Mansion adequate for a king: Henry VIII stayed at The Old Rectory. Anne Spackman asks who will own it next

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The Independent Online
Not luxurious, but adequate - that was the verdict of one of William Cecil's biographers on The Old Rectory in Wimbledon. He was describing the country retreat of one of the great Tudor statesmen, for whom Wimbledon, Richmond and Barnes became the Cotswolds of their day.

It is a breathtaking understatement. Even in 1550 The Old Rectory was more mansion than house. A survey nearly 100 years later gives an idea of its size. It had a dining hall, withdrawing room, parlour and private study, 10 chambers and five closets, five garrets (for servants), a kitchen, pantry, larder, meat room, buttery, beer and wine cellars, two dairy rooms, a brewhouse, bakehouse, washhouse, stables for 14 horses and a coal house, when coal was a rare luxury.

In short, it was a house fit for a king - as evidenced by the fact that Henry VIII deigned to stay when taken ill on a tour of his Surrey palaces in 1546. It is thought he slept in front of the fireplace of what is now the great hall, being too bloated to make it up the stairs to bed.

The Old Rectory was the earliest great house and probably the first brick house to be built in Wimbledon. It was built around 1500 as a parsonage in an area of farmland, before becoming Crown property when Henry VIII broke with Rome.

William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, was one of a series of courtiers and statesmen to use it as a grace and favour home. Among his papers for 1553 is a list of 'provisions necessary to feed the household. It includes eight kinds of meat, eight types of poultry, 16 varieties of fish, spices, sauces, dairy products, dried fruit, as well as sugar and oranges. All this for an extended family of eight people and their retinue of some 20 servants.

The Old Rectory was sold for the first time on the open market in 1882 for the staggering sum of pounds 6,000. Sixty-one years of decline later, its value had only just doubled, when Russell Brock, later Lord Brock, bought it for just pounds 13,750 in 1953. Its price tag today is pounds 4m.

The houses which today might accurately be described as 'not luxurious, but adequate are the Victorian and Edwardian terraces which sprung up in Wimbledon 300 years later with the coming of the railway. In the 19th century they were the houses of railwaymen, labourers, domestics and gardeners.

Now, the same red brick terraces change hands for around pounds 200,000 and are more likely to be the homes of the civil servants who used to occupy grand houses such as The Old Rectory on the hill. Not everyone's standard of living has risen over the centuries.

From the grounds of the house you can spot other symbols of Wimbledon's development. The clock tower on the back of the centre court at The All England Tennis Club is just visible through the trees.

But it is unlikely that any of the thousands of tennis spectators who have queued up Church Road and past St Mary's have ever noticed the house tucked away behind the church. Its gardens of nearly three acres are surrounded by thick hedges and high trees. Nothing can be seen of the house from its large iron gates.

Like most English country houses The Old Rectory is a mixture of architectural styles, with its round Tudor towers and tall chimney pots, its crenellated roof and stone mullioned windows.

Inside, it is easier to imagine the Wimbledon of Tudor times than the busy village suburb of today. In the principal rooms and passages walls are heavily panelled, floors are of polished oak and the stone fireplaces surrounded by intricate wooden carving. There is stained glass in some windows and the reading room, with its vaulted ceiling, is reminiscent of a medieval monastery.

The historical authenticity is enhanced by the furniture - rich tapestries and brocades and heavy wooden chests, decorated with the armoury collection of the present owner, Basil Faihdi.

When Mr Faihdi bought the house 16 years ago it was in poor condition. With the help of English Heritage he has painstakingly stripped and treated the panelling for woodworm, replaced the electricity, heating and water systems and retiled the roof.

The medieval chambers are now bedrooms, including an extensive master suite with a sitting room, two dressing rooms, a bathroom and a bedroom the size of a small flat. The closets have become four bathrooms and the outhouses garages, a housekeeper's flat and a lodge cottage.

The 20th century intrudes more obviously into one wing of the house which has a billiards room and bar with spiral staircase leading to a basement discotheque, built for Mr Faidhi's daughter Nina.

She and her brother have now grown up and the family are moving on from The Old Rectory. They leave behind not just the restored house - one of a number salvaged by Mr Faidhi since he fled Iraq for Britain - but also a history of it, which they commissioned from Richard Millward.

It traces the eminent owners back nearly 500 years. It remains to be seen who will be next on the list. The Old Rectory is being sold by Nick Thomlinson of Knight Frank & Rutley (071-824 8171).

(Photograph omitted)

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