Property of the month: At one with history

A house with an intriguing history has been home to Berkhamsted's great and good for centuries. Pat Bramley talks to its most recent owners and looks back at its illustrious residents...

IN August 1989 when chartered accountant Peter Lea and his wife Christine bought the house described by architectural historian Nicolaus Pevsner as the best in Berkhamsted it was only the second time in 500 years it had been for sale on the open market.

Before the move to Hertfordshire the Leas had been living in a Victorian cottage in Surrey but Berkhamsted had been a favourite port of call when they came over at weekends to stay on their narrow boat moored nearby on the Grand Union Canal at Cowroast.

Christine remembers, ‘We’d been looking for a larger house for some time but we wanted character and there just wasn’t anything on the market until we spotted Dean Incent’s house advertised on the web. We rang the agent and came to see it and as soon as we saw these wonderful rooms we knew it was right. It’s a very special house. Not intimidating at all. It has played such an important part in the town’s history.’

The first owner of the house at 129 High Street was Dean John Incent’s father, Robert. He made a start on the building in the early 1480s.

Robert was a man of some standing in the town and he built a house befitting his status but it was his son who won wider fame and respect and the family seat is now a local landmark because it was John’s home, not his father’s.

John Incent grew up to become chaplain to Henry VIII and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and as such founded Berkhamsted’s famous public school, making over his home to the trustees as part of an endowment.

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No-one is quite sure exactly where he was born. It could have been at Berkhamsted Castle but most bets are on the family’s timbered black and white medieval house which now has a full length portrait of the good dean on a painted sign by the front door with crossed swords on the reverse side and a blue plaque on the wall explaining the building’s historical associations.

No 129 High Street is one of the few privately owned homes in England with a Grade II* listing. Its previous Grade II listing went up a notch with discovery in the 1970s of 400-year-old wall paintings in the drawing room, the attic, main staircase and first floor landing.

All this is meat and drink to the present owners.

For the past 22 years Christine has lived her dream. People and buildings with a place in history have always been her forte. During her career, she worked for eight years for the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London before becoming a freelance PR for City of London livery companies and the crafts charity of the Royal Warrant Holders Association.

During their tenure as custodians of Berkhamsted’s best known house, the present owners have commissioned a leading specialist in ancient wall paintings, Ann Ballantyne, to conserve the early examples of home d�cor for future generations. They also removed a false floor in the hall to reveal the original medieval brick floor laid for Robert Incent; they’ve stripped off 20th century white paint and opened up the main fireplace in the drawing room to uncover centuries of older versions stacked up behind; they’ve tackled restoration work in the attic; re-roofed and damp-proofed a stable block – more recently used as a bakehouse – belonging to the property and Christine has created a beautiful cottage garden in the walled courtyard behind the house – ‘I’d never done any gardening before. I’ve learnt as I’ve gone along.’

But perhaps, of most lasting importance, she has also written the first comprehensive history of the house, including who has lived there over the centuries and the changes they’ve made.

She aims to pass on her chronicle of Dean Incent’s House to the new owners when they arrive sometime this summer because she and Peter have decided to downsize. Although they won’t be losing contact with their many friends in Berkhamsted because they’ll still be mooring their boat on the canal, they’re buying a converted stable in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

In the meantime, and for only the third time in its 500-year history, the house has been for sale on the open market – this time through the local office of Fine & Country.

The house has four double bedrooms, two bathrooms, library, drawing room, dining room, sitting room, cellar and, if more space was needed, the bakehouse at the bottom of the garden. The guide price was �895,000. A sale was agreed within 48 hours.

Who were the Incents?

• Robert, John’s father, was Secretary to the Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III who lived at Berkhamsted Castle.

• John studied civil law at Cambridge and achieved a doctorate the year he was ordained. His star was in the ascendancy from the start. Before long he was a chum of Cardinal Wolsey and when the king fell out with Wolsey he became a supporter of Thomas Cromwell. Cleverly he managed to go with the flow and keep his head, unlike his friends.

• In 1523, as president of the brotherhood of St John the Baptist in Berkhamsted, John asked the brothers to use the money they had set aside for a hospital to build a school but it wasn’t until 1541 that the king gave him a licence and building actually started.

• Dean Incent’s house remained in the ownership of the school – although it frequently changed hands on a lease – until 1981 when it was sold to an engineer and his wife after it had been advertised in the local paper for �75,000.

Who else has lived here?

The school rented out their benefactor’s house to a series of tenants. One was Mr Stannynaught, a solicitor who in 1742 drew up a lengthy statement of charges against the headmaster which resulted in the school being plunged into the Court of Chancery from which it did not emerge until 1841.

Another tenant was father-of-eight Thomas Holloway who was the local registrar and worked from home.

Next incumbent was a well known local photographer James Newman who displayed his pictures in a showcase outside the house and over the following 40 years recorded ‘almost every event in town and country’.

In 1909 the lease was auctioned and it was purchased by the auctioneer. One condition of the sale was that the house couldn’t be used ‘for the sale of intoxicating liquor or as a slaughterhouse, a butchers, fishmonger’s shop, or as a manufactory or any noisome noisy or offensive trade, business or employment’.

In 1927 the Stocker family with their five children moved in and were there for ten years. Eustace Stocker was a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s department at the War Office.

After the Stockers left, the house became The Oasis restaurant run by Peter and Annise Brown. They converted the stables at the bottom of the garden into a bake house for bread and cakes.

Evelyn and Frederick Ford took over the restaurant in 1963 and changed the name to Dean Incent’s Restaurant. Lunches ranged from a shilling to five shillings and ninepence. When the lease expired in 1970, the restaurant moved to The Rex cinema.

English teacher David Pearce and his wife Elizabeth and their four children were the next to live in the house. It had been empty a year and had been invaded by rats. The house was also used as an overflow dormitory for boys from the school.

Another English master David Sherratt – who later became town mayor – followed the Pearces and discovered the wall paintings which led to the house gaining a star to add to its existing Grade II listing and also painted the hanging sign outside the house.

Peter and Jean Hurlstone were the first owners without a lease. They arrived after the house had been empty a year and very much the worse for wear. Fortunately Peter was an engineer and able to tackle the structural defects.

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