Fir Hill: From derelict to desirable
PUBLISHED: 10:25 06 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:31 06 September 2016
The roof had fallen in, the electrics were condemned and the plasterwork was crumbling - but look at Fir Hill now! Emma Caulton visits
When Matthew Hill bought Fir Hill back in 2004 there were pots and pans strategically placed to collect water coming through the roof, which was dripping down into the cellars four floors below. Plaster was crumbling off the walls and the electrics had been condemned. Matthew and his wife, Georgy Evans, lived by candlelight while renovating the property… romantic if not impractical. But one of the things that had attracted them to the house was the fact that it was a wreck and hadn’t been messed around - not this century, nor the last.
“The renovation work took us 10 years on and off,” remembers Matthew. “Our architect said, you either have a big bang and not live here for two years or work in phases. We decided to do the work in four phases which meant we could live here, moving around the house as each phase was completed. The experience of living in the house helped with the restoration.”
Fir Hill is magnificent: a substantial country property in an elevated position above the River Meon valley. The main house is Georgian, built in 1765. The south wing was added in the early Victorian period with an additional floor added in 1879 by the then new owner, Rev Samuel King.
Matthew and Georgy’s underlying philosophy has been to restore the main house as closely as possible to what was there in Georgian times, sometimes remedying post-Georgian renovations. For example, in the hallway Rev King had replaced the original staircase with a Victorian baronial-style one - its installation requiring one of the hall windows to be bricked up. Matthew and Georgy removed this staircase - selling it to Caspar Ingrams, 19th Baron Darcy de Knayth and grandson of the previous owner, Mrs Schreiber (previously Lady Clive), who had fond memories of it from childhood. In its place they installed a Georgian-style oak staircase and reinstated the hall window, restoring the classical symmetry of the Georgian rear elevation.
In the south wing three dark and poky rooms have been knocked together to create one big, kitchen-family room – more in keeping with both the Georgian period and 21st century lifestyles. This welcoming and elegant kitchen features a restored arched window, country kitchen furniture by Plain English and large AGA. “We kept the original AGA and had it refurbished, but it was a hell of a job finding someone who could do it properly,” remarks Matthew.
Other ‘improvements’ by Rev King were more successful. He knocked down the wall between two parlours on the north end of the house to create one large drawing room - what Matthew refers to as ‘The Long Room’, providing an excellent space for entertaining. He also increased the size of the south wing, adding a large sitting room for his daughter Constance, with adjoining bedroom, bathroom and maid’s room, on the first floor. This has become the master bedroom suite. The sitting room with its original fireplace and elaborate blue painted wooden ceiling is now their bedroom, the old bedroom is their dressing room and what were three little rooms have been turned into one large luxurious bathroom.
Throughout, original features have been retained and repaired or, where they have been destroyed, copied. Appropriate fireplaces have been installed where they have been removed, windows have been reinstated, shutters replaced and new oak floors laid. There’s a new roof, new cornicing, new woodwork, replumbing, replastering and the installation of underfloor heating.
Georgy was in charge of design: keeping it simple and letting rooms speak for themselves. They have used paint rather than wallpapers - neither did they want carpets, choosing oak boards instead.
Even the cellars fascinate. These were the servants’ quarters in the Georgian period and included kitchen, brewery, laundry and dairy as well as a gaol (still with its original door) constructed in the 1850s probably when Tom Smith, High Sherriff of Hampshire, was the owner. Here, too, is part of a flint wall thought to be the remains of an earlier farmhouse circa 1700.
Outside restoration work has continued. Grounds of more than five acres include paddock, woodland and lawns punctuated with mature specimen trees - a copper beech, tulip tree and horse chestnut planted in the 1760s.
Brambles and nettles have been cleared and Victorian and Edwardian planting removed to open up views down to the River Meon. The terrace has been re-laid and its ornate staircase, which had collapsed, repaired. The Victorian games lawn, where tennis and croquet would have been played, has been restored. The unusual Georgian walled garden, with angled walls to capture the sun, and only recently restored, is a particular pride and joy. On two levels, there’s a 200 year old vine, as well as peaches, quince and kiwi fruit, apples and pears, and an abundance of vegetables. With the addition of a summerhouse, tables and chairs, music and discreet lighting, it’s also a special setting for partying.
Matthew and Georgy have become so intrigued by Fir Hill’s history that they’ve researched its past and created a website (firhilldroxford.com) chronicling who lived in the house.
“We spent many happy hours in Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, as well as visiting churches and reviewing old wills and conveyancing documents... what started simply as an incomplete list of previous owners has become a detective story with multiple leads.”
A website measuringworth.com provided a means of assessing previous owners’ wealth – showing some of them to have been the Phillip Greens of their day. Since the website went live, they have been contacted by people with additional information, and Matthew and Georgy hope people will continue to share their stories.
Prominent owners include Admiral Charles Powell Hamilton, first cousin of Lady Emma Hamilton’s husband and close friend of Admiral Lord Nelson. Nelson certainly visited Fir Hill - a letter from 1830, written by another guest who wanted to see Nelson’s bedroom at Fir Hill, indicates that he slept not in one of the impressive bow windowed bedrooms, but in the smallest one, which was probably panelled and chosen by Nelson as it reminded him of being onboard ship.
Now Matthew and Georgy are themselves an essential part of Fir Hill’s history. Their renovation work has remained true to the spirit of the house while making it a comfortable home. “It’s a lovely house, with a lovely feeling, but too big for the two of us now.”
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