Saving Nyes Place by Graham Capel
In 1973 Nyes Place was derelict. It had been for the past 9 years since the owners, the Crutcher family of New House Farm had last rented it to tenants. Even then the ground floor was uninhabitable and used for their dogs whilst the tenants lived upstairs. Then the Crutchers who had farmed in the village of Newdigate for most of the last century decided to sell it at auction. Crow, Watkin & Watkin, Estate Agents sold it in November 1973 to three building surveyors from Tunbridge Wells for re-development. They wanted to add a wing at right angles, virtually doubling its size but their plans fell foul of the local planners who appreciated its historic significance and wanted it kept the same. After some demolition work the surveyors abandoned the project and Nyes Place once again fell derelict – even more than before as the rear section had collapsed and you could stand amongst the nettles in the living room and look at the sky! Architectural Heritage year was in 1975 and Mole Valley Council had the choice of a grant to preserve the derelict Nyes Place or an historic building in Leatherhead. Nyes Place was architecturally important as it still retained virtually the whole of the original timber frame dating back to the Tudor times with only a small outshot extension from the 1700s at the rear. However, the Leatherhead property was in the town centre and more publicly visible compared to Nyes Place in the countryside at the very bottom of the Mole Valley District. The Leatherhead property won which left Nyes Place free to be bought by Graham and Barbara Capel, a young couple who had recently restored a terraced cottage in Spring Gardens in Dorking.
Graham and Barbara had recently attended a course at Mickleham Hall on domestic building architecture which had enthused them enough to take up the challenge of restoring Nyes Place to its former glory. But what was the former glory of Nyes Place? Joan Harding of the Domestic Building Research Group had dated Nyes Place as late 1500s – 1575-1585 largely because it was a transition building. This was the transition between open hall (where there was an open hearth for the house fire in the centre of the building) and the end chimney house where the ‘dangerous’ fire was kept outside in a brick or stone chimney at the end of the timber framed building. Transition (or smoke bay) houses bridged the gap between the two. Instead of a full bay width (a bay was 9ft-3in to 9ft 9in wide – the space required to turn two coupled plough oxen) the transition bay was reduced to 4ft, still between two full size bays, and panelled in by wattle panels to stop the smoke fumigating the occupants. This is how Nyes Place had been built, so it was distinctive and easy to date. The only problem was that Newdigate was obviously a ‘backwater’ far behind the rest of the country architecturally. This was only discovered when the oak frame timbers of Nyes Place was ‘dendrodated’ – (tree ring dated) a few years later it was found that the oak trees from which Nyes Place was built were felled in 1603! So, it was not a Tudor building after all but Jacobean, and Newdigate was 25-30 years behind the rest of the country in building terms! Not only that but it was obviously the Newdigate carpenter’s first transition building, as he put in some third floor frame beams alongside the transition bay but left them unconnected without pegs, as the transition bay was in the way!
But, back to the saving of Nyes Place. Graham and Barbara Capel had bought a derelict wreck. The building was still standing but only just. The back part of the roof had fallen in and no windows existed. The 30 ton Horsham Stone roof was intact (Horsham Stone is only found within a day’s oxen cart distance of the Broadbridge Heath stone quarry) but it leaked a lot. On the plus side only two oak timbers in the whole original fame were broken. The first job was to drive a bulldozer round the outside to clear the bracken and brambles so access was available to the building. Even the postman said ‘wouldn’t they let you knock it down then? He was thrown out!
Graham worked in London and around the world but he had 2 teams of builders – the weekday team who were professional builders, and the weekend team who were largely firemen who were ex-building trade, and they vied with each other to see who could achieve the most progress. Graham’s philosophy was –‘If they built it neally 400 years ago with only the carpenter able to read and write, we must be able to rebuild it today with modern intelligence and technology’. Original ‘wattle and daub’ (chestnut wattle woven wall panels caked in cow dung and clay) was still between the oak frames, and these had to be removed and the oak frame sprayed to eradicate woodworm and death watch beetle and insulated with modern thermalite building blocks and fibreglass insulation. The 30 tons of stone roof was taken down (very carefully) and spread out in the garden in kings, queens, jacks, and pawns in order of size whilst the original oak rafters were all found intact along with the cross beams and angled wind braces. These were cleaned and the roof was boarded for stability before felting and then the stones replaced on a cement bed so that they should last another 400 years. The top (third) floor of the building was a mystery. It was one large room at the rear and a bedroom at the front. The circular oak stairs, rather like a castle tower, started at
the front of the building on the ground floor and wound their way up via the second floor where there were three bedrooms, to the big open room at the top. Even the original stair newel post remained, worn smooth with the sweat of hundreds of hands over three and a half centuries of use Initially the big room in the roof was thought to be a grain loft. However, the stairs at the front, the master’s end of the house, would not have gone to a grain loft. In addition there was a huge window barred with 7 mullions at the top facing East where the morning sun rose. Any grain stored in the roof would have lots of light and would soon start to sprout in the damp from the open mullion window. So, it probably was not a grain loft. But what was it? One clue came from the fact that no well was found near the house. There was a pond in the garden – good and watertight in the Newdigate clay. The 1841Tythe Award maps of New House Farm, which had been part of the Newdigate Place Estate, showed the field behind Nyes Place was called Flax Platt. Flax was used in linen making and it was ‘retted’ in a pond. So, the pond was always there and provided the house water rather than a well, and flax was made into cloth (called Newdigate Frizzle?) possibly in the big room at the top of Nyes Place. The ‘revelation’ came when Graham, who was a Freeman of the City of London, discovered that the ancient City of London Weavers Guild had the sign of seven bars, and a motto existed – seven lights for a weaver’ . The mullion window on the top floor had seven mullions ‘seven lights for a weaver’! So, Nyes Place was not a Tudor or even a Jacobean farmhouse – it was the weaving house for the Newdigate Place Estate along with ‘Tanhurst’ – Tanhouse Farm just down the road which was the estate tannery. But why Nyes Place? Well, research through the local Newdigate Society indicated that there was a lime kiln near to the entrance where Nyes Place was built operated by John Nye and John Kemp in the mid-1500s when the whole of the Mole Valley must have been plumes of smoke from hundreds of lime kilns producing lime to break up the Newdigate clay for farming. The lime was extracted from the North Downs lime/chalk pits near Box Hill and Betchworth which are still there today.
Ernie, the first carpenter, had to go after he tried to straighten an original oak door frame, but his successor Don, who was a trade shuttering carpenter, was ‘magic’ with old oak. He made five superb doors from salvaged original floor boards, and scouring bonfire sites revealed some old round head nails and a couple of very old hinges which might have come from the medieval iron works at Ewood where there were once hammer ponds for making iron, not far from the present Surrey Oaks pub. These matched some of the ironwork on original doors which had survived from the time that the house was built in the early seventeenth century.
The old Oak frame had moved over the 373 years and the house had broken its back when the nine inch base timbers had rotted. This dropped the floors of the rooms at front and rear by nine inches. The house hung on the brick chimney which had been built in the transition bay in the mid-1600s. It must have been built before 1660 when the brick was standardised to today’s pre-metric brick size, as the chimney was all built of pre-1660 ‘Salmon’ bricks. The floors of all upper rooms had to be ‘levelled’ to get a reasonably flat floor again, but it left a nine inch underfloor cavity for mice to run through!
The restoration of Nyes Place took thirteen months and Graham and Barbara were able to celebrate Christmas at Nyes Place in December 1977 with their young son, Simon, even if Barbara did burn the palm of her hand on their new scientific ceramic hob cooker, and her mother had to take over.
We have lived there ever since. We even achieved a recommendation at the 1978 Civic Trust Awards for the rebuild of Nyes Place.
Graham Capel – November 2016 – 50 years later.