The legacy of Bromley Hall
- Credit: Archant
A former farmhouse with its roots in the 16th century became a canvas for the imaginations of a young couple looking to create a country idyll. Fifty years, on Pat Bramley meets the pair and their creation
Julian and Edwina Robarts bought Bromley Hall in 1963. With six bedrooms, three bathrooms, four reception rooms and grounds of just over four and three-quarter acres, it was a pretty big step up for a young couple who’d not long had a baby.
Edwina agrees. ‘I was married at 19, I had our first child when I was 20 and we moved here when I was 21.’
They wanted to move out of London to Hertfordshire so the baby could grow up in the country. ‘I came to look at the house on my own,’ she remembers. ‘As soon as I got here I just knew the house was right for us. It had such a friendly welcoming atmosphere. I went back and told Julian how lovely it was. He went to see it and fortunately he liked it too.’
They’ve never regretted buying the gable-fronted timber-framed Grade II listed house that dates from the 16th century.
The hall is close to a hamlet called Wellpond Green halfway between the villages of Standon and Much Hadham and the towns of Bishop’s Stortford and Ware.
‘The commute to London is easy,’ Julian says. ‘I did it for 40 years. When we first moved here I was working in the City and it took me an hour door-to-door.’
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Thirty five years of his banking career were spent with Coutts. By the time he retired, he’d been managing director for six years and before that deputy MD for 10, having risen through the ranks at the bank which counts the Queen among its customers. Meanwhile Edwina, with two more children, was concentrating on the home and garden.
The house was originally more modest, but more or less doubled in size when it was extended radically in the 1930s. ‘I’m pretty sure the extensions were added by a solicitor who lived here with his family for about 30 years,’ Julian explains. ‘Part of my retirement project was to research the history of the house. I went to County Hall and spoke to the archivists in the Record Office. They were immensely helpful.
‘It dawned on me quite quickly that the original name of the house was probably Bromley Hall Farmhouse. It had been the farmhouse to the big house opposite. That was the original Bromley Hall. It burnt down about 1903. When it was rebuilt it was in two parts; one was New Hall and the other was Easter Hall. At some point after that I imagine locals probably wanted to resurrect the name Bromley Hall, so they dropped the farmhouse part of ours.’
Julian says it’s never a surprise for him to open the front door and find members of the original farming family hoping to get a glimpse inside the house. ‘The farmer lived here for years, running up to about 1926. He is buried less than a mile away.’
Despite the additional rooms added when further gables were built to extend the original cottage structure 80 years ago, members of the farmer’s clan were able to identify the layout as it would have originally been when it was a farmhouse. ‘One of them said “Oh, I was born in this room”.’
The Robarts haven’t made any radical structural alterations during their 50-year tenure. ‘Virtually every room has two doors,’ says Edwina. ‘The circulation of the layout works very well. All we’ve done is combine three rooms and a passage when we fitted the new kitchen. We had to re-do the kitchen. We did it after a small fire, a chip pan fire.’ Thinking back to her skills in the kitchen as a young mum, she comes up with ‘inadequate’ as the right word to describe it – ‘oh, I wouldn’t say that,’ muses her husband.
The kitchen they put in 40 years ago with adjoining breakfast room and utility room was a success. They’ve never wanted to alter it. Edwina explains: ‘My cousin is an interior designer. He designed it and a builder from Much Hadham did the work. I said “I want an Aga”. My cousin said “You don’t want one of those, they’re awful, they dry food out.” I think his mother wasn’t a very good cook.’
The difference of opinion over choice of cooker was soon sorted. Edwina wouldn’t budge. ‘In the end I was allowed an Aga,’ she says. ‘It’s a two-oven model. I absolutely love it. I’ve always had an electric oven as well for the summer months. That gives me four ovens. I also have two fridges. When the children were young we always had a houseful. I couldn’t have survived without two fridges.’
They’ve also refitted the bathrooms. Says Edwina, ‘I kept the white enamelled bath in our en-suite because it’s a huge bath – a statement bath. When I was refitting the en-suite to the sixth bedroom, I measured ours and tried to get another like it.’
Many of the features in the home, including the decorative pargetting, mullioned windows and the tall red brick chimneys are original.
Edwina says, ‘The beams in the hall and the stone flags on the floor are original. They blend well with the parquet floor. Everyone says “Oh what a lovely floor” when they come the first time. It gets polished once in a while.
‘I think the builder in the 30s moved the main staircase. He may have got the panelling in the hall from another old house. The mirror (at the end of the hall) was there when we came. It’s been in other places since we’ve been here but it’s in the hall now. It reflects the light.’
Ground-floor rooms in the domestic quarters include a boot room with a hatch to the circular wine cellar. As well as three or four storerooms of various sizes, there is also a double kennel for the Robarts’ two Labradors, 11-year-old Crow and two-year-old Toffee.
Five of the first-floor bedrooms are reached via the main staircase. The sixth bedroom with en-suite bathroom has its own staircase. There’s also an attic room.
Undoubtedly the task which has given Edwina most satisfaction is the extraordinary transformation of what had been four and three-quarter acres of land suffering from neglect into an awesomely beautiful garden. Did she employ a professional to do the landscaping? ‘No, it was all me,’ she says.
Other than building a swimming pool, there’s still much untapped potential in the outbuildings, particularly in the barn and granary as well as the possibility to reconfigure some of the rooms in the house and create an annexe.
Julian and Edwina haven’t needed extra accommodation and their passion has always been the garden. ‘There are demarcation lines,’ states Edwina. ‘Julian does the lawns and vegetable garden, I do the beds and the rough grass.’
‘I’m not allowed to interfere but she does,’ comments the former MD of one of the best-known banks in the world. He doesn’t sound too put out.
Thanks to Julian’s husbandry of the kitchen garden and orchard, the couple are self-sufficient for at least four months of the year.
What Edwina has achieved is an artistic vision. She says it was in a way a good thing the garden had been let go because it presented her with a blank canvas and she learnt as she went along.
She explains, ‘There was some structure you could just about detect, which I tried to redevelop. Old maps showed that the paddock was once an orchard. I planted more fruit trees to augment the few old apple trees and a pear tree that had survived. I planted nut trees too but Julian says they’re no good because the squirrels get the nuts.’
Edwina also established a small arboretum – ‘I don’t think I’d describe it as that quite,’ she laughs – and mixed borders to provide year-round colour on a par with anything you’d find in the gardens of much grander houses.
Certainly the garden will be the couple’s legacy to future owners to enjoy and hopefully nurture and develop because after half a century they’ve decided to move on. ‘We no longer need so much space,’ Edwina says.
They are planning to buy somewhere smaller with less land, so Bromley Hall is for sale through Savills in Bishop’s Stortford for £2m.