The Manor House, Bracondale
|The front of the house after repair works.|
We moved into the Manor House, Bracondale in Norwich in September 2015 and scaffolding went up two weeks later. It is a small Jacobean house of red brick with eight curved gables and with an interior retaining much of the original detail, but alterations and restorations by successive owners had resulted in a fragile quality which we needed to enhance and retain.
The challenge has been to do this within our budget, and to make it watertight and comfortable. The house was and is thrilling, but its condition when we bought it was daunting and must have put off many potential buyers. I had visited it three times before we moved in. On my initial visit I was clear that the house needed extensive work which we could not manage or afford. But after being persuaded to return by my family, I drew up a list of essential work with estimates of costs, which showed that we might be able to afford the repairs, so made an offer which was accepted. During my third visit I went around the house with the three best builders I knew in Norfolk and with a slightly more detailed schedule. The lowest price was from WS Lusher & Son (no longer trading) the contractor we appointed.
The house, listed Grade II*, stands just outside the city walls. An excellent documentary history was compiled in the 1980s by Geoffrey Kelly, but the architectural history is slight. The house was built before 1632 by Anne Kempe, the widow of a Norwich merchant. It adjoined the tithe barn of the parish church in the village of Lakenham and the site was referred to as the Rectory Estate: it was never technically a manor house. The land itself belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Norwich. Anne Kempe’s house was probably a rectangular building with two ‘Dutch’ gables.
Kempe died in 1650 and two years later the land was leased to Augustine Reve. The Reves were a significant Norfolk family, Augustine having inherited money from his brother, who had been a justice of the Common Pleas. He and his wife Elizabeth probably extended the upper floor, added a porch and most of the curved gables and pediments. Their initials and the date of 1656 are on two lead hopper heads on the porch.
The Reves held the house until the death of Elizabeth in 1700. Two other families held the lease in succession. Generally, the owners did not live here, and the house was let to a series of occupiers, including Hannah Hancock, granddaughter of local architect Thomas Ivory. At some point, perhaps in the 18th century, the house was ‘Georgianised’: windows were blocked, pediments and quoins were shaved off and the exterior was rendered or limewashed.
Later, in the 19th century, a ‘restoration’ of the original features, including putting back mullion and transom windows, was undertaken, perhaps to smarten up the house for letting when neighbouring ‘Regency’ terraces were constructed. During the second world war the house was requisitioned and used as the headquarters of an ATS unit commanded by Miss Wood, daughter of Sir Henry. No doubt it emerged a little battered, but worse was to come.
After the war the house and its outbuildings were converted into five flats. A concrete stair was constructed across the rear elevation and the building went into decline. It was rescued in the 1980s by Peter Macqueen, a TV cameraman, and his partner, Paul Jeffries, a glass painter from the studio of G King & Son. They bought the three flats which comprised the Manor House, removed the concrete stair and converted the building back into one house. Feilden and Mawson were their architects.
Work included retiling the main roofs, new lead gutters, leaded lights to the windows and the opening up of fireplaces. Macqueen removed the Georgian mouldings to the main rooms on one side of the house to reveal the 17th-century timbers. Later alterations and improvements were made by Geoffrey Lane, a former conservation officer for the City of Norwich, who bought the house in the 1990s and lived here for about 10 years.
It is a building that needs constant care and attention. By 2015 there were blocked parapet gutters causing internal damage, render had fallen from the timber-framed rear extension and many windows had significant timber decay through lack of painting. Hard cementitious pointing on soft red brickwork to the gables was particularly disfiguring. The large main chimney stack was leaning, and in need of repointing and some rebuilding. Extraneous external pipework did not help the appearance, nor did the effects of constantly dripping taps and blocked gullies. A ceiling had fallen in an attic room, the boiler had reached the end of its life and the hot water heating system was dysfunctional.
We had a fixed budget and we knew that we had to get scaffold up quickly to survey the inaccessible roofs and parapets to determine how much high-level work would be needed. We had moved in with enough furniture and equipment to live simply in two or three rooms to allow the internal repairs to proceed, not wanting to leave the house scaffolded and unoccupied.
The initial inspection showed that my scheduling was surprisingly accurate and gave us a reasonable allowance to carry out the important repairs to high-level brickwork, copings and roofs. The main chimney stack did need rebuilding and reinforcing as anticipated, but the conservation officer was happy for this to proceed once he had seen some sample bricks. The main surprise was the failure of a pantiled roof to the rear: it was quite impossible to see from the ground, but with swamped felt and wet timbers it needed some new rafters and retiling. On plan, the shape is trapezoidal but the roofs gently curve, and the work was skilfully undertaken.
Lusher & Son’s bricklayers immediately understood that the building was already a patchwork and that we were going to add to that as discretely as we could, removing hard cement where possible and leaving it where its removal would damage the bricks. We used a lime putty mortar throughout, incorporating chalk into the mix to match old mortars. The gables support the iron numbers 1578 and a broken K and an L. We think these are spurious and must have been added during the 19th century but they, the downpipes and windows were carefully redecorated in a mid-grey: softer than the previous black. We protected the lead hoppers with plywood boxes during the works and had an alarm on the scaffold. Fortunately, nothing was taken.
Internally, heating and hot water services were reorganised, bathrooms updated, and the kitchen was refurbished. We discovered under carpets in several rooms the original 17th-century floors: wide elm boards mainly in excellent condition. These are a bonus, and we will repair and treat them all carefully in the next few years.
Work was completed in January 2016. We moved all our furniture in and celebrated, but not without agreeing to put aside money every year for more gentle repairs and maintenance. We have undertaken two more contracts of works: inspection of high-level gutters and roof pockets, more small areas of repointing and rebuilding sections of the garden walls and new oak gates, replacing less appropriate wrought iron. We continue to enjoy puzzling over the archaeology and investigating the history of this delightful house.
This article originally appeared as ‘The Manor House, Bracondale: a labour of love’ in IHBC's Context 164 (Page 42), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in May 2020. It was written by Jane Kennedy, senior partner, Purcell.
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