Here's one we made ourselves

When Nicky and Mariette Branch failed to find the house of their dreams in Hampshire, they decided to build their own. They tell Mary Wilson how their Regency-style farmhouse took shape
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The Independent Online

As you turn into the drive of Wivelrod Farmhouse, just off a gently winding country lane in some of Hampshire's most beautiful countryside, the first thing you see is a very pretty Regency house with roses climbing up its flint and brick walls, partly obscuring a couple of the large and wide sash windows, so typical of that time. But all is not what you see. The house was actually built 12 years ago by the current owners, Nicky and Mariette Branch, who have done such a good job that both inside and out really do look like the genuine article.

"Both my wife and I have roots in Hampshire and we had been looking for ages to find something that we wanted to buy there," says Nicky, who is a venture capitalist. "We found a series of three cottages in the same hamlet of Wivelrod, but were frightened off by the survey and in despair, asked a local agent to look for us. He asked us if we had thought of building a house as he had just been instructed on a burnt-out ruin".

The Branches had heard about the sad old burnt-out property, which had once been a very pretty thatched Elizabethan house. They went to have a look. "All you could see was the central chimney and a pile of twice-baked bricks," says Nicky. "But although everything around the house was charred, we walked to the end of the garden, looked at the view and thought - we can't do better than that in Hampshire. My wife said, 'well, you like drawing things, let's have a go'."

They put a bid in for the land and found a classical architect, Peter Thompson, who was based in Wimborne, Dorset. "I drew lots of sketches of possible houses and ended up with a Regency farmhouse. We were absolutely determined that it should not look like a Charles Church neo-Georgian house. And it was a wonderful opportunity to indulge in all our favourite whims - low, sloping roofs at 22.5 degrees, high ceilings, brick and flint and big Regency windows".

The architect helped them considerably by producing masses of books on the period, although they had quite a few battles over the eventual design of the house. "We wanted the house to look as though it had evolved over the years, so we came up with an imaginary history of the house. A farmer's son had gone to London, married a rich bird and wanted to build a posh house," says Nicky. "Then later on, he added a Victorian lean-to and conservatory and after that an Edwardian coach house to park his Rolls Royce". And this is what they did, building the house in three styles at the same time. "What I like is when people see it for the first time, they often ask. 'when was the conservatory added on?'" says Nicky.

But although the Branches have ended up with the house of their dreams, it was not all plain sailing. "We were completely naive and didn't know what we were letting ourselves in for," recalls Nicky. We were quickly disabused on day one. We came to have a look to find the concrete platform made, but with the doors and walls not in the right place. Luckily the concrete had not set, so we moved bricks around to show where the openings should be."

The biggest problem was that the architect lived so far away and only came up every fortnight, a long enough period for things to go wrong without being noticed. "We must have been terrible clients because we knew exactly what we wanted. For example, we particularly like silvery flints and were horrified when we came down one weekend to find solid dark ones on the walls instead. We sent back legions of boxes of flints".

The Branches spent hours and hours finding exactly the right tiles and bricks, right down to actually choosing the kiln and insisting that they came from a particularly area within it, because the ones from the outside were softer in colour than those on the inside.

The last straw came when they looked at the drawings and realised the house was going to be taller than the one next door, which would have made the proportions all wrong. "We made the builders take off several courses of bricks and that was too much for the architect. He and his quantity surveyor just upped sticks and disappeared," says Nicky.

From then on, things improved. Nicky found a retired builder who lived locally to be project manager and employed a number of superb local craftsmen for the lead work and the carpentry. "I would design a cupboard or an alcove and Danny, the carpenter would interpret it perfectly".

The couple designed the interior of the house themselves, making it look as Regency as possible. "We wanted a large hall, so we have one and lots and lots of cupboard space," says Nicky. The staircase was made by another local carpenter, working only with the scribble the couple had produced to show him what they wanted. And he persuaded them to have square sticks rather than turned banisters, as they were correct for the period. "He did it all by eye and gave us a present of two hand-made acorns for ends of the rails," says Nicky. Even the counter-balance weights for the sash windows had to be hand made as they were so huge.

The drawing room has an original Regency fireplace and windows which run almost to the ground. Because the couple had always wanted a landing with views, they have a large window half way up the staircase, which allows light to pour into the hall.

After 18 laborious months, the house was finished and although it was very gruelling, the Branches say they enjoyed it. "My advice to anyone is first to do it, second to find an architect who is close by and third, to find a project manager you trust and who is on the same wavelength as you," says Nicky.

Wilverod Farmhouse is 10 minutes from Alton, has six bedrooms, five bathrooms, an office, cellar for 3,000 bottles and an acre of land. It is for sale for £1.5m through Jackson-Stops & Staff (01962 844299)

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