The Mail on Sunday
It started out, 500 years ago, as a home for a successful man. And that is what it is right now. But in the intervening centuries it has served an array of purposes – not least as a cobbler’s store, a butcher’s shop, and even an abattoir.
Little clues throughout the house, which is in the village of Charlwood in Surrey, tell the story of the changes it has been through.
In what is now the music room there is a hook that was used to tether livestock and a strut from which slaughtered carcasses were hung, dating from the abattoir days.
And the four-bedroom home’s owner, Martin Cooper, says the floor in that room was originally slanted so all the blood, guts and urine ran down into the gardens where, he points out, ‘everything grows profusely as a result’.
In the Victorian era, the house was transformed into a butcher’s, and among Martin’s treasured possessions is a photograph showing the butcher standing proudly beside an impressive array of meat he was selling to customers at Christmas in 1900.
Then, in the 20th Century, it became a shoe-repair store after a cobbler was forced to move his business from the nearby village of Lowfield Heath when it was cleared to build Gatwick Airport.
Today, you can still see, to the right of the front entrance, an unusual door that leads to where the cobbler stored the lasts for his shoes.
But there is one aspect of the 1543 house that cannot be explained – its name. It is called Hunts, and Martin, even as a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, is at a loss as to why.
A centrepiece of the village of Charlwood, Hunts was first occupied by the local squire, and the smoke from the fires that would have burned in the building’s hall – now the main living area – still stains the attic rafters.
Thanks to its magnificent timber frame, impressive chimney stack and unique roof structure, Hunts, which is set in three-quarters of an acre of gardens, is Grade II listed.
For the past 18 years it has been lovingly tended by Martin, a 61-year-old builder. He fell in love with it when moving his family out of London in 1999.
When he bought it, for £345,000, it was semi-derelict and had no proper kitchen or bathroom. But it stood out for him from all the other properties in ‘typical Surrey suburbia’.
Ever since, he has preserved Hunts’ original character while transforming it into a warm, family home ideal for entertaining.
The father of two – who married and divorced the same woman twice and who, as a builder, specialises in the restoration of churches – sees himself as a custodian, rather than simply the owner, of the property.
But he insists that living in a listed building ‘has to be an experience you are willing to have – you can’t just stick radiators in regardless, as the building will warp and crack’.
Martin, who currently has 38 radiators running off a new boiler, found this to his cost last year when the plaster fell off his bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night, bringing down centuries of dirt and breaking his nose.
The ceiling is now fixed, but other challenges remain in Hunts, such as ‘the presence’ felt by some in the downstairs utility room and the almost total lack of mobile phone reception, which Martin attributes to the thick timber frame. ‘It’s as hard as iron,’ he explains. ‘You can’t even get a drill through it.’
Martin sees his home as representing his life’s work – both as a builder and, thanks to his music room (which contains an organ and piano), as a church organist and music director of the Surrey parish of Redhill.
Although there is potential to convert Hunts’ loft and garage areas, subject to necessary consent, Martin is insistent that any buyer must be mindful of the responsibilities that come from owning a piece of our national heritage.
‘You have to be familiar with the limitations of what you can do – you can’t just transform a chocolate-box exterior into a place with immaculate floors and immaculate walls,’ he says. ‘What is special about Hunts is that it is a living, breathing piece of history.’