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A Private View: Two families, one colossal staircase, and a lifetime of shared adventure

In the mid-80s, two couples decided to club together to buy Chelvey Court – a gloriously authentic Jacobean court house near Bristol. A stoic rescue mission ensued that saw them sharing one shower and supporting one another through moments of doubt and despondency. Here, they reflect on 40 years of living under one roof.

Madeleine Silver
Emily Marshall
Archive photography
Peter Woloszynski (World of Interiors; 1992)
A Private View: Two families, one colossal staircase, and a lifetime of shared adventure

Just as you think you’re losing your bearings in Chelvey Court, weaving through its limewashed corridors and ducking through low-slung Jacobean doorways, the reassuringly grand central staircase reappears to rescue you: six foot wide, rising from the ground to the second floor. With colossal turned oak balusters and horseshoes nailed to the bottom step to ward off witches, it is crowned by a masterpiece of 17th-century ornamental plasterwork on the ceiling above it.

For 40 years, the staircase has been the stage for the two families who share this captivatingly rambling house to congregate with over 100 friends for raucous Christmas carols. And, in the early years, it functioned as an unofficial playground for the two families’ now-grown-up children who would each appear from their own side of the house armed with toys.

It was the snowy January of 1985 when Keith and Katy Hallett together with Jacqui and Andrew Olver, then neighbours in Bristol’s artsy Montpelier, moved into the Grade II*-listed Chelvey, lured by the amount of space they could afford by clubbing together. “Normally when you move in somewhere you put the kettle on, but I went straight up into the roof and started rolling the snow into great big balls, hurling them out the window because I knew that when it melted, it may well bring down another ceiling,” remembers Jacqui, then a secondary school teacher. “Three ceilings had come down already, so it was pretty urgent. But the wonderful thing about having no windows in your house is that the rain may come in, but the wind follows afterwards and dries it out. So, mercifully, we didn’t have any wet or dry rot …”

The house was in a state of semi-dereliction on arrival. With origins dating back to Domesday, the house had, for 350 years, been tenanted by the same farming family, the Cottles. As each room began leaking, or a ceiling caved in, the farmers would simply retreat further down the house. “It meant the top floor hadn’t been lived in for well over 100 years when we bought the house,” says Jacqui.

So began the overhaul, with architect Keith at the helm and the two families living in one room each during the building works with one shower between all 11 of them. “The glow of ownership was the only thing that kept us going,” laughs Katy, an artist who, amid the chaos, had four sons then under six years old. “We used to have meetings once we’d put the kids to bed because we had so much to decide on, huddled around in blankets; and if three of us were saying: ‘What on earth have we done?’ there would always be one to say: ‘Come on, we can do this.’”

As the house comes to market, the owners reflect on the Chelvey they inherited in this sliver of bucolic bliss less than 10 miles from Bristol, and how it has morphed into a home for two families to live in side by side, yet never in each other’s pockets.

Jacqui Olver: “When Katy mentioned the house to me one morning, we bundled all the children into the car to come and have a look. Afterwards. I remember phoning my husband Andrew and telling him to come home via Tickenham Ridge, drop down into the valley and have a look at this house from the west side, because I knew the setting sun would be on it. I said: ‘If you fall in love with it, we’re in, and if not, we can forget about it.’ To take on a house like this you have to be prepared to take the risk – and that didn’t daunt us. We could all see the potential of being able to live really full lives here.”

Katy Hallett: “We had a lovely feeling of community in Montpelier, but I wanted fields for the kids to run in. And what we were able to afford here was more than twice what we could have had if we’d been buying on our own. I think one of the things that has made this work for us is that we have a very similar attitude to our adored families, to each other and to the fabric of the building. Our children have grown up as a gang, almost like cousins. When they were little there was a lot of sharing of childcare. Living together is like any relationship: you have to nurture it and love it. I don’t think I was unnerved by the state of the house in the slightest; I had a husband who was an architect, and great friends to be taking it on with, so we just thought: ‘Let’s do it’. I do remember my mother coming to help when we’d just moved in and she went to the loo and came out saying: ‘There’s ivy growing out of the flushing cistern and the lavatory paper is wet before you use it!’”

Jacqui: “There was some flexibility in our arrangements for some time because we had to get to know how it was going to work. But now the building is divided as two interlocking Ls, a floor and a half each essentially, each with its own internal staircase, which means we don’t need to use the main staircase day to day – it’s just too damn cold on a winter’s day. We each open out on to different sides of the house, on different levels, which means I think we enjoy more privacy than most people who live in a terraced house or on an estate.”

Keith Hallett: “We bought the entire property, which included an agricultural building that had once been the great hall which I designed as a separate house, the proceeds of which brought in the first tranche of money to do the work on Chelvey. This is a remarkably intact example of an authentic Jacobean court house. In what was the main kitchen there’s an early 17th-century spit rack on the wall and a 15th-century, 20-foot-long ancient timber meat preparation slab. Ancient stone flags are laid throughout much of the ground floor; there are timber panelled walls magnificently painted to resemble exaggerated woodgrain from the early 17th century; and ancient doors with their original ironmongery everywhere you turn. One other extraordinary piece of decoration is Solomon’s Porch with a carved family crest of the original owners, the Tyntes, topped by a Jacobean strapwork balustrade around a balcony, looking directly over the garden to the neighbouring 13th-century St Bridget’s church.”

Jacqui: “Shortly after we moved in, we went to the local pub and we were clearly not farmers or locals, and so there was a hush. And I remember there being a collective intake of breath when we mentioned Chelvey as they started talking about the ghosts of the place. When you go upstairs, with its fireplaces, you realise that births and deaths must have occurred in this house for hundreds of years, but I’ve never felt anything other than benign spirits here.”

Keith: “As soon as we arrived, we built up the levels of the nearly five acres of land where it ran alongside the mainline railway; also against the road ramp which towered over our land as it rose up and over the railway bridge. In total, 25,000 cubic metres of subsoil was brought in from a new housing estate under construction on the northern side of Bristol. When the lorries left us after two years, the new levels of the land were higher than the road – and more than 25 feet above the railway.

“Before the landfill contract was complete, we had a bulldozer on the site for four weeks, creating terraces and a large ampitheatre after which the whole of the new hill was covered with salvaged topsoil.  Then, finally, came more than a thousand trees (whips) and an avenue of lime trees – all of which are now fully mature and looking magnificent. Not many places offer the chance to build one’s own hill, amphitheatre and terraced landscape.”

Katy: “I always reckoned when we came here, that you could do anything. You have a workshop, you have a garden, you can make this, do that. It’s been a haven for children with its formal garden, orchard, mature woodland, amphitheatre and ample space with prime soil for growing. You can have enormous parties, or you can squirrel away, living completely separate lives. I’m going to miss it all – 40 years is a long time.”

Chelvey Court, Chelvey, Somerset

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