Period Property of the Month - April 2011
A secret for sharing, Robert Dawson Scott discovers an enchanting house in the Scotttish Lowlands which has been lovingly restored.
A secret for sharing
Pity the poor tourist officer in the Scottish Borders. Blessed with some of the loveliest scenery in the British Isles, with romantic ruins, bloody history and stately homes aplenty, he or she can only stand and watch as most of the world flies over or drives past on the way to Scotland's big cities or to the Highlands further north. Duns, a pretty little town about 15 miles inland from Berwick-upon-Tweed, home to the great racing driver Jim Clark and a stone's throw from the fabulously opulent Edwardian mansion Manderston, is one of the many treasures they miss. But even Duns folk could miss the treat on their own doorstep that is Wellfield House.
Hidden behind high walls and even higher trees on the northern edge of the town, and surrounded by three and half acres of formal gardens, Wellfield is one of those properties whose happy proportions belong to good architecture of any age rather than a particular period. And indeed the exact origins of the house are intriguingly uncertain. The present owners, Jim and Mary Cook, have title deeds to the land that date back to the early 18th century. Historic Scotland thinks the present B listed building dates back to the early 19th century. Everyone agrees, and a very early photograph in the oakpanelled hall confirms, that it enjoyed a major makeover early in the 20th century, in 1903 to be precise.
The architect then, a certain James Pearson Alison from Hawick, added matching bowfronted upper storeys with Venetian windows to the wings, making the house symmetrical not just left to right but front to back. Relatively plain from the outside, with just a pair of plain Doric pillars at the entrance, its true colours are revealed as you pass though the semi-glazed inner front door. The light flooding through the south facing windows opposite you makes the spacious hall feel light and airy for all the acreage of oak panelling.
There are glimpses of the dining room, drawing room and sitting room, opening off.
The elaborate Adam-style plasterwork to the ceilings and friezes in those main public rooms may have been part of the refurbishment or may be older. Much of the other detailing has the stamp of prosperous Edwardians all over it. There are handsome fireplaces with copper surrounds and scrolling decorations; there is some impressive wood carving, such as the exuberant fruit bowls on the staircase newel posts inspired, like the ceilings, by another even older master, the great Grinling Gibbons.
When they took over the house in 2003, it was, as the Cooks put it, "looking tired." With seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms it had for a while done time as a guest house. The Cooks have been putting their skill, knowledge, and the not inconsiderable bankroll that Jim's successful career in the whisky business has bequeathed him, to putting the house back to something like the splendour it doubtless once enjoyed.
So doors were sent off to be stripped back to the wood (an exercise which led the Cooks to discover no fewer than six doors which had been removed altogether and stored in a cellar). Most of the walls are now covered in those unmistakable dusky Farrow & Ball colours. Repairs, most of them barely visible thanks to the skills of local craftsmen such as plasterer, Scott McKenzie and joiner Murray Henderson, were carried out. Ironwork was reinstated on the exterior terrace by a blacksmith from Wooler in Northumberland. Floors on the ground floor were completely recovered in green and white glazed marble tiles. The billiard room was repanelled by Henderson's team in its entirety – no small job in oak where there are curved surfaces to be fitted.
Best of all, from the Cooks' point of view, they were able to deploy the substantial collection of furniture they had acquired over many years of visiting sale rooms from Perth to Newcastle. Collecting has become their passion, mostly Georgian but with occasional forays into other periods for items they liked. One bedroom now sports an entire Edwardian matching set of twin beds and bedside tables, a wardrobe and a dressing table. They don't claim special expertise but like to think they have developed a good eye and rely on Miller's Guides and Judith Miller's popular Period Details Sourcebook (Mitchell Beazley, 1999) to keep them straight. And Mary has developed some furniture restoration skills of her own, mastering the dark arts of the French polisher. As a result, when the removals people came to empty their previous home near Lanark, where they had raised their two daughters, they were astonished to discover that they were going to need three pantechnicons to get everything in, as the Cooks produced more and more items from garages, storerooms and even the occasional tolerant neighbour. Everywhere you look there are interesting pieces but Mary has a soft spot for the little walnut kidney table in the hall which she brought back to life herself.
You won't find many concessions to antiquity in the plumbing although you will discover artfully selected chairs, tables and other items in the bathrooms to soften the modern edges. Similarly in the big downstairs kitchen, extra hollow wooden beams to the ceiling conceal all the services. The dumb waiter, essential for connecting the kitchen to the formal dining room a floor above, now runs off a reconditioned washing machine motor.
Nor have the refurbishments been confined to the interiors. Jim has put a handsome set of stone steps, using stone from the same quarry that provided for the original house. It now leads down to a flat lawn which was once a tennis court. Even the little wooden pavilion in the garden which was used as a kind of changing room, is listed. Beyond that, the land drops away slightly to give open views south to the Cheviot Hills. Understandably, the Cooks are not keen on allowing the outside world to impinge on their charming slice of heaven, and with their careful tree planting, Wellfield House should remain just their little secret.