Through the keyhole: Albemarle Villa

PUBLISHED: 14:38 05 October 2015 | UPDATED: 14:38 05 October 2015

Albemarle Villa in Plymouth

Albemarle Villa in Plymouth

Matt Austin Images 2013

They are homes which command some of the best views over Plymouth – and one of them is a treasure trove on the inside as well, as Chrissy Harris discovers

There’s a picture of Number Two, Albemarle Villas pinned above my desk. Rather like a teenager would gaze at a poster of their favourite pop star, I often find myself looking longingly at the printout of this beautiful detached Georgian house, gleaming Devon duck-egg blue, with a splash of wisteria hanging under its original cast iron balcony.

Maybe it’s a sign of my, ahem, maturity, but this fine example of Foulston architecture is my latest pin-up.

But anyone who lives in Plymouth will tell you that these seven Grade II-listed houses in Stoke are pretty special.

Built between 1820 and 1827, they command some of the best views in the city, overlooking the Sound and beyond, pretty as a picture. Indeed, there is a well-known engraving of the villas by 19th century artist and architect Thomas Allom.

MP Dame Joan Vickers, a former Army surgeon general, clergy, various military captains, colonels and even a famous Russian spy have all lived in these stunning houses.

So it’s not just me - Albemarle Villas really are iconic.

“They are splendid,” says Andrew Thorburn, who has lived in Number Two with wife Kathy since 1993.

“They are set in the Foulston Heritage Landscape, with the whole sweep down to the Sound. They all have the most phenomenal views.”

Kathy and Andrew ThorburnKathy and Andrew Thorburn

Andrew, a colourful bow-tie-wearing retired chartered surveyor, turns out to be a fantastic tour guide and happy to show off his home to someone who is as smitten with it as he is.

“Smitten is probably not a word I’d use,” he says, laughing at my slightly girly phrase. “More drawn to it, I’d say.”

The Thorburns were living in Durnford Street in Stonehouse when they were told an Albemarle Villa was about to come onto the market, albeit one that was in a desperate state of repair.

A lady had lived in the property on her own for decades, barely venturing out of a couple of rooms and using a Baby Belling cooker in the hallway, rather than the kitchen.

The bath was in an upstairs corridor, the plumbing was rudimentary and there were frogs in the basement.

But, as a chartered surveyor, Andrew could see the potential and after an emotional rollercoaster of a process which saw the couple first lose then eventually secure their dream home, they moved in with their young children, Fiona and Richard, in tow.

“It was one of those occasions where your timing is one thing but a higher authority has other plans,” says Andrew. “It was a miracle!”

He adds: “I remember Kathy had taken the children to the local swimming pool and I walked down to the shallow end with the mortgage papers. She had to sign them there and then while still in the pool. And that was it. It all fell into place.”

The kitchen: originally the butler’s pantry, the kitchen is a homely room, full of original featuresThe kitchen: originally the butler’s pantry, the kitchen is a homely room, full of original features

That, it turned out, was the easy part. Making the house liveable took 18 months of hard graft: plumbing, rewiring, cutting a path though six-feet high brambles in the garden to get to the garage - all the jobs that come with moving into a property that had been “very, very neglected”.

But there were benefits to the neglect. It meant that many of the villa’s beautiful period features: the shutters, the ceiling roses, the Victorian bath, had also been left untouched.

The original Belfast sink was in the butler’s pantry, which the couple made into the kitchen.

(You can still see the butler’s bells above the door. “We use them to play tricks on people,” says Kathy).

On the lower ground floor, which would have been the servants’ quarters, there are plenty of treasures, including a Victorian coal-fired copper washing machine and the original oven range in what would have been the villa’s kitchen in the 1800s.

And best of all, if you look closely at the window in the top of the pantry door, you can see where the maid and servants have etched their names and the date, “1844” into the glass.

As if that wasn’t enough to wow an already amazed visitor, Andrew, who clearly loves this hidden section of the house, then shows me the ‘time capsule’.

“We had owned the house for about six months when we discovered this other locked door down here with no key,” says Andrew.

Albemarle Villa in PlymouthAlbemarle Villa in Plymouth

“We made a skeleton key and…look!”

He opens the door to a cupboard full of, well, everything.

“That’s the original wallpaper up there,” says Andrew. “All the crockery is exactly where it was – we haven’t touched it. The cutlery is all wrapped in its original tissue paper, as it came from the shop. It hadn’t been opened since 1953.”

“There’s all sorts in there,” says Kathy, a retired pharmacist. “There’s sweet-making stuff and little flags from the Coronation, all wrapped in papers from 1953.

“We’ve just left it like a time capsule, really.”

The couple believe the cupboard’s contents probably belonged to the previous lady owner, who never came down to the cellar.

Even her old dance cards were still there with some well-known Plymouth names pencilled in for waltzes and foxtrots.

“When we came to look around the house, she said to us: ‘Oh, you don’t want to go down there’,” says Andrew who admits that the lower ground floor is his favourite part of the house.

It’s soon clear to see why when he reveals the ‘gun room’, a perfect man cave, with antique weaponry on the walls, a polar bear skin rug and a huge fireplace.

Andrew says it’s the perfect venue for a post-Plymouth Albion match gathering (he can watch the game at Brickfields from his balcony).

“Just picture it,” he says. “After the rugby match, down here with a roaring fire, all the candles alight and a few nice beers.”

This is a couple that loves entertaining. They are committed members of their church – St Paul’s in Stonehouse – and have hosted many gatherings and garden parties at their beautiful home.

But this is a house that deserves to be celebrated and the Thorburns are doing a pretty good job of that.

Me, I’ll just keep looking at my picture….

To find out more about Albemarle Villas, and a residents’ campaign to stop a nearby three-acre field being sold off for housing, contact the Stoke Damerel Conservation Society on 01752 564847 or tweet @J_Foulston

Garden of delights

The garden is Kathy’s domain. In the back, there is a 1909 apple tree, called a Laxton’s Epicure, which still gives the couple a ‘prolific’ yield of fruit.

“I try to keep the front garden fairly low-maintenance,” says Kathy. “But things tend to take over.”

“There are two types of plants in this garden,” adds Andrew. “The tall jobs and the short jobs.”

And who could miss Andrew’s ‘installation’ out back – a painted, dead mimosa tree.

“I’m in the doghouse because I pruned it and the tree surgeon killed it,” admits Kathy.

“Yes, we paid good money to have that killed,” says Andrew, who saw its potential and created a work of art out of it. “It’s called Johnstone’s Primer Number One. I called Johnstone’s (a paint firm) and asked if they would sponsor the work. They weren’t terribly interested.”

“I don’t blame them,” says Kathy.

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