House of the Month

Longdene, Knebworth

Longdene, Knebworth - Credit: Archant

Long-time home of former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin and currently that of a potter and her PR specialist husband, Longdene makes a fabulous family home. Pat Bramley speaks to all three about the Knebworth property

The drawing room

The drawing room - Credit: Archant

When Alan and Jane Sleator’s estate agent took them to view the six-bedroom house in Knebworth owned by former Tesco chairman and chief executive Lord MacLaurin, the couple had been on their way to see a property they had been wanting to buy for two years.

‘We’d seen the first house when it was on the market in 1999 but missed out because we weren’t in a position to proceed, then when I noticed it was for sale for less than it was two years previously I called the agent and told him I wanted to go and see it, Sleator says. ‘He said “There’s one more house I’d like you to see, we could look at that first”.’ Sleator wasn’t keen, but adds, ‘I thought I should go along with it because he was going to sell us the other one.’

All that changed when they arrived at Longdene. ‘As soon we got there and I stepped over the threshold I knew this was the house for us.’

Everything in the home was immaculate as the owner had just finished a high-quality refurbishment and a redesign of the garden.

Jane Sleator throwing a bowl on the wheel in her studio in the garden

Jane Sleator throwing a bowl on the wheel in her studio in the garden - Credit: photo: Clive Tagg

The previous year, landscape architect Ian Kitson had won the Pinnacle Award for the Finest Dry Stone Wall and Landscaped Garden Design for his work at Longdene.

By the time life peer Baron MacLaurin of Knebworth decided to sell the house in 2001, he had retired from a 38-year career at Tesco and was chairman of both Vodafone and the English and Wales Cricket Board as well as Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire.

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Despite his hectic work schedule and other commitments over the years, he found time to transform the Knebworth property he owned for more than 30 years into a place where he could relax from his responsibilities in the outside world and enjoy the rewards.

‘He told us that ideally he’d like a family with young children to buy it,’ says Sleator. ‘He said it’s the sort of house where you love to hear the sound of young children playing in it. I think that’s why he seemed to like us.’

The master bedroom

The master bedroom - Credit: photo: Clive Tagg

‘It’s true,’ says the peer over the phone, ‘the house is designed for children.’ He adds the reason he put it on the market ‘was because my first wife Ann had died in 1999 and the kids had gone’.

Ian MacLaurin and his young family lived in one of the iconic garden city homes in Welwyn before buying the house in Knebworth. ‘We wanted more space for the children. At that time they were aged about two, four and six , which is why we moved to Longdene,’

It was ‘quite an average four-bedroom house’ when they bought it, but soon set about making changes. ‘The first thing we did was build on the long room, the playroom (now a 30ft family room) and the master suite upstairs (now a double bedroom with a dressing room and five-star bathroom with his-and-her basins, and separate bath and shower). ‘Then we put in the swimming pool with the sauna and a hard tennis court.’

This indoor leisure complex is linked to the ground floor of the property by a covered arcade. The bespoke Scandinavian pool house has a cedar wood ceiling and the 40ft pool is heated by an air-sourced heat pump. There’s a Jacuzzi as well as a sauna, two changing rooms and an integrated sound system. The tennis court is all-weather Astroturf.

‘We then built the triple garage block in the woods,’ says the businessman considered something of a lagend in the grocery trade for turning around Tesco’s fortunes. ‘And the last thing we did in the 1990s was extend the other side of the house. We built another master suite (now a guest suite with dressing room and bathroom) and a very nice drawing room (30ft by 15ft with doors on two sides opening on to a terrace) and completely re-designed the garden.

‘We built a pond with a waterfall – I don’t know if it’s still there – and down the side of the house there was another waterfall where I put my white wine to cool when we had a barbecue.’

After leaving Longdene, he bought ‘a lovely house at Farleigh Hungerford’, a village nine miles from Bath and in 2002 married his second wife Paula whom he’d met on a barge on the Thames.

The Sleators fitted the bill as his successors at the Hertfordshire house. When they arrived in 2001, they, like the MacLaurins, had three children under 10. Naomi was three months old, her sister Tilly was two and their brother Lawrence nine. Sleator owns a successful public relations company and Jane, a former BBC researcher, was a full-time mum. They found themselves in the enviable position of being able to move to a larger house without any of the usual upheaval of having to have the builders in – it already was their dream home.

One of the reasons for choosing the area was schooling. ‘We wanted the children to go to state schools rather than private,’ says their father. ‘You make friends with all kinds of people, it’s a very good preparation for life. There are very good state schools in this area.’

The only part of the property the former Tesco boss hadn’t recently updated was the kitchen. ‘He told us he hadn’t changed it because it worked so well as it was. When we first moved in we thought we might do it but having used it we found it does work well as it is. Why change something which doesn’t need fixing?’

In fact the only major change the Sleators have made was to demolish a dilapidated greenhouse under trees on the far side of the two-acre garden and in its footprint build Jane a studio.

The former researcher for the BBC, Thames Television, Channel 4 and independent TV companies had taken evening classes in pottery when the children were young but as they grew her interest in ceramics grew too; to the point where in 2008 she gained an honours degree in ceramics at the University of Westminster and began exhibiting locally and in top galleries in London.

‘Having my own studio has been wonderful,’ Jane says. ‘Until then I’d made space for my kiln and wheel at the back of the garage but after I graduated I wanted to take my career more seriously. The space was purpose-built for the light and to be surrounded by trees. It’s like a Hansel and Gretel cottage.’

The contrasting textures that define Jane’s stoneware vessels are inspired by the beauty and contrasting textures of the trees and plants in the garden at Longdene.

Now with their children either leading their own lives and with interests that take them away from home more often, the Sleators have reached the point that Lord MacLaurin did.

‘It’s a big house and it needs young children to enjoy a childhood here,’ says Sleator. ‘We’re hoping a family will buy it.’ n

Longdene is on the market through Savills and Bryan Bishop for £2.85m

For details of Jane Sleator’s exhibitions, email

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