few drinks, you might feel as though you have had one too many.

"The old house had a timber frame, and over the years this started to slide down the hill," Terry explains. "The Victorians built a new façade and tied the timber building back to it, but it had fallen away even more and we had to tie it back again. It's worst in the hallway, where it slopes five to six inches from front to back." In one of the bedrooms on the second floor, the incline is so great that the Collinses have had to make a six-inch step - the bed is on a platform with a railing around it.

Much of the original panelling had also fallen down, and has had to be replaced, repaired or re-created. When the Collinses started digging around the windows in the downstairs living rooms, they were delighted to find the original shutters, which had been nailed up.

"We even found the old hinges and screws and over-arm brackets, which we've kept wherever possible," says Terry. "We have put in many tons of steel - about £300,000 worth - which hold the house up and, when we ripped out 30 tons of redundant wiring and ducting, the poor old girl sighed a breath of life. Over the years the house had never been stripped back, just added to."

In the basement, you can see a 6m by 2m section of ancient stone wall, which would have formed part of the old Roman river terracing leading down to the Thames. In those days, the river lapped right up to Upper Thames Street, off which Laurence Pountney Hill runs. "The wall was covered up by layers of plaster. We have left it exposed in the basement, but in the floor above, where we have put the kitchen and dining room, the wall has been rendered and painted," says Terry.

Even more extraordinary was the fact that when they took up the floor in the basement, the owners found layers of carbon - residue from the Great Fire. At this stage of the renovation, the couple called in an archaeological team to do a detailed report of the property, so whoever buys it will be able to pore over it and discover the provenance of the house.

"We also discovered an area at the back of the lower ground floor, which would have been the servant's quarters. We could see that the footprint went behind the corners of the room, so we dug it out. We found a lot of old timbers, which would have come from a medieval ship, as well as part of an old staircase and a lovely 18th-century kitchen chair, which is currently in bits - I'm trying to find someone who can put it together again."

At the front of the house is a 15sqm garden, which was a bit of a mess after having been used for years by the locals as somewhere to have lunch. The cast-iron railings and gate have been reinstated, and the Collinses have made a seat out of one of the two memorial stones that they found in the garden.

The lawned area is divided by cobbled paths and flagstones from St Paul's Cathedral. "We wanted to keep the garden in tune with the house and because the cobbles were being taken up at St Paul's at the time, we asked if could buy them, along with a few flagstones."

So the building has been carefully restored to a grand house again. The upper floors have new wide oak boarding that are dowelled, as they would have been originally, and all the wardrobes have been fitted out in cedar to deter moths. Modern touches to attract 21st-century buyers include security equipment, CCTV, under-floor heating throughout and the prerequisite high-tech baths and showers.

Although the Collinses have striven to keep the house in a period style, they have dressed it in a contemporary, Italian way. "If you dress it with Italian furniture, it gives the impression that you can do something with it. If it has a traditional Chelsea look, then it just looks like another home. We sacked the first designer, who wanted to give it a Laura Ashley look," says Terry.

Rectory House is for sale at £3.65m through Currell (020-7253 2533)

Comments