New chapter at toad hall

Alex Alec-Smith outside The Old Rectory, Winestead, near Hull with her Larkin toad.
Alex Alec-Smith outside The Old Rectory, Winestead, near Hull with her Larkin toad.
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The Old Rectory has been worshipped for decades by one devoted family. Now it’s time for a change of ownership. Sharon Dale reports.

The care and devotion shown to The Old Rectory by Georgian enthusiast Rupert Alec-Smith is palpable. It not only looks fabulous. It feels it too.

This is a house that has been cherished and lavished with attention by a man who made sure every detail from the cornicing to the wallpaper was in keeping with its architectural heritage.

In the words of Andrew Marvell, the metaphysical poet who was born in 1621, in a house that preceded the Old Rectory, it is “the definition of love”.

The romance began just after the Second World War when the late Mr Alec-Smith bought it.

The location in the hamlet of Winestead was, and still is, idyllic. It is just outside Hull on the Holderness plains heading towards Withernsea.

The property sits in an oasis of four acres, but what really appealed were its Georgian features. Although originally built in 1660, it was defined by alterations in the 1700s, an era that Mr Alec -Smith adored for its elegant style.

He engaged his friend, the famous Bridlington-based architect Francis Johnson, a fellow Georgian aficionado, and together they renovated and revived the house with the help of skilled craftsmen and some clever recycling.

There was no such thing as a salvage yard in the 1940s but there were plenty of bombed-out, war-damaged buildings in Hull, which became a rich resource. Derelict country houses were another.

“My father’s friend saw a mantle acting as a street block in 1947 when 20 High Street was being demolished, so my father rescued that and had the side jambs recreated to designs by Francis Johnson.

“He got a lot of pieces from Etherington Buildings on the High Street too. He was a pioneer of architectural salvage,” says Alex Alec-Smith, who inherited the house from her parents.

Chimney pieces, doors, architraves, and cornicing are from the long gone buildings. A frieze, white marble slips and hob grate are from a house in Patrington. while a cast iron fire gate was from the demolished Winestead Hall.

The decor was meticulously researched by Mr Alec-Smith, a founding member of the Georgian Society for East Yorkshire and a member of the National Trust committee.

The wallpaper was authentic and the furniture a mix of family pieces and others designed by Francis Johnson and made by the Alec-Smith’s family firm, Horsley Smith and Co.

The property he created is a picture perfect gorgeous Georgian outside and in. He even altered the exterior to make it more symmetrical.

The only minor issue is the kitchen wing, added in 1954 when Alex was born. It is slightly small for the size of the house.

“He didn’t think about the practicality of that but my mother didn’t have a say. The house was very much his creation. The only other concession he made was to install central heating in 1964 at my mother’s insistence.”

That kind of control has made redecorating, or even rearranging the furniture, an arduous task for antiquarian book dealer Alex, who moved back home 12 years ago.

“I have redecorated but I know he wouldn’t be happy with the striped wallpaper in the west bedroom. That’s why I haven’t changed anything much.”

She has added some of her books – her speciality is Byron and the romantic poets – along with energy efficient features, including a new hot water tank and solar panels carefully hidden from view. She’s also bought clear blinds that act as secondary glazing.

To ease the frustration of not being able to put her own stamp on the property, 
she has created her own stunning legacy out in the garden.

The inspiration for it came from a 400-year old beech tree that was diseased and felled, leaving a huge stump and lower branches that had self-rooted. It gave her the idea for a treehouse, the like of which you won’t find anywhere else.

It was designed by architect Henry Chadwick and straddles the remnants of the beech. It is Neverland meets Wonderland with a dash of Dracula and boasts secret cupboards, a trap door and even a wooden throne in the shape of a coffin.

It has heating and lighting and is used 
for everything from informal dinner 
parties to sleepovers and quiet 

“I like to think Andrew Marvell may 
have looked at the tree when it was a sapling and I was very sad when it had 
to be cut down but it gave me the idea for the tree house,” she says.

“It’s quite gothic. I like vampires, which have a connection with Byron.

“I am also pleased that I’ve added something. The stable block was added in 1804, the front was altered in the late 40s and the kitchen built in the 1950s. The treehouse is my contribution.”

Alex also added the giant toad. It was part of the Larkin25 Festival in Hull, when a trail of fibreglass, decorated toads lined the streets in homage to Philip Larkin’s poems Toads and Toads Revisited.

She’ll take the toad with her when she moves.

The property, which has eight bedrooms, outbuildings and four acres, is up for sale for £895,000.

Although she feels guilty about selling her father’s pride and joy, she is carrying on a family tradition of creating a “grand design”.

She and her cousin have bought a plot of land and they are building an eco-friendly house for themselves.

“I’ll miss this place. It is such a lovely place to be. It is smart but it’s cosy and friendly and I’ll be sad when I walk out for the last time,” she says.

“I just hope it will go to someone who loves and appreciates it as much as we have.”

The Old Rectory, Winestead, is for sale with Carter Jonas for £895,000. Contact Carter Jonas, tel: 01904 558200,