James Strangeways and his house on the River Rother
- Credit: JIm Holden
James Strangeways is a traveller at heart, with a love for all things nautical. He has now built a house on the banks of the River Rother, but as Alice Cooke found out, it’s not a far cry from his boat-loving ways (Photos by Jim Holden)
When you’re building a house it always helps to have a plot of land and someone who knows what they’re doing close at hand. Lucky James Strangeways had both – his brother Christopher and he inherited farmland on the banks of the River Rother near Rye, and his nephew Ben Hebblethwaite just happens to be an architect.
A lifelong itchy-footed traveller, James says that he now finally feels he has somewhere to settle – but as houses go, there’s more than a touch of the boat about this one – oh, and it’s built right in the middle of a flood plain. How did they do it? Well, so impressive is the concept that it featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs last September.
The house is suspended above the ground as it’s built on stilts – and if (or more likely when) the place ends up flooded, it really will look like it’s floating. The unique property is designed by Ben Hebblethwaite and his firm Godsmark Architecture, and is (not unlike a boat) made almost entirely of wood. It has a number of special features including an upside down roof, which drains off into a rooftop garden. There are plenty of green elements including solar panels, a woodburner and a biomass heating system, and lots of balconies that make it the perfect vantage point from which to admire the surrounding wildlife and wetlands.
“I’ve lived in this neck of the woods since I was about 18,” says James of his decision to build here. “Luckily there was a dilapidated holiday cottage here, so we were able to get planning for this. The idea’s brilliant, and quite topical at the moment with all the flooding in Cumbria, but the difference here is that there are no barriers so the flooding can just spread across the plain and not get too high, so we’ll be fine!”
The house took two and a half years from the start of planning to completion, and has been habitable since June last year.
James says that Grand Designs’ producers came to see him around 15 or 20 times, with the presenter Kevin McCloud there on six or seven occasions. “It made the whole process much more fun!” says James, “and it gave us a focus, as we had to make sure that we got on with it. It was good for local suppliers too, such as the Rye Pottery (ryepottery.co.uk), who got some much-deserved air time.”
“The attraction of this place was always the river,” he says. “I am a boater through and through, but I love it here. I have a barge down in Wiltshire near Devizes, and before this house, that’s the closest I’ve come to being settled. I am doing the barge up at the moment actually, so if anyone’s interested in coming in on that with me, give me a call. I could do with an enthusiastic business partner with a passion for boats!”
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As well as messing about in boats, James used to manufacture pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, and has degrees in Geography, French and History. “I’m hoping to use that last one when I take my boat to France – that’s the dream!”
“The truth is,” says James, “I don’t much care for houses, I’d rather be on a boat any day, but I am beginning to appreciate being on dry land. And this place has a real connection to the water, so it’s more like a boat house really – you can take a boat all the way down to Bodiam from here, which is 12 miles of cruising. That’s amazing in the summer.”
When the house was being built, the location had an unexpected advantage. “Because there’s no-one nearby, we could work right through the night without disturbing anyone. That’s the joy of the house in general really – it’s my own little place by the water.”
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