Nostalgia meets good design

Not all modern conversions are unimaginative and box-like. Penny Jackson visits two courtyard developments that have combined the architectural interest of the past with 21st-century innovation to produce individual and exciting homes
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The Independent Online

There is something romantic about the idea of a courtyard. In towns it suggests a hidden retreat surrounded by walls and filled with flowers, plants and perhaps water. In the English countryside it was more likely to have been created to service the needs of the manor house. But even though its occupants were originally coachmen, horses and ground staff, there was no stinting on the design and craftsmanship and where the buildings have survived they are a gift to an imaginative developer.

Just such a coach-house block was seized on with relish by Monogram Investments when Snowdenham Hall in Surrey became the focus of refurbishment and development. The former coach house buildings, recently used as a religious retreat, have been transformed into four spacious homes around a central courtyard.

This is dominated by the Clock House with its ornately carved timbers and prominent clock face. Bill Treves, a partner with Monogram, says: "I was immediately struck by the quality of the workmanship with its timber arches and attention to detail. Industrialists would come to the country and take pride in building up model courtyards for their houses - they wanted to show local farmers how it could be done."

In order not to squander the architectural interest bequeathed by its 19th-century designer, the living space bucks the usual form and takes up the entire first-floor, leaving the bedrooms on the ground floor. The open-plan reception is 44ft long, with a kitchen and reception tucked in at each end.

In this and in one other house the first floor is linked to the garden by way of a wooden bridge. Otherwise the fall of the land would have found the owner climbing a huge flight of stairs to reach the garden, explains Treves. It is these ingenious touches that make The Courtyard something of a model development for the 21st century. Each house is different, with decking, terraces and balconies providing views over their own gardens and the 27 acres of parkland beyond.

Snowdenham Hall Estate was built for the grandson of John Courage, founder of the brewing dynasty. The grounds have a notable collection of many mature, rare trees planted at the beginning of the 20th century.

The house itself is being divided and refurbished by Michael Wilson, who specialises in these kind of projects. A few years ago, he and Bill Treves were both involved in the redevelopment of Burton Park in Sussex where Wilson restored the main house, while Treves was responsible for a courtyard scheme. At that time, the concept of restoring a country house while securing its future and the integrity of its grounds was relatively new. At Burton Park the properties were leasehold with a management company to deal with their shared facilities. "I learned the lesson that the British do indeed regard their home as a castle and so we steered away from that at Snowdenham by selling the houses freehold and giving everyone their own gardens. That way you avoid anyone setting themselves up as lord and lady of the manor," says Treves.

He also has to contend with those people who love the idea of living in the countryside as long as it is sanitized. "I really have had someone complaining about the noise made by the cows."

At The Courtyard, residents will have a lovely spot in the Surrey Hills, as well as being in a prime commuter area. The village of Bramley is one mile away and Guildford three miles. The prices reflect the location and start at £950,000. All the houses will be fully kitted out with oak floors. Exposed beams have been restored and natural stone is used on paths and terraces. In the central courtyard, the only communal area requiring maintenance, tiles from the stables have been set in a simple pattern and planted with trees and beds.

In another beautiful area of the country, Sibford Manor, in the village of Sibford Ferris, Oxfordshire, is a development that also combines new and old buildings. Refurbished and new homes have also been built around a pretty central courtyard. In the Grade II-listed manor house the interior has been refashioned into five apartments, retaining all their original features which has involved using reclaimed stone to match the existing stonework. As well as four, two-bedroom terraced cottages there are also ten new houses in the grounds ranging in size from two to five bedrooms. The remaining homes for sale start from £265,000.

The Courtyard is for sale at FPDSavills, 020-7499 8644. Selling agents for Sibford Manor are Knight Frank on 01789 269853