Church Cottage in Humbleton, South Yorkshire is an 1830s schoolhouse that has been remodeled to create the perfect smaller country home. John Martin Robinson admires the workmanship and character of the building. Shot by Paul Highnam for Country Life.
Of particular interest are always the houses of architects, as they say a lot about the tastes and approach of their residents to their professional activities. Church Cottage in Humbleton is no exception. This is the Yorkshire home of Digby Harris, who was a senior partner at Bridlington firm Francis Johnson & Partners for many years until he retired. Founded by the late Francis Johnson (1911–1995) in the 1930s, the firm has been Britain’s leading purveyor of traditional classical architecture for almost 100 years and is best known for its country houses, many of which were featured in rural life.
Mr. Harris joined the firm in 1989, towards the end of Johnson’s life. He studied architecture at Newcastle University and retained a unique spirit of practice, creating beautiful, unfussy, literate classical buildings such as the modern Carr of York. He worked with Francis Johnson on Norfolk’s Hillborough House, a large 1990-1997 flint-fronted building for the late Hugh van Cutsem, and was responsible for many independent works such as the refurbishment of County Durham’s Selaby Hall for the current Lord. Barnard, Home Farm in Hartfort, North Yorkshire for Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth and Wootton Hall in Staffordshire for the Honorable Johnny Greenall. More recently he has been working on a new Palladian gate for Netherhampton’s entrance to the park at Wilton House for the Earl of Pembroke.
Since Harris bought Church Cottage, a small, late-Georgian stone school, in 1992, he has restored it with sensitivity, panache, and tactful additions. His enhancements have added a discreet Georgian touch that has a pleasing “correctness” to it. The cottage now represents and reflects what he learned from Johnson early in his career, as well as his personal experience working on many large country houses over the years. He also took advantage of the skills of the Yorkshire craftsmen with whom he collaborated in his professional life, including plasterers, joiners, masons and blacksmiths. After 30 years, its improvements, including a regular garden surrounded by tall hedges, have come to fruition.
Church Cottage was built in 1830 by the trustees of the Heron Charity with a master’s house and an attached classroom adjoining St. Peter’s parish church and its cemetery. The site was granted by Beaumont, 3rd Lord Hotham, then the chief landowner of the parish. Initially, lessons for the children who attended them were held in the southern aisle of the church. In 1878 John, 5th Lord Hotham built a larger building to house the school on a different site. The old school then became a private home called Ivy Cottage, now Church Cottage, adjacent to Manor Farm.
George Poulson History and Antiquities of the Seigniorate of Holderness (1841) was not enthusiastic, considering this place “the most unfortunate choice, since the building is not consistent in architectural design with either the vicarage or the church, although between both of them.” These were “Gothic” and “Gothic” respectively. David Neave Buildings England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, however, describes it more positively, albeit succinctly, as “a pleasant … cottage with a hipped roof”. There are three arched windows in the adjoining small classroom.” This is a perfectly built small symmetrical late Georgian house made of local red brick. (Picture 1).
When Mr. Harris purchased Church Cottage at auction after the death of the previous owner, William Wright (who had inherited it from an uncle who bought it from Lord Hotham in 1911), very little was done to modernize the house other than installing electricity, a bathroom and three fireplaces from the 1950s, lined with ginger tiles. However, it was ideal for a bachelor, as it was a compact cottage with one large room for entertainment. Perhaps it was too compact, with a living room, kitchen and two bedrooms upstairs, “two upstairs and two downstairs.” Mr. Harris added a new kitchen and pantry at the back, and upstairs his bedroom and bathroom. The former kitchen became a hall-dining room, the living room became an office, and the classroom became a living room.
The new rear extension, continues Mr. Harris, “was designed to look like it had always been part of the cottage” and through the use of salvaged bricks and slate and over time, “the illusion has now disappeared.” full’. A wide, sloping bay window overlooks the fields to the west from both floors. The main façade has not changed, except for the addition of a beautiful Regency lattice porch.
The central doorframe was originally undecorated, with the exception of a painted optical illusion transom, so a new porch was installed, copied from a house in Brixton, south London, by F. Kemp & Son of Skirlaugh. He adds exactly the right note, not too grandiose, but transforming the whole appearance of the house. It is painted a turquoise blue inspired by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis of Portmeirion in Wales.
The front door leads into a small lobby, an office on the right and a lounge/dining room on the left. The study, formerly the living room, has a simple cane cornice and pedestal railing; and the lucky find of a small Regency chimney with an iron grate in Hull’s landfill, a perfect replacement for the previous ginger-tiled fireplace. (Figure 5). The room is covered in vibrant pink and red Coles lattice wallpaper and hung with architectural reproductions.
The former kitchen was the main room in the old house and became a dining room / hall. (Rice. 6). The former cream-enamelled slab has been replaced with another simple reclaimed Regency mantelpiece. All woodwork, including the ceiling beams, is painted in Farrow & Ball Old White, while the walls are painted in Edward Bulmer’s mauve pink emulsion.
The treacherous old staircase, which did not meet building codes, has been replaced by a new, straight flight with a simple Chinese Chippendale balustrade. (Fig 3). Such balustrades can be found in modest Georgian estates and dachas, so it is not too pretentious. This thoughtful restraint is the key to the success of all Humbleton improvements. Hanging at the head of the stairs optical illusion niche with a bust of a satyr (Fig 4)early work of friend and collaborator Alec Cobb.
The most dramatic transformations took place in the former school class. (Fig 2). While the roof was being repaired and repositioned, three of the tie beams were replaced with invisible collars at a higher level, allowing a vaulted plaster ceiling to be built inside. The Yorkshire plasterers Steads of Bradford, who worked in almost all of Francis Johnson’s practice houses, installed a cornice in the form of a reed pole wrapped in acanthus leaves and a flat band of Greek-style ornamentation.
The majestic note of the ceiling is matched by a Greek Regency chimney made from donated unfinished carved sculpted white marble components. They were reassembled with the help and advice of Johnson (then aged 82) and the missing parts were assembled by local masons J. Rotherham of Holm-on-Spalding Moor who installed them in place.
In many ways, this room is a tribute to Johnson and his love of Georgian decor and furniture. The large sofa was made according to his design for his own home. The walls are hung with pale green wide-striped paper from Susie Watson Designs, which pairs perfectly with the John Fowler-style curtains on the arched windows. They were masterfully made by Cathy Welburn of Bridlington, who did a great job at Broughton Hall, where Mr. Harris and Mr. Cobb worked together on the restoration of the Regency interiors (rural life, July 22 and 29, 2015). Another long-time professional collaborator, Charles Hesp of Hesp Jones & Co, decorators from Yorkshire, painted the ceiling and applied discreet gilding to the decorative plasterwork. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, including Mr. Harris’s cousin, John Ernest Foster.
The large-scale landscape of Holderness, in which the cottage is located, consists of wide arable fields and wide skies, but is highly exposed to the prevailing southwesterly winds and the occasional northeasterly currents of the “German Ocean”. The garden on the south side is protected by a high hedge and is divided into two parts. In the main area there are four box-edged beds planted with lavender and symmetrically lined with Portuguese laurels cut in the shape of a mushroom. A pair of pyramidal laurel trees frame the brick steps. Second garden compartment (Rice. 8) lined with a central grassy path surrounded by mixed curbs.
Behind the classroom, through the kitchen bay window, there is a view of a narrow, brick-paved courtyard with a raised platform at the far end. Once there were demolished latrines, from which there was a beautiful view of the cornfield to the Manor Farm. They were replaced by a lattice gazebo, framing the view from the house to the fields. (Fig 7). It is planted with the old climbing rose ‘Alberic Barbier’ and is a favorite spot for afternoon tea or an evening drink at sunset. The north wall of the classroom is planted with fan-shaped Morello cherries and the opposite wall with Japanese arugula, which have proven to be very productive and decorative.
Church Cottage is a perfect example of how even a very simple building can be improved with well thought out and constructive changes that do not overwhelm its original character. It is also a miniature reflection of the work on the country house of the architectural firm headed by Mr. Harris. In addition, the quality of work and finish is a demonstration of the superb Yorkshire craftsmanship that Francis Johnson’s practice has encouraged and exemplified for many decades.
The old school building is a living outpost of the 18th century. The finishing touch, added just this year, is a wrought iron gabled gate made by local blacksmith David Cooper of Burton Agnes.
There have been many nominations for the title of the oldest house in Britain – in this excerpt from the Country Life archive, John Goodall