Old English

PUBLISHED: 15:36 21 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Exterior as seen from the rear: Saltford Manor is built of blue lias stone with a pantiled roof

Exterior as seen from the rear: Saltford Manor is built of blue lias stone with a pantiled roof

When 'Country Life' held a survey to find the oldest inhabited property in Britain, Saltford Manor, situated between Bristol and Bath, was deemed to be the winner. Well-known architectural historian Dr John Goodall considered hundreds of suggestio...

The property fulfilled all the criteria as stipulated by Dr Goodall: it preserves physical evidence of its age; has always been a house; has never fallen totally into ruin; and is currently inhabited. Not only that but it dates back to before 1150 and includes a number of features typical of the time.

"Some of these features are stunning, such as the magnificent window in our main bedroom," says James Wynn, the owner. "In fact it helped date our house as it is so like one in Hereford Cathedral, which we know was created in 1148."

Another spectacular feature is the window on the landing, which looks as if it belongs to a 15th-century chapel. Indeed James thinks there may have been a chapel attached to the manor once and that this window was salvaged from its ruins. And yet another feature are the traces of the very old wall paintings in the rooms forming the core of the house. These were not discovered until just before the last war and are arguably the oldest domestic wall paintings in the UK, probably dating from the 1200s.

"The magnificent window in our main bedroom helped date our house as it is so like one in Hereford Cathedral, which was created in 1148"

"All these unique features gave our house its Grade II* Listing," says James.

In the 10 years since James, Anna and their two daughters moved in, James has become so fascinated by his home that he has now written a book, 'The House that Jack Built - The story of the oldest home in Britain'. In another life James was an actor, best known for his role as Mr 'Sooty' Sutcliffe in the long-running children's television series 'Grange Hill'.

According to the 'Domesday Book', there was a timber-built house on the site of Saltford Manor in 1042, during the time of Edward the Confessor, and sure enough there is still a Saxon church next door. But James is as sure as he can be that the core of his house is Norman, much smaller then and probably with animals and grain stored downstairs, living quarters above reached by outside stairs, a thatched roof, and all probably surrounded by wooden outbuildings.

"Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, who came over with William the Conqueror and led the liturgy in French at his coronation, is known to have been the owner of the manor by 1086, the date of the 'Domesday Book'," says James. "Then it passed on to Robert of Gloucester, bastard son of Henry I, and he was probably responsible for building the stone house (made of the local blue lias) in place of the timber one.

"After he died in 1147, his son, William of Gloucester, acquired it and we think it was he who put the amazing 'cathedral' window in. When William's son was dying in 1167, he asked his father if he would found a monastery to say prayers for his soul and that is how nearby Keynsham Abbey was founded, since demolished by Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries."

The Norman part of the house encompasses the entrance hall, the outside stairs (long gone) and the two bedrooms above, including the one with the 'cathedral' window and the other with the wall paintings (now hardly discernible). The Tudor part known as the east wing includes the kitchen (moved from outside to inside in 1500 by William de Rodney), another bedroom and the indoor stone staircase.

"When we first came to see it in 1997 the place was virtually a wreck. You could see the sky when you stood in the kitchen and looked up three floors"

Then in the 17th century a yeoman family called Flower put on the façade with its mullioned windows, which is visible today. They also put in the window seats, the plasterwork above the Tudor fireplace in the lounge, built a fireplace in the main bedroom with the initials AF and LF (for Anna and Lamorock Flower) and the date of 1637 carved in the stone surround, and covered the stone Tudor stairs with an elm staircase. They also put in a loft in the roof for the servants, which by the time the Wynns found it consisted of two bedrooms, a corridor and some water tanks.

That loft is still in use today but the tanks have gone and James has opened it up to the roof timbers; knocking it into one big area where he has his office (plus a shower room) and from where he works as a film and video producer and property developer.

That same Flower family stayed for centuries, approx 324 years, selling in 1946. Since then there have been 11 different families living in the property.

"We have five bedrooms and three bathrooms now," says James. "But when we first came to see it in 1997 the place was virtually a wreck. You could see the sky when you stood in the kitchen and looked up three floors. However, in those days the kitchen was where we now have our utility room; we've moved it to where the dining room was and incorporated both rooms into one. The place was very dark and had been empty for two years so was seriously unloved. In fact it was quite dangerous to walk about upstairs as the floorboards were so rotten."

The family were able to rent a nearby cottage while rescuing the house. It took the better part of 12 months, with James as project manager, to restore the manor to its current condition. "Before buying I had met up with the Listed Buildings Officer whom I found extremely helpful," he says. "I was allowed to strip everything out and dig right down to the earth, through half an inch of cement floor, to lay a properly insulated floor."

James sourced all the materials and employed craftsmen on an individual basis. Some very hard work has been put in to make Saltford Manor the glowingly beautiful home it is today. They had gas central heating installed and James himself designed and had installed a new kitchen of painted units with natural beech worktops. He had the 1,000-year-old beams sandblasted as they were black with the grime of ages and James personally cleaned the elm staircase using wirewool and elbow grease.

"Julia, our youngest, recently told me that it was easier to play made-up games here than anywhere else. She went on to ask if she could live here when she grew up," says James. "She was saying quite simply that she loves this place and she doesn't want to leave. Neither do I; neither did most of the previous residents. Why else would so many of their names be found in the churchyard next door? This house is old and full of years, its fabric soaked in the lives of the people who lived here before us. It has worked its way into my imagination and taken me on a wonderful journey freewheeling down the centuries." BY VICTORIA JENKINS. PHOTOS BY STEVE RUSSELL

'The House that Jack Built - The story of the oldest home in Britain' by James Wynn is published by Aurum Press (tel 0207 284 7160) and priced £14.99.

Latest from the Somerset Life