Simply Wilde about the barn

In the third week of our fascinating series on house history, pop star turned gardening expert KIM WILDE tells how converting a Hertfordshire barn into a family home prompted her to trace the place’s romantic past, unearthing a tale of black knights and Thirties eccentrics.

Is your home packed with history? Kim Wilde’s certainly is – even though she’s the first person to actually live there. The truth is that it doesn’t necessarily matter how old or new your house is, because there could well be fabulous stories about the land it’s built on, or there may even have been properties on the same site before.
One of the great aids in the house historian’s quest for information is the humble map. Maps of all shapes, sizes and dates can reveal a wealth of detail about your home. The old maps on this page are among the documents which revealed the past of Kim Wilde’s home, a converted barn on the estate of an ancient farm. The story that emerges – with help from Kim’s local history society – is one of knights in armour, evil deeds, ghosts… and roisterous partying.
Kim, 39, a former pop star turned horticulturalist who designed the gardens featured in the television series Better Gardens, lives in The Great Barn on Sisservernes Farm in a Hertfordshire village.
‘I bought the barn ten years ago’, says Kim who lived with her actor/singer husband Hal Fowler, 32 (they met while both appearing in the musical Tommy in London’s West End), and their children Harry, two-and-a-half, and Rose, six months. ‘It hadn’t been used in years. The weather boarding was all broken and it was full of hay bales and junk, but I fell in love with it immediately. I knew it needed an enormous amount of work, but I liked the idea of inventing my own home. I’d spent seven months doing up my previous home, a flat in London, so perhaps I have a need to restore places. There’s a wonderful satisfaction in it.’
Her fascination with the ancient building has increased as she has discovered more about its 1,000-year history, the story of which starts in 1002, before the Norman Conquest, when the Manor was sold by King Aethelred The Unready to his ‘faithful minister’ Aefelm, who in turn gave it to the Abbot of St Albans. Successive abbots, who were then lords of the manor, installed tenants until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.
The first mention of a house called Sisservernes – the farm on which Kim Wilde’s Great Barn is situated – occurs in 1125 when Lord William FitzAnketil was the abbot’s tenant. He was followed by William de Sisservernes in 1166. The name is thought to be Norman French, meaning ‘six alder trees’ and it may be that the family were descendants of the FitzAnketils, but that they took their new name from the alder trees outside their house. The de Sisservernes were knights, but one of them had far from shining armour. A local legand says he was so wicked that when his coffin was place on the bier to be drawn to church, the horses refused to pull it on to consecrated ground. He had to be buried instead near the house and his spirit was reported to haunt the grounds.
In 1303 the property passed to a relative called Thomas Cheval, whose family lived at Sisservernes for two centuries until Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1539. The king’s barber-surgeon, John Penne, married Lucy Cheval and bought the estate from the king in 1545 for £926 9s 4½d. The village sign still bears his crest of a comb and three plovers. Penne’s descendants lived in the property until 1653, when Thomas Penne sold it to a wealthy grocer from London, George Poyner, a non-conformist, who allowed one of his barns to be used for this form of worship. The barn, which stands next to Kim’s barn, is still known as Chapel Barn.
Kim’s Great Barn, meanwhile, was probably late Tudor or Stuart in originand would have been used for storing corn before threshing.
Poyner built himself a large new house elsewhere in the village and left Sisservernes and its outbuildings to his younger son, John, who in 1698 sold it to Thomas Kentish. Kentish, who left a bequest in his will for ten dozen loaves of bread to be given to the poor every year, was an absentee landlord and leased the farm to a succession of tenants. The freehold was sold by the Kentish family to a William Blake of Danesbury in the late 19th century and there was then a succession of tenant farmers until Blake sold the freehold to Harrison Bell early in the 20th century. At that time the farm was still large, but after his death, his daughter, known in the village as Miss Harrison Bell, sold off portions of it, keeping only a couple of fields.
Miss Harrison Bell ran a poultry farm. In the inter-war years she also ran a training school for ‘prospective farmers’ wives’. These young women, who wore a uniform very similar to that adopted by the Land Army in World War II, would pay to work on the farm and learn how to look after the hens. The formidable Miss Harrison Bell obviously also had a sense of humour; the rows of hen huts were each given a smart London address, such as Bond Street or Regent Street. On Miss Harrison Bell’s death in 1970 the farm, barns and land were bought by the Austin family, who sold the barn to Kim.
‘It cost about £250,000 for the barn and three acres of land, and then of course a lot more to do the work’, says Kim. ‘I can’t remember how much. It had to be stripped down to a wooden skeleton – it looked like a giant dinosaur at one point – and foundations had to be put in and all the services.
‘I wanted to be true to the space, so I kept this big central living space open – it must be 40 or 50 feet from floor to ceiling at the highest point – and built the bedrooms and gallery just at one end. The lean-to sheds became the kitchen and my office and now a playroom, and we’ve made the adjoining stables into guest rooms. Someone told me that these huge oak beams came from the Armada, but that might just be a local legend. Ovbiously, the barn was never lived in, but the farm has quite a history. The original building was one of the first in the village. There’s a story that there’s a tunnel running from it to the church, but no one’s ever found it. I’ve also found the date 1891 scratched on one of the highest beams, and there are various initials carved around the place, no doubt from wild barn dances held here over the years. I like to think there were some good times had in here, as indeed there still are.
‘I’d always rather hankered to do gardening. Much as I loved my music career, I always knew it was finite; I knew I wasn’t going to be like my dad, Marty, who’ll be starting another 60 or 70-date tour this autumn. So I felt there would be something else I’d do, but it would have to be as creative and fulfilling as music. Then, when I was pregnant with Harry, I did a short course in horticulture and it took off from there.
‘We’ve landscaped about an acre. My style is to have firm guidelines and plant exuberantly within those. That philosophy probably runs through my life and even the way we bring up the kids. Give them a firm framework so they know the boundaries and then let them go mad.
‘I feel very strongly that I was meant to live in this house, that it somehow claimed me. I like to think that in the next century the people who live here will look back and say “that woman who used to be a pop star did this and that”.
‘In some ways it’s nice to live in a place where humans haven’t lived. Sometimes at night when it’s windy you can hear it creaking and feel it move and there’s almost the sense of being on a ship out at sea. I lived here on my own for eight years before my marriage, but I never felt small or swamped by it.’

Kim Wilde’s home

1002 – The Saxon king, Aethelred the Unready, sells the manor to Aefelm, who in turn gives it to the Abbey of St. Albans. The abbots became lords of the manor until the dissolution of the monasteries.

1125 – The abbot’s tenant of the land is the crusader knight William FitzAnketil. This is the first mention of a house called Sisservernes – Norman French for six alders.

1166 – William de Sisservernes owns the property. He may have been a descendant of FitzAnketil, and took his name from the house.

1303-1539 – Sisservernes is held by a family called Cheval until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

1545 – Henry VIII barber-surgeon John Penne, who married Lucy Cheval, buys the estate from the king for £926 9s 4½d.

1653-1698 – Thomas penne, a descendant of John and Lucy, sells the property to wealthy London grocer George Potner

1698 – Poyner’s son sells the property to Thomas Kentish. It then stays in the Kentish family.

Late 19th Century – William Blake of Danesbury buys the property and makes it a tenant farm.

Early 20th Century – Sisservernes is bought by Harrison Bell, whose unmarried daughter sells some of the land and runs a poultry business

1970 – Sisservernes sold to Sebastien Austin

1990 – Kim Wilde buys The Great Barn from the Austins.

Compiled by research editor ROBERT BARRETT

How we researched Kim’s house

Local history societies can be an invaluable help in researching your home and you should always check whether there is one in your area. The Country Records Office will have details as will the Society of Genealogists.
Much of the research into Kim Wilde’s property was carried out by the Local History Society, founded 20 years ago by Nicholas Maddes and a couple of friends. It now has between 50 and 60 local members and another 20 who live in other parts of the UK or overseas. Mr Maddex, a local government officer, says: ‘Pulling all the details together from sources like parish and school records, census returns and old photos, can be as exciting as researching a novel, except that it’s not fiction. Knowing its history can give a community a great sense of pride. It also pulls together those who’ve always lived there and those who are new to the place.’
He says maps prove very useful especially when used alongside a census. ‘The map will show something like the pub or the church or the manor house, and the census will list the people living in a street. There were no street numbers before the 20th century, but if the census taker walked around in a logical progression you can work out who lived where. So, for instance, you can see there are four houses between the church and the pub and four family names. Sometimes, though, the census taker didn’t progress logically and then you have to use other clues.