Oak Tree Barn is a building I have known my entire life for I grew up in the tiny North Somerset village of Burrington where it was build in about 1969. With a population of 441 at the turn of the millennium and little more than a primary school, parish rooms and Church to its name Burrington is the place I have always considered to be home. It is where I started school, learned to ride a bicycle and a pony, where I played with my sisters, made my first friends, celebrated many birthdays, suffered my first disappointments, experienced my first crush, my first illicit drinks and cigarettes and where I was both baptised and married.
Nestled at the foot of the Mendip Hills it is in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, something I have rather taken for granted for most of my life I fear but day by day I appreciate more. It is a village of both farmers and commuters, of rural business people, families and now freelancers too. Burrington Church and the village were mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086 and I should probably be better acquainted with the history of the village… but that’s for another day.
The barn itself was built by a neighbour of my parents, a local slightly maverick builder who, with planning permission for an agricultural barn, took a risky and unrewarded punt on fitting it out internally as a residential dwelling. In those days it was possible to gain automatic planning if a property had been lived in for a specific period, but the council got wind of his subterfuge and thereby ensued a long and bitter planning dispute.
My parents’ house in the village was at the end of the field adjacent to the barn and it is from the bathroom of that house that I recall daydreaming out of the window while cleaning my teeth and imagining that I might one day live in the abandoned barn. At that particular time I think it was home to a number of pigs who had been installed there with the express purpose of upsetting neighbours in the hope that residential use of the property would be preferable to this agricultural one! The squealing, mess and odour of the pigs unsurprisingly did little to aid his cause.
In time the barn was truly deserted, animals no longer grazed there but cars were abandoned to slowly rust underneath the metres of dense brambles that gradually took hold in true Sleeping Beauty style. It was an eyesore and in many ways I rather wish I had photos of it in those days, though it would I suppose simply have felt a wasteful use of precious film.
The seed of the dream was planted in my mind though and it was while taking the long way home from our time in Australia in 1997, recently engaged and sharing a desire to build a place of our own that M and I pondered the possibilities of buying and converting the barn. Over the years I have wistfully sketched layouts and plans on a thousand scraps of paper in myriad locations – it’s an idea that just wouldn’t leave me alone.
My father kindly made some enquiries of the local planners and was firmly told that the barn was never to become a residential dwelling. It was non-sensical to me and over the years I have felt aggrieved, frustrated, confused and cross. The barn is on just under an acre of land at the edge of the village, unattached to any farm or farmer and I just couldn’t understand how a home there could be objectionable or undesirable. Still, dreaming knows no logic does it?
What my father did learn though was that it might just be possible to gain permission to use a proportion of the barn as an office, for rural business is always to be supported and encouraged. In the midst of career changes himself he and my mother agreed to try and negotiate a purchase with their erstwhile neighbour. They were successful in both their negotiations and in gaining permission to use part of the barn as an office.
And so, the barn’s story within our family began. M and I married in Burrington in 1998 and our lives moved on. While following his career and having our two lovely girls we lived in London, Hampshire, Munich, Bristol, Somerset, Johannesburg, Brussels and Stockholm. My father stored files and worked at the barn for several years. Mum and Dad invested considerable resources in clearing the property of its vigorously thriving population of nettles and brambles and set about creating an office and cider room within the barn.
Having planted 80 odd cider apple trees in their own adjoining field thoughts of home-brewed scrumpy were enthusiastically encouraged by us all. In honesty the cider was not hugely successful (frankly disgusting and dangerous might be reasonable adjectives!) but the apple press was put to good use for many years in producing the most delicious fresh apple juice from the Bramleys in the garden! I have such happy memories of pressing apples in that room, en famille with whoever could be around, babies in prams, dogs at our heels, toddlers pottering and the laughter and antics of teens. The juice freezes beautifully and my girls still love a glass of cloudy apple juice as it takes them straight back to my parents’ home in their memories.
In more recent years the barn was let to an artist who painted and ran workshops, and after that the local preschool used it for a few years. For a short while we even managed to live in a home of our own in Burrington and I used the barn myself for massage therapy (I have done ‘lots’ of things!), but it was an all too brief period in the village before M’s job moved us once again.
Wherever we lived though, and whatever I was doing, the barn was somehow never very far from my thoughts. I could never quite put my finger on why, I’m not really sure I can even now, but there has been some inextricable link between it and me for as long as I remember.