Article in full by Ross Stokes of Selfbuild & Design:
Longhorn Farm, set in ancient woodland on Dartmoor, has been designed to be a lifelong house for Chris Marshall and his family.
I fell in love with the land and never really looked at the house and barns,” explains Chris Marshall, recalling the first time he saw Longhorn Farm on Dartmoor.
Set in 58 acres of pasture and ancient woods, with a mill pond and around 100 metres of gushing waterfalls, all in a secluded setting within walking distance of the village pub, it is easy to understand the immediate appeal of the property.
“It is just the most incredible place, totally private, with no rights of way, bordered on two sides by national park,” enthuses Chris. “Almost half the land is made up of ancient woodland, and in May it is a sea of bluebells. To be honest, I didn’t really look at the house, I knew it had a decent footprint that we could do something with but for me it was all about the setting.” Chris and his wife, Kim, had been looking for three years for a property which offered potential to be self sufficient, beginning their search in the south of France, before focusing on Wiltshire and moving west to Somerset, then Devon.
Chris was already familiar with the area when he discovered Longhorn Farm on primelocation, having stayed at the Bovey Castle Hotel which looks out over the area. “As soon as I saw the listing, it just felt like the one,” he says. Subsequent online research of aerial photographs convinced him even more that this could be the long-term family home for Kim and their two children, Dora and Rufus. But Kim, a solicitor, was less convinced. “She hated the whole idea, was carried along reluctantly by my enthusiasm and cried every time we visited the site,” Chris recalls of those early days. “I guess I was swept away with romantic notions about the whole thing, as where Kim was much more practical about the harsh realities of the project.”
The property itself consisted of a tired farmhouse and a ramshackle collection of barns and outbuildings, all partially hidden by overgrown trees. “The property had been completely remodelled in 1946, so there was a lot of concrete and few original features,” explains Chris. “We found one wall made out of brick, stone, broken roof tiles, fence posts – basically anything they could lay their hands on immediately after the war.”
The property had been stuck in a time-warp, with many of the original features destroyed or hidden behind crude concrete additions and extensions. Originally the house had fronted a country lane, but the lane had been subsequently relocated so that now the house sat rather awkwardly with its back and side to the main road, with the original south-facing frontage overlooking a field.
The interiors of the farmhouse were dark, with low ceilings and the windows offered limited views of the stunning surroundings. Chris and Kim were keen to transform this into a light and welcoming home, worthy of its setting. They also wanted the house to have some flexibility, with the outbuildings potentially providing auxiliary accommodation for the long-term needs of the family if required. “Our initial architect was great and a super talented designer, but I think he thought we had more money than we did,” says Chris. “When costed, his plans came out at 4.5 times the budget we had set him.”
After 18 months they parted company amicably, but the experience left Chris seriously doubting the feasibility of the project. He admits that at this stage he rather arrogantly thought that he could take on the design of the project himself but soon realised his shortcomings.
After searching the web for another architect, the couple found husband and wife practice Van Ellen + Sheryn, based in Ashburton. This proved to be a stroke of luck. Eilir Sheryn changed the way they viewed the house completely and came up with a dramatically different design with the kitchen at its heart, an idea which immediately appealed to Chris and Kim.
As the farmhouse alone did not provide enough accommodation for the family, Eilir proposed to link it and the adjacent barn together with a transparent, minimal glass box. This box accommodates the new kitchen and living space, whilst allowing a connection behind for the barn to be used as a large utility and plant room at ground floor level, with two bedrooms on the first floor. This provides the best of both worlds with the cosy, intimate rooms of the old farmhouse retained, whilst the new glass box provides a generous full height area that opens up onto the gardens.
The redundant milking parlour to the side of the property is given a new lease of life. Eilir did not want to change the gable end facing the main road, but proposed significant changes to the remainder of the elongated building to make it more useful. Half of the stone and brick building is replaced with an ‘extruded’ green oak and glass two-storey structure, with a highly-glazed gable end facing the gardens.
The original part of the parlour houses three bedrooms and a bathroom, with the new construction accommodating a dramatic open-plan living room with small kitchen and dining area. Traditional materials were specified but detailed in a contemporary style. “We designed dramatic flying trusses with stainless steel tie rods and the whole building is re-covered with patinated standing seam zinc – a contemporary reference to traditional agricultural, metal-roofed buildings,” explains Eilir.
Being situated on the fringe of a pretty village in the heart of Dartmoor, the plans were subject to the stringent planning policies designed to preserve the Moor.
“It was quite a challenge to convince the local village council and the planners of our ideas,” says Eilir. “Fortunately the planning officer understood our desire to regenerate the property and backed our proposals. We were fortunate that they had the courage to do so.”
One complication was that one of Britain’s rarest bats – the greater horseshoe – was discovered in a barn. As a consequence, a hefty slice of the Marshalls’ budget had to be spent on their protection even though no bats were found roosting in the areas subject to building work. A better stoke of luck came when Eilir suggested
Goulden & Sons to undertake the construction.
Chris immediately hit it off with Richard Goulden and asked him to manage the project. “This was the best decision of the project,” says Chris. It was also one that saved a considerable amount of money, with the project eventually coming in 17 per cent under budget, thanks mainly to Richard’s diligence. Work started in February, 2012, with Chris regularly visiting the site for extended weekends away from his London home to monitor progress and discuss any problems with Richard.
As an office-bound accountant, he particularly enjoyed being on site with the building team, though his own role was confined to planting 150 different varieties in the new nine acre forest garden. “I assigned everyone a newly planted tree to manure when they got the call of nature,” he laughs.
Construction work on the site was completed last summer though work is ongoing on the landscaping which now includes a 180 metre lake, an extension of the former pond for the mill further down the hill. With Dora and Rufus now midway through their schooling, the Marshalls have had to delay their move to the west country for at least four years. Meanwhile, the forest garden is beginning to take shape. “As a child I remember foraging on the River Dart for mussels so the idea here is to create a rich foraging environment with the forest garden,” says Chris.
The nine acre site which is close to the house but far enough away not to affect the views or the light, is protected from straying livestock, while offering a sanctuary for wildlife. But this green ideal sits uncomfortably with the fact that their large house remains unoccupied so the couple recently decided to offer it as a holiday let. In the meantime, Chris is looking forward to their new life ahead in Devon.
The couple has already embraced village life during their visits, and made many local friends, including members of a conservation group. Longhorn farm may still be a long way off as the Marshalls’ ultimate family haven, but the wait at least promises to be worthwhile.
What was the high point of the project?
Finding the property in the first place online after a three year search which began in France. Watching the walnut veneer kitchen being assembled was also a high point.
…and the low point?
When the quantity surveyor came in with a quote for our first architect’s design which was 4.5 times over budget. What did you enjoy most about the project Working with the building team on site. They were a really nice team.
What was your best buy?
Apart from Eilir, Richard Goulden was our best buy. He was awesome and came in 15 per cent under budget.
What do you like most about your property?
The sense of light and space.