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Just Perfect

PUBLISHED: 14:05 30 December 2007 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Halswell House near Goathurst

Halswell House near Goathurst

This January we cross the threshold of Halswell House, which has recently been named as possibly the most perfect house in Britain. Halswell House in Goathurst, near Bridgwater, sits on the edge of the Quantocks, behind pillars of deep-red stone, ...

Halswell House appears in a new book, 'In Search of the Perfect House' by Marcus Binney, heritage expert and president of the conservation organisation SAVE, who has come up with what he considers to be the 500 best buildings in Britain and Ireland. He has avoided most of the famous ancestral piles, instead choosing lesser-known castles, cottages and manors, and has even included holiday homes, provincial semis, London terraces and a converted grandstand. What they all have in common is charm and an extra, indefinable quality.

The place has a complex history. The earliest reference to the house is in 1318 when a licence was granted to a William Halswell for mass to be said in a private chapel there. In the centuries that followed, it was repeatedly altered and extended. In 1536, Nicholas Halswell, lawyer and MP for Bridgwater, began work on a Tudor manor house. Through marriage it descended to the Tynte family, then in the late 17th century Sir Halswell Tynte decided to add the impressive north front, in the fine William and Mary style of the day, to mark his new-found status as a baronet.

The architect who had designed Longleat for the Marquis of Bath was brought in to supervise the building as well as the creation of the exotic ornamental gardens, which included a Dutch canal, later turned into a serpentine ornamental lake designed to reflect the magnificent mansion.

Sir Halswell Tynte's grandson, Sir Charles Kemeys-Tynte, decorated the estate with follies and built Britain's first pyramid as a touching memorial to a young niece. He even erected a Roman temple in honour of his sister-in-law and it is still called Mrs Busby's temple today.

Over the years the family worked hard to revive the long-lost title of a distant cousin, arguing that it should be allowed to descend through the female line, and in 1916 the House of Lords finally agreed that the baronetcy of Wharton could be restored to the family. So it was then that another Charles Kemeys-Tynte became Lord Wharton.

"However, in 1923 the house burnt down in a fire caused by faulty wiring," says Grahame. "It was then rebuilt at great cost to a very high standard, but during the war became in turn a girls' school, a base for American troops and a camp for Italian prisoners of war. After the war, Lord Wharton sold off both contents and house as the old era was over."

Not without a huge scandal though, as Lord Wharton went off with his boyfriend and his sister ran off to South Africa with the butler. A local developer then bought it, sold off most of the land and turned the house into bedsits of dubious repute.

"And that is how I found it," says Grahame, "divided into 21 leaking bedsits, with sitting tenants, dry rot and on English Heritage's 'Buildings at Risk' register. The drains were so bad they were illegal and to complicate things some of the dilapidated outbuildings had been sold as freeholds.

"We didn't apply for any grants even though they are available from English Heritage (EH)," he continues. "It has all been funded by private investment, but EH was very helpful and acted with great speed when we bought the place and gave us all the resources we needed."

Undeterred by its state, Grahame bought the house, the estate cottages and 30 acres of land for £2 million, bought everyone out, mended the drains and began work on a house that had barely seen maintenance since the 1920s. With a team of 40 Polish builders, it has taken him two years, at a cost of £8 million, to return the 35,000 sq ft of mansion to its former glory. It cost only half his predicted budget - thanks to the Poles and the dry rot not being as extensive as was originally feared.

He has spent at least another £1 million on the furniture and fittings, scouring the auction rooms for chandeliers and pictures for the beautifully restored reception rooms, and creating 17 en-suite bedrooms from the decaying bedsits. He has searched for suitable fittings anywhere he can and has unearthed sanitaryware at reclamation yards, beds in job lots from a dealer's chicken shed, as well as furniture from antique shops, in particular John Tredant of Exeter whose store is Tredantiques the Warehouse.

"We used local products wherever possible," says Grahame, "in particular the unique marble only found in Ashburton in Devon."

Only fragments remained of the original kitchen and bathrooms, left in the house after it had been stripped in the 1950s, but this was enough for Grahame and his team to deduce what they had been like. "All the baths had been titanic in both style and quality as Edwardian bathrooms fully came up to today's standards," he says, although the new bathrooms now also come with underfloor heating.

When it came to decorating the Morning Room, all they had was a very old black and white photo so had no idea what colour the original silk wall-covering had been. "So we made a guess for strawberry-red and, amazingly, when we removed the old panelling there was a tiny fragment in exactly the right colour," says Grahame.

All the Persian carpets were bought from a trade fair in Germany, having been imported direct from villages in Iraq and Iran.

Now, among others, there is the Great Hall (the 17th-century ballroom with its arched windows), the Bow Room (named after its 17th-century bay window), which Grahame has decorated in burnt-orange with amber lights, the Reed Bedroom and the Chintz Room with its restored Chinese wallpaper so fashionable 250 years ago. There is also a courtyard, spectacular plasterwork, grand staircases and rich panelling. Not surprising then that Nikolaus Pevsner, famous architectural historian, described it as 'the most important house of its date in the country'.

The main house is finished now and Grahame has turned to work on the stable yard. But he says the house has to pay its way so he hires out the house for weddings and rents out the outbuildings for holiday lets. BY VICTORIA JENKINS. PHOTOS COURTESY OF HALSWELL HOUSE

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