Bob Munton & Lesley Ann Sandbach
I have never been entirely convinced of the merits of melding a traditional architectural style with the ultra modern. They can seem strange bedfellows: age-worn brick against polished steel and glass, the former looking askance at the latter as if to say: ‘who let you in?’ But sometimes it works and when it does the effect can be dramatic. The exquisite home of Bob Munton, OBE (more on that later) and his wife Lesley Ann Sandbach, set deep in the Surrey countryside, is a case in point. It’s a remodelled barn – allegedly designed by the renowned early 20th century English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, but no one is quite certain – and triumphantly mixes the elegance and beauty of the Arts and Crafts movement with the terseness of Le Corbusier.
Bob and Lesley Ann moved to their home in 2007 and since then have lovingly transformed it. The kitchen – modernist, spare and uncompromising – includes a black 4-oven electric AGA cooker bought recently from the AGA shop in Cobham. The AGA sits confidently in this large space alongside an impressive range of cupboards and an island unit with a polished dark glass top and long, shiny drawers. There’s even an ‘AGA’ setting on the sophisticated Lutron lighting control system which, when pressed, allows the lights in the alcove above the AGA to come on slowly. It reminded me of that curtain up moment at the theatre announcing that the stage (or cooker in this case) is ready for action. Showmanship if ever I saw it.
Most of the functional rooms are on the ground floor: a double height sitting room with inglenook fireplace, a study, master bedroom and kitchen, as well as those critical spaces such as a pantry (laden with home-made, AGA-cooked preserves), a boot room and a laundry room. Everywhere you look the barn’s Arts and Crafts heritage abounds: softened wooden latches on the doors, elegant casement windows and herringbone brickwork. To complement it, the barn is also full of interesting objects d’art as well as paintings by such luminaries as Vanessa Bell and William Scott.
But there’s also an ultra-modern dining room that looks out onto the gardens through sheets of floor-to-ceiling glass. This space is part of the new extension and doesn’t seem at all at odds with the adjoining Arts and Crafts barn. A small easel is set up on the dining room table with the latest botanical watercolour created by Lesley Ann. She studied for a diploma in botanical illustration at the English Garden School at Chelsea Physic Garden in the late 1990s, at the same time as she and Bob were running their high profile exhibitions business.
It was because of Bob’s work in this sector over a period of some 30 years that he was awarded an OBE for services to British industry. Bob recalls that the Prince of Wales, who presided over the day’s events at the Palace, “was well-informed and knew exactly who I was and what I had done”.
All around the barn are the beautifully landscaped gardens – tended faithfully by Bob and Lesley Ann – that include examples of the couple’s current enterprise: Muntons Traditional Plant Supports, set up in 2009 on their retirement from the exhibitions business. These distinctive mild steel supports are useful for anything from peonies to clematis and sweet peas, and are designed to “restore order and tidiness to your garden”. The couple recently branched out into garden furniture and ornamental objects, as well as creating bespoke pieces for the likes of Arne Maynard, one of Britain’s most talented garden designers.
Lesley Ann says that Bob is “endlessly entrepreneurial” and that the idea for creating Muntons Plant Supports came about because they simply could not find anything similar – and of the right quality – made in the UK.
It is here that we must introduce the inimitable Dave Helm. “When we bought the house, Dave came with it,” says Bob. “Although he was retired he did all of the odd jobs for the previous owners and continued to do so for us. He is also a first-class engineer; he can design and make and build. When Lesley Ann drew the design for the first garden support, Dave said he could make them. He found the Sheffield steel fabricators that we use to this day and he does some of the final welding of the individual elements, wrought in Sheffield and brought to our workshop close to the Old Barn for finishing and despatch to customers.”
Dave’s talents are seemingly endless. It was he who discovered that there was a false ceiling in the kitchen. When it was removed, it revealed the original – although rather worn – roof beams. “Dave painted them with a toothbrush,” adds Bob. “A toothbrush?” I ask. “Yes, the beams were so uneven and full of small ridges that it was the only way to do it.” I had visions of this latter day Michelangelo lying on his back on a scaffolding tower painting with his trusty micro brush. Dave clearly deserves an OBE of his own for services to restoring unforgiving beams.
As we talk, Bob brings out a plate of his own home-made ginger biscuits and shows us some of the loaves of bread he has made recently on the AGA cooker. Huge sacks of flour in the larder testify to the fact that Bob bakes often. And in industrial quantities. “Bob’s the baker and roaster,” says Lesley Ann, “I’m more the support person,” she adds, without a hint of irony.
“But we love entertaining. We had 14 for dinner last week. Bob made a rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, apple crumble… all using the AGA.” I ask them both if they had experience of using an AGA cooker. It transpires that each of them grew up with either an AGA or a Rayburn cooker in the family home.
Says Lesley Ann: “I was brought up with a solid fuel AGA. My mother battled with it and when the wind was in the wrong direction the hotplates glowed! I also fondly remember my mother warming our underwear on the plate rack above the AGA and bringing it to us so that we could put it on in bed on cold winter’s days.” Bob’s story is slightly less romantic: he recalls the days when he dried his football boot laces on the family Rayburn.
Bob and Lesley Ann’s aspirations for Muntons Traditional Plant Supports are for it to grow in a steady, personal way. “Right now,” says Lesley Ann, “we’re ‘white van men’. We turn up at customers’ homes with an order and they say, ‘Oh, we didn’t expect to see you’. But that way you meet your customers.” It’s all very homespun and, if it isn’t stretching the point too far, is in the true tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement.