Me And My Home: Quentin Willson

When the motoring presenter spotted all its flamboyant chrome fittings, he just had to buy the classic Thirties house
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The Independent Online

The car expert Quentin Willson lives with his wife and three children in a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom art deco house in Stratford-upon-Avon

The car expert Quentin Willson lives with his wife and three children in a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom art deco house in Stratford-upon-Avon

Six years ago, my wife and I were looking for an unusual house. Something different to the relentless tide of houses with UPVC windows in manicured estates. And not a predictable Georgian rectory, either. So we spent 18 months searching for our slightly bonkers ideal house.

Then, quite by accident, we saw an advert for a Thirties seven-bedroom, five-bathroom house in Stratford. It was owned by a developer who had bought the whole site, which included the house, an orchard and an art deco swimming pool. He had got planning permission to build five footballers' houses in the grounds, and despite his efforts to save the old house, due to overpricing it had received no takers. When we found the property, he was just about to bulldoze it to build more footballers' houses.

We got English Heritage involved, and it put a Grade II-listing order on it that saved it. After protracted negotiations, and all the property professionals telling us not to touch it with a bargepole because of its "undesirable" architectural style, which would be hard to sell, we ignored everyone and bought it.

I remember vividly the first time I walked around the house. It had a fantastic unspoilt Thirties interior with wood-panelling, flamboyant chrome lights and big round-shouldered cast-iron radiators with lovely chrome valves. The master bathroom was covered in chrome-yellow tiles and had a round cast-iron bath with big chrome taps. We thought it beautiful and were overcome with an evangelical zeal to save it.

The property was built in 1934 by a wealthy industrialist. You could never call it chocolate-box pretty - it is made of red brick with a flat roof, a parapet and a tower, and lots of windows. There's not a curve to be seen. It's very like the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, designed by Elisabeth Scott, imposing and a riot of planes and angles.

We spent a good couple of years restoring, reclaiming, varnishing the acres and acres of softwood panelling, getting all the radiators back to their original enamelled bronze, and replacing some of the tiles, to return the house to its former glory. We have a fantastic odd-job man called Derek who comes every Saturday to paint the property, take handles off to be replated, varnish the panelling occasionally, and generally maintain the house.

One of the key features is the sweeping Hollywood- style art deco inlaid-wood staircase, and its 25ft casement window. The sitting room has a built-in art deco fireplace and cupboards, and the dining room has four or five different shades of wood on the walls, all immaculately inlaid, and a stuttering little art deco gas fire. There's even a bell board for all the bells in the different rooms - boys' rooms, girls' rooms, servants' rooms, bathrooms, master bedroom, etc - and they all still work.

Since we moved here, we have added an extension because the house only had one garage as it was made in the Thirties when there weren't many cars about. We had four garages and a games room built, and we used the London Brick Company to get exactly the same type of bricks as the house is built with. We ensured that the builders made up exactly the right shade of mortar.

We also used the company that supplied the original crickle windows and got it to make exactly the same ones, and we got our chippy to panel the games room in exactly the same shade of wood. It became obsessional because, with houses, you're really just passing through, and so with something historical and significant such as this house, you have a duty not to spoil it. Personalising a house is great, but with something like this you have to leave it the way it is because there aren't many left. We're thinking about resurrecting the wonderful art deco swimming pool in the garden over the next couple of years, depending upon planning permission, of course.

Surprisingly, it hasn't actually cost us a huge amount to renovate, no more than 50 grand. It was in reasonable condition when we bought it, just faded, flyblown and a bit neglected. We brought in a builder to put in a new roof, but it has taken more time than money. To make an emotional connection with a house, you have to help it along, and I spent three weeks varnishing acres and acres of the wood panelling, gently taking off the grime and returning it to its former glorious state.

I believe that house design in this country has come to a crashing halt because it is lazy, suburban and predictable. We shouldn't have to live in these little boxes with no personality. I suppose that marks me out as someone who is a little bit of an aesthetic rebel, who wants a house that says more about him than the usual predictable offerings.

Previously, I lived in a Georgian farmhouse in Leicestershire that was very beautiful, but there was something inside me that wanted a modern house set in a wood, with a flat roof, big windows, wooden floors, billowing muslin curtains... the sort of house you see in Miami but don't find very often in the UK.

I really like modernist architecture, but it was an unachievable dream to live in a house of that style unless I moved to the USA or Scandinavia, so this house was the next best thing. It took a long time to find it, and it was a long slog, but it was worth every rung up the ladder to get it looking so beautiful again.

Quentin Willson appears in 'Why Rover Crashed?' on Friday on ITV's 'Tonight with Trevor McDonald', 8pm

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