Built in 1893 as a statement by local landowner Hugh Fairfax-Cholmeley to express his idealistic left-leaning political views, Mill Hill, a seven-bedroomed Arts and Crafts home on the edge of the Howardian Hills village of Brandsby, has come onto the open market for the first time in decades.
It is owned by Frances Ruck Keene, 71, an architectural historian, artist and musician, who moved in with her husband, the late barrister and bursar of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Ben Ruck Keene, in 1978. “We were living in Easingwold before we moved here,” Mrs Ruck Keene explains. “Friends knew we were on the look-out for a family house and through various mutual friends, we were recommended this one to look at. I have to admit that although I know now how interesting it is, I didn’t even know the house existed, it’s so secluded and tucked away.”
Grade II listed Mill Hill is hugely significant in British architecture - and the Arts and Crafts movement - because it is believed to be the first building designed by influential British architect Detmar Blow (1867-1939), who went on to restore Bramham Park, near Wetherby, in 1908 for the Lane-Fox family and work on a number of other important houses in the UK and Europe.
Many other original features at Mill Hill designed by Blow’s Arts and Crafts contemporaries remain intact, including plasterwork and woodwork by Ernest Gimson and blue and white fire surround tiles in the sitting room painted by Alfred Powell and his wife, Louise.
Mrs Ruck Keene was delighted when she discovered that the Powells had created these tiles, as the artistic couple had been good friends with her grandparents: “It was the really extraordinary thing, we had family connections with the house and that has always made it special.”
She was pleased to be able to bring some of her grandparents’ early 20th furniture, commissioned as a wedding present, to the house, where it fitted straight in.
“There is something about Mill Hill, it is utterly beguiling,” says selling agent Ben Pridden, director, of Hewetson and Johnson. “It has an undeniable charm, somehow unique to the Arts and Crafts movement. The house’s history, from its utilitarian beginnings to its current form, is fascinating. The accommodation is large but unpretentious, overlooking a fine garden with distant views to York Minster.”
On the market for £2m, the property is built out of locally-quarried stone and, at first glance, Mill Hill does not look like the archetype ‘Arts and Crafts’ house. However, the sharply- delineated rooflines which form a series of triangles, and the internal feel of the property, with rooms flowing seamlessly into each other, prove that forward-thinking minds were involved in its conception more than a century ago.
Four main reception rooms, including a sitting room, drawing room and dining room, and a kitchen with a pantry, lead off a hallway which stretches the length of the house. Up the staircase, with its hand-carved wheat; newel posts and banisters, to the galleried first floor and second floor above, and there are seven rooms suitable for bedrooms or conversion into dressing rooms, studies or hobby rooms, with an ensuite to the largest and two further bathrooms.
There is also a one-bedroomed self-contained apartment on the first floor, attic space and outside, a garage, greenhouse and garden store, plus 14.25 acres of land include pasture and a bluebell wood.
The Ruck Keenes, aware that they were living in a national treasure, took maintenance and restoration seriously, prioritising time and money on keeping fragile elements in good condition: “I would say we have focused on maintenance, such as the panelling, the tall stone chimneys and the stone pergola, focused on the very special Arts and Crafts elements, not spent on a modern kitchen and bathrooms.”
“Although it is a brilliant family house now, it has evolved,” continues Mrs Ruck Keene. “I think that whereas Hugh Fairfax-Cholmeley had been keen to have everything very authentic, built with tools workman used in the Middle Ages, it has gradually been adapted to create a house which for all its size, feels very warm and liveable-in.”
Now, after more than 40 years at Mill Hill, bringing up three children, Alexander and Dominic, both barristers, and Hermione, an academic specialising in music education, Mrs Ruck Keene has decided to move to Oxford, as she has many ties there.
She says that she will miss Mill Hill, but it is time for another family to step in as custodians and enjoy it. Although at 694.25 sq m, the house is certainly spacious, it doesn’t feel “echoing”, she explains, because the clever arrangement of internal doors allows various parts to be closed off if required, including the self-contained one-bedroomed apartment.
“My favourite room is what we call the living hall,” she says. “It’s a wonderful room with elm panelling. It’s got a very good parquet that’s brilliant for dancing. We have a big fold-up ping pong table in there. I also like the drawing room, it’s excellent for entertaining, with a grand piano at one end. There are doors out into the garden. The terrace is
south-facing and incredibly sheltered.”
As she contemplates the future, the owner of this beautiful Arts and Crafts house will also be sad to say goodbye to Brandsby, which she describes as a friendly and thriving community.
*Ben Pridden of Hewetson and Johnson says: “I have seen and sold some of the best homes in the Howardian Hills over the last 18 years and this house and garden represents a rare opportunity. I envy the next custodians.” Ben, who believes the house would suit a family, adds: “There are a number of excellent schools in the vicinity, including Ampleforth independent co-ed, just five miles away.” For details of the sale visit www.hewetsonandjohnson.co.uk