The Grandest of Designs
Strolling around Sinai Park House, on its important strategic site overlooking the Trent Valley, you can sense a history that goes back to the Romans and beyond.
You also feel that this medieval, timber framed house, now home to CLA Members Kate Murphy and husband David, has many stories to tell. Some fascinating, some bloody, and some just downright frightening.
Even to the casual observer, it’s clear that this is a major renovation project. A venture so challenging that, in the past, planners considered the building a ‘hot potato’ and tried to avoid having anything to do with it. Now, thanks to Kate’s enthusiasm and perseverance, that is about to change.
The house was unfit for human habitation long before it came on the market in 1994, precisely the time when Kate had finished restoring a Victorian property and was looking for another project.
Kate has loved old timber framed houses since childhood. She says: “I was very curious about this house, so we did what you’re not supposed to do – arrange a viewing without any intention of buying. But nothing else we looked at measured up and we ended up buying it. I’d certainly advise people not to just go and look unless you’re prepared to purchase in the end!”
Originally three separate structures, the house developed in to one, making it a more practical modern environment.
The site comes with a fascinating history. To the Saxons, it was a stronghold. In Medieval times, a fortified manor of the de Schobenhale family, with evidence surviving in the cellars and the surrounding 13th century moat.
The de Schobenhales gave Sinai Park to the monks of Burton Abbey, who built two timber houses – now the two wings of the present building – to use for rest and recuperation after bloodletting. Indeed, ‘Sinai’ could be a derivation of saignée, the French word for bleeding.
By the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s the Abbot had his own parlour in the northeast wing. Today, this is a comfortable family sitting room, full of character and includes some rare and remarkable wall paintings of birds and bees. [Photo] The monks hunted deer in the park and enjoyed other notable activities including the odd murder, giving rise to just one of Sinai’s 45 different ghost stories.
Sinai was then acquired by one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers, William Paget whose family remained for almost 400 years. The central section was added in 1605, to complete the footprint of the Grade II* listed house we see today.
In the 1700s Tudor-style chimneys made the dwelling even grander, and a plunge pool built, its source being the Chalybeate Well below the house. The 1732 bridge over the moat is an aggrandisement of an earlier bridge, the site of a skirmish during the Civil War.
The last Paget to own Sinai was the ‘The Eccentric Earl’. After his death in 1905, it was sold to help settle family debt, became six cottages and then an RAF billet in the 1920s. It was subsequently condemned for human habitation, reduced to shelter for pigs, sheep and hens.
After Kate’s purchase in 1994, site clearance and the renovation of the North East wing took five years, most of that time involved in planning, designing, sourcing and arranging finance rather than actual construction – a familiar story to many members!
Sitting in what is now a comfortable family sitting room, it is hard to imagine that this was once in worse condition than the structure that remains. But Kate has proved that you can turn something that looks like “a heap of sticks” into a home, and believes if she can do this, then she can do the rest.
Being slightly the oldest part of the building, there was a lot of support at the time from what was then English Heritage and, as it was to be a domestic residence, there was little to oppose, especially as the local authorities were looking for a solution to what was a difficult property.
Now Kate is about to embark on the rest of the house, but it’s taken time to get around to this stage. One reason is that for the rest to be viable it will need to earn some money, so there needs to be some commercial return otherwise it’s not sustainable. As soon as you start to think in those terms there’s far more to consider.
Again, the actual construction is relatively straightforward compared with important issues such as planning, finance and the various permissions required. Without those other factors, the timber team believed they could do the whole framework for the rest of the house in 12-18 months.
Kate admits to a mistake made, and a lesson learned – something made clear by NAME, education adviser with the HHA, who stressed that she would never get this done on her own as she had too much else to do and a company to run.
“Because I have the business skills, and given what we’ve already achieved, you tend to think you can do it all. Maybe so if you can make it a full time job, but you won’t know all the shortcuts, you won’t have the time and you won’t have the objectivity to make the best decisions.”
Her advice is to engage experts as they’ll do it more quickly and they’ll do it better. But, she says, “it can be a hard one to swallow as it’s money that’s not being spent on materials.”
Kate has now assembled a dream team of professionals. All recommended, with relevant experience and who had worked previously with some or all of the others.
Cultural strategists Barker Langham pulled together the elements such as legal, governance, grants and planning, as well as identifying all the boxes to tick. They came up with potential commercial uses and brought in other experts, such as ‘genius’ local planning consultant Aida McManus, who worked with planning bodies, is negotiating listed building consent and helped get Historic England on board.
Key players are Lathams Architects from Derby, with a track record in timber framed buildings and structural engineers Hancock Wheeldon & Ascough, with experience in conservation repair methods. The thorny issue of governance of the project fell to Winckworth Sherwood, who helped form the trust that now owns the ‘new’ part. Eddie Crane, of Timber Framing and Conservation has worked hard to demonstrate that their project is deliverable, with the North East Wing providing useful evidence.
Kate is keen to keep community and educational links, and already receives visits from colleges, schools and people who want to do projects, including photography and drama students. Her philosophy is that they “Need to get people into the house. Not just to generate income, but because the house really likes it. It has never really been anyone’s main home, rather a playhouse for various people, monks, and landowners. “
This article comes at an important time in the long history of Sinai Park House, with the board of trustees about to deliver something sustainable with a long term future. Members might be interested to follow progress from the outset via the website www.sinaiparkhouse.co.uk
After a history that has lurched back and forward over centuries, this is an opportunity to bring some stability. In the meantime Kate is happy to speak to members about the project, and will consider tours for small groups, tailored to a particular interest whether the house, the history – or the hauntings.
The Ghosts of Sinai
We had to ask Kate the obvious question: Have you ever seen a ghost?
“Yes, but I’m open-minded rather than a paranormal fanatic. We get a mix of ghost hunters, including some very serious paranormal societies with lots of technology and I’m told that they’re always very pleased with whatever they’ve come for.
“There’s a photo on our website, supposedly of a ghost. I know exactly where it was taken and I just can’t explain what seems a very clear figure in a window.
“It’s all the senses. We can smell cigar or pipe smoke in our sitting room at times. My husband feels he is often watched while working in the garden and our house sitter has encountered a gentleman in the house regularly.
“I believe I’ve seen the abbots hunting dogs and have heard them in the dining room when ours are most definitely in here. We’ve seen a fair few orbs and can hear a party sometimes. I’m told that hearing muffled music and chat in a seriously old house is relatively common.”
For further information see www.sinaiparkhouse.co.uk
This article by Mike Ashton was first published in CLA Land & Business Magazine, February 2017