Thursday, 16 September 2021

Go with the flow at this picturesque mill house

Converted water mills can make quirky and versatile family homes, says LUCY BOON, who has discovered

Converted water mills can make quirky and versatile family homes, says LUCY BOON, who has discovered a ‘wheely’ good example upstream from Henley

STANDARD Property has found a classic example of a converted former mill, offering the three Rs of romance, rest and rarity.

Nestled behind an ancient toll bridge (“It’s 60p to cross, love”) in an olde worlde Oxfordshire village, The Mill is a rather lovely ancient mill that once produced flour for a local biscuit manufacturer.

Today, it may no longer produce flour, but its historic machinery and waterwheel are reminders of its not-too-distant past.

Set over four floors, from waterwheel to attic, this six-bedroom home is simply flooded with history (pun intended).

“The mill was recorded in the Domesday Book,” says Mrs Suzy Rowley, who has lived in The Mill for the past 18 years with husband Philip and their two (now grown up and flown the coop) daughters. “The current mill is thought to have produced flour for the village right up till the end of the Second World War.”

The house is a characterful hotch-potch of wood, bricks and mortar — the entrance of which is through heavy oak doors into a vast, double-height hallway.

(When Standard Property visited one fine spring day, she could swear she almost heard the long-gone 11th-century mill stones grinding.)

With its heavy, gnarled beams and work-worn pulley rings, the hall somewhat sets the tone for the rest of the house.

Starting from the bottom, then, the lower ground floor with large workshop, garage and utility room is easily accessed both from within the house and from the outside.

Standard Property thinks this would work very well as an artist’s studio, perhaps also selling cream teas or something quirky for locals and tourists alike.

Underneath the house are two large mill wheels, and recently installed sluice gates, which control the flow of the mill race. The gearing for the wheels still exists, and can be found in the workshop. There is also a wine cellar on this level, complete with a built-in oak tasting table that seats eight people.

Moving up to the first floor, the sitting room, which extends into the “garden room” has an open fireplace on one side, and a decked terrace on the other.

Here, stairs lead down to the garden below — a lush lawn-covered “island” with plenty of privacy-giving trees and shrubs.

Plus there’s the pretty water-fountain terrace, pontoon/mill pond area, leafy paths to an access-restricted weir (connecting to Pangbourne on the opposite bank) and more.

“The garden room was added around 20 years ago,” adds Suzy. “It allows a wonderful view of the garden and the river beyond.

“But my favourite rooms in the house have to be the kitchen and dining room, on the other side of the house.”

These rooms, plus adjoining snug, remind you that The Mill is not a museum — it’s also a contemporary family home.

The Shaker-style kitchen is large enough for a dining table and chairs, and was hand-made by a local firm. “It’s a fantastic place to cook,” says Suzy.

Standard Property can just imagine using the granite worktops, American-style fridge freezer and beautiful professional chef’s range oven while enjoying some tunes through the integrated ceiling speakers.

The adjacent dining room is set up for entertaining and, as with the kitchen, this has a decent view of the picturesque mill pond at the front of the house.

“I’ve spent many an afternoon baking in the kitchen while keeping an eye on that pond,” says Suzy. “The sound of water is like the heartbeat of the house. I hear it the minute I open the window or the front door. It’s very constant, very reassuring.”

The rest of the family feel the same way, she says. “When they were young, my daughters would splash around out in that mill pond in their kayaks. The Environment Agency told us this was the cleanest part of the Thames — they come to do regular checks here — plus the water is so still, it’s perfectly safe for swimming.”

A love of living with the sight and sound of H2O is perhaps a reminder of our nation’s island heritage.

However, it seems that the majority of mill house owners have chosen their home for the reason that they do not wish to be cut off from the outside world.

“We loved this house from the moment we first spotted it, but we chose it because we wanted somewhere in the midst of everything — close to the butchers, bakers, candlestick makers!”

The small town of Pangbourne on the opposite bank of the Thames has a range of amenities including banks, supermarkets and “pretty much everything you need”. The Rowleys say it takes them just five minutes on foot to the nearest shop

In contrast, Whitchurch, on the Oxfordshire bank and the location of The Mill, is an olde worlde throwback with a real village feel.

Historically, watermills were built at an important point in the river, and naturally became the centre of a village.

Suzy adds: “That’s another reason we were attracted to it. It’s right in the heart of everything.”

However, she’s keen to point out that the house itself is very secluded, quiet and private.

“It’s ideal because of this — you’re not overlooked and you really only hear the sounds of the river,” she says.

“Yet the village is certainly not dead. Whitchurch is vibrant. You get a half-half mix of people whose families have lived here for generations, mixed with those from big cities and different backgrounds and cultures.

“And all of them want the same thing — friendly pubs within staggering distance, a sprinkling of decent local shops and some culture and recreation.”

Nick Warner, a director at Savills, which is marketing the property, says: “People love the uniqueness of watermills, and the lure of being by the water without the drawbacks of being in the middle of nowhere. Watermill living is a solution that works well for all sorts of buyers.”

As if to highlight this point further, Suzy says: “We were New Yorkers before this. We moved from Manhattan having picked The Mill out of a newspaper ad while sitting in a café one day.

“We are very much city people. But when the girls were two years old we wanted to head back home — somewhere very commutable. The large airy, beamed rooms of The Mill reminded us of our New York loft.”

Those needing to commute to London Paddington will still be able to do so from The Mill, and all within the hour.

The Rowleys say it is only a six-minute walk to the train station at Pangbourne, with a “commute” through your own garden, across the (private) weir and up along the tow path on the opposite bank of the Thames. “It’s not a bad journey for those who need to work in the big smoke!” says Suzy.

Local canoe club the Dolphin Adventure Centre is also a short trek across the toll bridge to the other side of the river, and Suzy says she always found this to be a great resource when needing childcare during the school holidays.

Anyone interested in this type of property will naturally ask: “What about ‘trouble at mill’?”

Living by the River Thames must surely conjure up risk of flooding, after all. This is said to be the question most frequently asked by potential purchasers of converted watermills.

“But,” says Nick Warner, “a well-maintained mill house should never flood.”

Suzy adds her own experience to the mix. “The huge advantage of living in an old watermill is that the whole building has been designed with a view to water going underneath it and out the other side. I can honestly say the house has never flooded in 18 years, despite three serious floods in that time covering most of the garden. We’ve never had any problem getting insurance, either. But don’t take our word for it — you can always contact the local water company and Environment Agency and ask them.”

In fact, an abundant amount of water can surely be harnessed for something beneficial with a property of this kind?

“We understand that the mill generated electricity for the neighbourhood until 1948,” said Nick at Savills. Perhaps it’s time it did so again?

The principal bedrooms are on the other side of the living accommodation, and the master bedroom in particular has a special outlook at the back of the property.

“There’s a very romantic ‘Monet view’ of a pretty footbridge/ willows/walnut tree over the ‘head race’ to the rear of the house,” says Suzy.

On this floor are also to be found a further four generous bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, all of which are separated neatly from the main accommodation.

Another staircase leads up to the second floor, where the standout feature is an impressive studio/cinema suite with a vaulted ceiling and exposed beams.

“Ah, yes, that’s what Philip uses to justify his dads’ band,” says Suzy on spotting an electric guitar leaning against the doorpost. “He and his pals make such a racket up here sometimes!”

(There is also a WC and office on this floor, should the band need a manager!)

Finally at the top of the house, the third floor boasts a bedroom and bathroom and is perfect for hiding away in. “I used to take refuge in here when the family was running riot downstairs!” laughs Suzy. “It may explain why I’m looking forward to downsizing...”

But 18 years at the same location, seeing your family grow up there and leave home, must make it hard to leave all those memories behind?

“Of course!” says Suzy. “It has really been a special time, living here. I can’t imagine being happier anywhere else in the world.

“Mostly, we will miss the uniqueness of the property — all its quirks, nooks and crannies, and of course that river access.”

To the right of the garden is a path to the aforementioned restricted weir.

“Only the lock keeper, ourselves and our direct neighbours are allowed up here,” says Suzy. “I’ve always liked that.”

The Mill, Whitchurch. Guide price: offers in excess of £3million. Agency: Savills on (01491) 843000. Also for sale with Strutt & Parker.

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