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Inside The Convent


This vast interconnecting family home is spread over three, or is it four, actually it could be five floors, on what is two, or is it three plots of land. The house was originally built in the 1700’s, with some sections in the 1800’s and others portions in the 1900’s, features all period and styles. Confusing? Well it is. The Convent is not your average family home.

It’s had private owners, at one point the church owned and converted it, then a housing association adapted it. Now, it’s home to the Warren family consisting of six children, a very large Irish Wolf hound called Tiggy, three tortoises and a duckling! It’s also the office of Rawspace, the owners architectural practice.

The house is never quiet or silent it’s always busy and full of people, it's lived in and they wouldn’t want it any other way. As Heather explains ‘We are incredibly lucky to live in such a big and beautiful house and we want make sure it's used’

Visitors by often comment on how the house will be fantastic when it's finished, the Warren’s simple reply 'it won’t ever be finished, the house is evolving’. The exposed plaster work reveals the layers of history and where new walls are waiting to be painted, the owners are torn as to which direction to take. Half a dozen or so paint samples have been dotted around waiting to for an opinion of yay or nay. Light bounces in from all directions and alters your perception and opinion on colour hourly.

The Convent is spread of two plots of land and walking from room to room your constantly weaving between what was two buildings but now one very large one. As Dominic explains “Everything tells a story. Street number 20-24 were one, but 1780's were split, a story was added to what is number 22, in addition a different style was then added onto number 24. The owner went onto build number 26 being the grand house a few doors down that later became William Morris's house - Kelmscott House. It's all part of the endless cycle of things being changed and added on to”. Sounds confusing? It is! You feel like you need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your why out.

Above each door, under layers of paint, are what looks like name plates. At one point 32 bedrooms were across the two properties, now nine, which were all connect by multiple corridors weaving around the floors with wash rooms dotted throughout. Now each of children’s rooms inter-connect across one floor through hidden doors and spaces, all reflecting the child’s personality and passions.

There are traces and historical references to the period of which the rooms were decorated; touches of bottle green appear along with stencilled walls hidden within cupboards. Up to twenty little plaster lions heads surround the perimeter of what is now the living room. Various parts of the house is very Sir John Soane in style, the owners suspect one of Soane's understudies may have lived in the house at some point as the detailing is excessive and the entrance hall seems no coincidence.

The house is vast with steps and staircases, three in total, leading to all corners. Whenever possible Dominic likes to incorporate stairs in projects as he feels to go up on and down another makes a house feel more luxurious, spacious and interesting. Dominic gives a movie analogy, “The Fiddler on the Roof story- one to go up, one to down and one just for the sake of it”.

Dominic believes we have an obsession with minimalism, ‘if you can walk into a room turn 360 degrees walk out again and be able to describe it perfectly, to me that is a failure of a room. It’s fantastic when you are able to sit in a space and your eye lights onto something and then looks at it and wonders what it is. You’re endless rewarded by different things to see and explain, or which explain things to you. It's fun”.

The house is layers of different textures and the owners are keen to retain all the detailing and fixtures. For the missing section of cornice in the kitchen (accessible through a stable door so Tiggy, the Irish Wolf Hound, can’t gain access to ‘clean the table’) a mould was created. The plasterer assumed he’d be replacing the remaining and deteriorating sections, but no, he was to only add the missing sections.

Their passion for retaining the rich layer of history is one that they are happy to explore over time. It’s a living puzzle that’s full of little secrets and Dominic and heather want to add and subtract, relocate and repair as and when they feel. I suspect it’s more a case of when they happen to fall upon a piece on their travels.  Whether it’s cupboards reclaimed from a house in Cornwall or a flooring they’ve carried from house to house over the years, the Warrens are in no rush to complete, as Heather says ‘they are in the business of renovating and experiencing the space”

Loving the history and variety of chairs, you'll find over 100 chairs, in all shapes, size, period and style throughout the house. As Dominic explains, ‘we have a pair of chairs from the 1800's that were bought from an antique market. One would say they are valuable but they are in desperate need of repair, but this in fact is makes them more interesting”. Therefore are no plans to mend them; it's not what they’re worth, it’s how they reveal history, structure and material that he finds appealing.

Main bedroom
Once what was the sitting room for a short period, but now it’s the main bedroom, is the grandest room in the house which is unusual in that it’s on the top floor. With the river only a few meters away, the sun bounces off the water and produces mesmerizing reflections across the ceiling and walls of exposed plaster and paint. To some this would require immediate painting but not Dominic and Heather, they wouldn't dream of touching altering the environment.

The Window
The small square window on the east side of the house was inspired by a picture found hanging on the wall at the time of buying titled The Annunciation. It shows a shaft of light that is often prominent only in pictures and something rarely seen in reality. When the opportunity arouse of building a new window in bedroom this image came to mind. Facing east it allows the light to flood through creating a shaft light, hence it’s known to family and friends as The Annunciation window.

As you fall in love with one fire surround you’re quick to change your mind as soon as you enter the next room. There are 17 fireplaces in total but at the time the Warrens moved in only one had a surround. Over the years the remaining mantles have been salvaged for projects, most needing to be adapted to fit.

All the doors in the house tell a story, some original, others added, most being relocated and or adjusted at some point. Some split down the middle to accommodate smaller spaces whilst elsewhere they have hung to open in the opposite direction.

Described by Dominic as ‘meat to the butcher’, unbeknown to Heather, Dominic had arranged for her have your portrait drawn by renown illustrator, David Downton. She described the process as a privilege and feels he captured the real her at a important mileage stone in her life.

Large heads
The unusually large pair of heads in the chapel were salvaged from a garage sale in Cornwall (the same one the supplied the large heads and various other bits) and given a new home in the chapel, an area mostly used for large family gatherings.

The Chapel
Walking though the kitchen you enter a large open area known as the chapel, most likely built in the 1950's. In 1976 the building was sold to a housing association which convert the space into two communal dining rooms, four kitchens and four public bathrooms all fitted with the what Dominic describes as ‘dull 1970's fittings’.
Above the 30 feet high ceiling and the barrel volt is a bedroom whilst underfoot the flooring has been laid to resemble the deck of a boat. “Over such a large area the laminate floor which was raised to what was the height of, what was, the alter at the far end of the chapel, would like quite dull so to add interest we laid a pattern that visually continues beyond the walls”, explains Dominic.
Making the most of the west facing morning sun, the Warren’s opened up the space.  Continuing the theme of uncovering glimpse of what’s to come, Dominic created what he calls arrow-slots in the walls to reveal what’s beyond.

The entrance hall of the house is reminiscent of the breakfast room at the Soane museum with its indented ceiling (a ceiling within a ceiling) and features more miniature lions heads within the cornicing. Miniature goat’s heads also appear with handkerchiefs hanging from their horns, surely a reference of some sort, in the architectural detail. The entrance floor was originally covered with vinyl and when removed it revealed a beautiful, inches thick wood parquet patterned area. The pair of busts are a result of Dominic and Heather shopping for a chest of drawers!

Text: Melinda Ashton Turner

Still photography: Kevin Davies

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