Thursday, 30 April 2015
Not many people can claim that hundreds of couples have tied the knot in their living room or that their house was for decades a vital destination for thousands of West Berkshire residents.
Peake House closed its doors as a register office in November 2006, but almost ten years later, Clare and Jason Sheffield still regularly find people on their doorstep looking to register a newborn baby.
While most Newbury residents will have passed through its doors for a wedding or to register a birth or death, only a select few will have seen it since it was restored to its original use as a four bedroom private home.
The detached property on Newtown Road started life as a private home called Winton House in 1897 but was bought by the then Berkshire County Council in 1949.
The house was named after Harold Peake, who was chairman of the Berkshire County Council Elementary Education Sub-Committee and the county libraries committee and is best remembered for nearly four decades as honorary curator of Newbury’s museum.
The house is now owned by Clare Sheffield, a designer who runs S&T Design, her husband Jason and their two young daughters. Until they moved in four years ago, they lived just yards away from the property, never realising that one day it would be their dream home.
Clare is an award-winning designer who has worked with Crabtree & Evelyn, Fortnum and Mason and is the creative brains behind the branding of the Sainsbury’s Basics range. As she works from home, she needed a calm, light-filled studio to inspire her, combined with a family living area with a flexible and open plan layout.
Bringing the offices up-to-date and converting it into an elegant, contemporary house was not without its challenges though. Having spent so many years as council offices, there was a warren of rooms, suspended polystyrene ceilings, a thick vault door and woodchip wallpaper to contend with. Additionally, the original staircase had been mercilessly hacked in half and an ugly 1970s fire screen added across the top.
The couple worked with Kate Cooper of Absolute Architecture, an award-winning architect who specialises in residential properties, as well as friend and neighbour. Kate understood the family’s needs and the balance between retaining the house’s character while ensuring it worked for the Sheffields. As it had been used as office space for some years, she had to look beyond the faded carpets and plasterboard to visualise the spaces as domestic ones.
It was Kate too who found the property for the couple. She said: “I had a good feel of what they were looking for, so this house was actually only the third property we looked at.
When the site put up for sale by West Berkshire Council, various uses were suggested, including a GP or dentist surgery, a vets or a school. Plans were even submitted to convert it into two blocks of flats with no parking, but we knew it would be perfect as a family home as there was no need to extend; it just needed someone to see its potential and to make better use of the space.”
Clare was struck by the amount of natural light and the feeling of calm and fell in love with the property. The couple were so keen to start work that they stopped off on the way home from hospital after the birth of baby Harriette (now aged three) just before they took possession of the keys to have one final look before they moved in.
The office-like façade with creepers has been replaced with a fresh “heritage grey” exterior and the room that hosted thousands of civil and marriage ceremonies is now their living room. The reception area and back office have been opened up and are now a dream kitchen with windows overlooking the child-friendly garden which was previously the office car park.
Kate added: “There was a balance in that you have to decide how far to go to reinstate the original features and proportions while understanding the flexible layouts and open plan way people live now.”
The very room where Kate herself had been interviewed at Peake House prior to her own marriage was converted into a spacious child’s bedroom, with fireplace reinstated and the neighbouring family bathroom is unrecognisable from its former use as a staff kitchenette and toilets.
Clare said: “It took tremendous skill from Kate. The back of the house is essentially a flat roof with extension added on by the council in the 1980s) and originally felt like a rabbit warren with toilets and interview rooms everywhere. She had to think about how to use this space and integrate it without it feeling like a bolt on.
“Kate understood our brief perfectly and wasn’t afraid to do things that might be considered unconventional such as transforming a room off one of the bedrooms and opening it up into the landing to make it expansive and full of light. It was so much more than just turning the building into a beautiful architectural space - Kate was interested in how we live and function.”
First appeared in Out and About magazine, free with the Newbury Weekly News (23rd April 2015)