When you first catch a glimpse of Braylsham Castle from the rutted track on the side of the valley that leads down to it, you are immediately overawed by the magnificence of its authenticity. It looks as old, if smaller, than its distinguished historical neighbours — Bodiam, Scotney, Leeds, Hever and Igtham Mote.
However, this is no fairytale historic castle that has somehow arisen magically from the lake that surrounds it. It is an entirely new family home, built by orthodontist, aviator, sailor, one-time garage owner, amateur Formula One racing driver, writer on social anthropology and self confessed eccentric John Mew.
It is the ultimate realisation of one Englishman’s dream – not a twee modern pastiche but a mighty mediaeval style edifice hewn from ancient stones and reclaimed timbers, with battlements, a drawbridge and even a rather forbidding dungeon.
In the summer of 2001 – ten years after they conceived what must surely be the most outstanding, as well as eccentric, self-build project to grace these pages – John and Jo Mew pronounced their self build project complete and entered the Traditional Home category section of the Daily Telegraph/Homebuilding and Renovating Awards.
The judges were so impressed that they awarded the Mews a special award, the Murray Armor Award, named after the doyen of the self-build world who died in 1998, as a special acknowledgement of their outstanding effort.
It all started on John’s 60th birthday in 1988, when Jo, his wife of 37 years, bought him a three-and-a-half tonne digger. He used this to re-excavate the lake that had dried up at the end of the 19th century on land adjoining their home in countryside to the south of the small Sussex town of Mayfield.
In 1990 they had the chance to buy a ruined Victorian farm labourer’s cottage a few hundred yards up the slope from the lake and paid their neighbour £95,000 for the cottage and 10 acres of land that included the half of the lake they did not already own and the surrounding fields. There was permission to rebuild the cottage but the Mews very quickly realised that what they would really like to do was to demolish the old building and use the materials in a new property about 100 yards lower down the slope, where the edge of the lake now stands. The idea was that the new house should be an authentic replica of a moated fortified mediaeval manor house on a small spit of land they would later turn into an island.
“We found ourselves with a ruined cottage in a totally unspoilt valley with permission to build. It really needed something very special,” says John. “A castle on an island was the only sort of building I could think of that would actually make the valley more attractive. There are very few perfect sites in southern England and we were sitting on one. I really did think it deserved to have something beautiful built there.”
John used local architect Stephen Langer to assist him in gaining planning permission. John and Stephen knew that planning officers at Wealden District Council would oppose any new building in this area of outstanding natural beauty. So they employed a planning consultant, who advised giving the planning committee plenty of time to take in the full scope and merits of the proposal.
Gaining planning consent in fact took 15 months and to this day John does not think that they would have been successful had the application been ‘called in’ by the Minister. The plans were turned down on the first application and so the Mews decided to commission a local watercolour artist, George Hawkins, to paint an impression of what they had in mind and posted a copy of it to each member of the planning committee, a number of whom then visited the site.
“Eventually we managed to convince the members that this was an exceptional project and the application was passed by the planning committee on a 9-7 vote,” says John. “The planning officers were appalled.”
That was only the beginning. Since then they have had eight years of backbreaking toil, as they have done a vast amount of the work themselves. John was regularly working on the project three days a week as well as practising as an orthodontist in Tunbridge Wells and London. Whenever they were at home their three grownup children lent a hand. So did an army of their student friends who were paid for their efforts.
Some of the most memorable moments include digging the sewer trenches, which had to be 9ft deep in order to go beneath the ground where it was to be severed from the castle at its narrowest point where the drawbridge now stands.
There was also the saga of the steps in the two towers. There are nearly 90 of these and every single one was cast in concrete using carefully chosen dyes and special sands. John created them using techniques he had learned during his dental training. He reckons that this work alone saved him more than £25,000.
Both towers are faced in reclaimed stone. The smaller one is round and leads down to the dungeon – a basement storage/utility level built largely below the water table – and up to the five en suite bedrooms in the halftimbered wing. The other is large and square, with the spiral staircase attached to the side. It houses the master bedroom and the bathroom and dressing room that serve it on the floor beneath.
As he stands on the roof of the tower above his bedroom John is keen to tell of how he learned to carve stone so he could create the gargoyles, and also oak, for the six ornate carvings he created in the jowl posts supporting the hammer-beamed roof of the great hall, which lies between the two towers.
The great hall has a gigantic fireplace beneath the huge chimney, built from 13,000 bricks, all laid by bricklayer Bill Message, who worked solidly for three years on the project alongside stonemason Mick Nevin, who spent two years there and painfully adapted the windows they acquired from two now demolished Victorian churches to form the door arches in the house and the four gothic stained glass windows in the great hall.
John and Jo’s battles with officialdom are too numerous to list here, but among the most hard-fought was the saga of the fire doors. Because the building is on more than two floors all the internal doors have to be fire-resistant. John wanted to use oak doors of his own design, then found he was required to send away an expensive door as a sacrificial sample. “The cost of destroying it to test its fire resistance was to be £4,000,” he snorts.
In a series of arguments he eventually persuaded building control officers to pass the oak doors he had designed on the basis of his research into the charring rate of oak planks.
What the Mews refer to as the ‘squiffy roof’ – created by offsetting the position of the main A-frame on the supporting walls of the accommodation wing – also raised a few eyebrows at Wealden District Council.
The total cost has been around £350,000 – an astonishingly low figure considering the most recent valuation put the six-bedroomed property at £2m. “We had no pot of gold to built it with – in fact we did it on a shoestring,” says John.
All is not yet finished. John has plans to rebuild the mill – complete with thatched roof and millwheel – that once stood a little farther up the valley. “I just love trying to reproduce beautiful buildings,” he says.