Within South Gloucestershire there are 37 monuments which have national status. These are known as scheduled monuments. Scheduled monuments are monuments and archaeological sites of national importance, which are given the highest level of protection. The ‘Old Church of St Helen’ is one of those monuments.
Of the earliest house, little now remains save the ghost of a medieval ground plan. The position of the medieval doorway can be seen in the wall on the churchyard side of the house. It is 2 medieval feet (26.5 modern inches) wide. In the earliest house the door led directly into the hall or main reception room. Later there would have been a passage formed by a wooden screen running right across the house to a doorway in the opposite wall.
The medieval hall would have been 36 medieval feet by 18 wide, open to a roof somewhat lower than the present one. The very first kitchen in the home would have been on the other side of the screen passage.
Later, joists and floorboards would have been placed over the parlour and hall to make upper rooms. Access was by a small staircase, the outline masonry of which lies in the thickness of the wall in the corner of the modern dining room and in the bedroom above.
The main axis of the house, preserved until now was fairly north/south. This was no accident – to orient the house otherwise would have resulted in one excessively cold face and in summer, at least, one excessively hot face.
A further reason for avoiding south orientation, it is said, was the need to avoid moonlight falling on a sleeping person’s face, since it was thought this could make a sleeping person demented!
The house was enlarged, redecorated inside and generally reworked outside in extensive fashion in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century. Inside the house, the room which today is the study received its magnificent plaster ceiling (so probably did part of what is now the drawing room). The plastering was often done by travelling Italian craftsmen but the actual choice of detail motifs was left to the house owner. In this case he chose the Tudor rose, which combined both the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York, to signify the end of the War of the Roses. For the study he also chose the pelican piercing its own breast to feed its young – a symbol of self sacrifice.
For the lounge the owner chose a curious native head looking like an Aztec Indian from the headress but not the facial hair. The two ceilings were ornamented at the same time since both have additional motif of the stylised coronet of a marquis – five strawberry leaves and five balls.
At about the same time a new double chimney breast was built in the old screen passage but only the study fireplace can now be seen. There would have been communicating doors at each side.
Also at about this time a wall was inserted between the present study and dining room to make a private parlour.
To the southeast of the lounge a new kitchen, the second, was built. The trace of an archway can still be seen on the outside wall of the house and the remains of two walls of the extension, one with a filled-in window, now form part of the garden wall around the terrace.
In the late Seventeenth Century the house seems to have been enlarged still further. A new and imposing south wing was added, where the terrace is now. The existing west front of the house advanced by some seven and a half feet because a corridor, running the length of the house both at ground floor and first floor levels was added.
Then a north wing was built to balance the south wing and provide a servants’ hall and yet another kitchen for the house – its third.
At that time the whole building seems to have been three storeys tall, the bedrooms right at the top being for the servants. Access to these bedrooms was by a new staircase, on the site of the present main one. Some of the present wooden stairs and bannsiter rails may well have come from this period, but if so they have been altered, not least of all y turning the whole staircase by ninety degrees.
Access to the main first floor rooms would have been by a similar staircase on the south side of the entrance but going only to first floor level. There are signs in the external wall here that old windows, similar to those still existing on the other side, were blocked up at a later date. The present drawing room fireplace is in the stair well.
Lastly, exactly between the wings, a new ‘Classical’ style doorway was erected, bearing the date 1683. It seems probable from this and from the pieces of stone moulding that survive – later re-built into the walls – that the building was faced with fine Bath stone with string-course mouldings and elaborate carvings over all the doors and windows.
This was the state of the building at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century as can be seen in Kipp’s engraving in the print on the first floor landing. Kipp also shows elaborate stable ranges and large formal gardens – copies of the French royal gardens at Versailles.
Colonel Veel, who owned the house in the Seventeenth Century, during the Civil War, fought for Charles II against Cromwell and the Parliament, lost and fled into exile abroad. He returned at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, no doubt to grow tobacco – a New World crop for which the district around Alveston was then famous. His heirs under later Stuart Kings and Queens, until the death of Queen Anne in 1714, saw the fortunes of the house at their height.
Inside the house, the stone-flagged kitchen of the time – the third, you will recall, can still clearly be seen. There was a hob range above which was a gun rack. The thick wall would have once contained chimneys and ovens. Against another wall is the sort of combined seat and table which would have been used by servants at that time. The high back would have kept draughts off the servants as the wing chairs did for the gentry.
In the late Eighteenth Century the house was owned by local farmers and its condition steadily deteriorated with time. The buildings to the south east of the present drawing room were abandoned and the whole of the south wing was allowed to fall into ruin – probably after extensive and prolonged use as a farm store.
In the Victorian times, when the old church of St Helen was abandoned in favour of the newly built one a mile away, much of the wooden panneling from the old church was taken into the house. It may still be seen in the study and some upstairs rooms.
By the end of the 1914-18 war the present drawing room, which has a stone-flagged floor under the parquet, was in use partly as a dairy and partly as a cider store.
The present ‘Classical’ main entrance then gave onto a stable yard so that it was regarded as a ‘back door’. It was at this time that farm tackle was stored upstairs and the farmer and his family lived in what is now the dining room.
In the 1920s the smaller farmhouse next door was built and Old Church Farm ceased to be part of a working farm. A solicitor bought it shortly afterward. He rebuilt walls and replaced nearly all the stone mullions of the windows. He swept away a lot of ramshackle outbuildings to the north, by the present back entrance, and built his servants’ wing there over a cellar which was dug in the home to house the boiler for the new central heating system. He turned the present main staircase through ninety degrees and shortened it to make room for a new cloakroom. In doing this he created a ‘void’ in the house large enough to hide a man, which has no obvious entrance, all attempts to find one having failed. The new owner then placed, or replaced, the present large fireplaces in the drawing room and dining rooms and the smaller one in the breakfast room. On the outside, the roof was re-covered and the south face rebuilt completely some distance further back. Much effort was made covering the old farmyard with hundreds of tons of soil. So much earth was used that the whole ground level outside was raised over a foot and steps had to be constructed to go down to what became, once more, the main entrance of the house.
The housekeepers’ cottage was built shortly after Brsitol Siddeley took over the property in 1960. The skittle alley was added at the same time.
It was in 1960 that the remaining timbers on the church roof, which were in dangerous condition, were taken down and burned, under a faculty given in the Bishop’s Court. The north wall of the church was capped to prevent frost damage and the remaining walls, apart from those of the tower, were demolished.
The tombstones were collected and re-distributed round the outside of the churchyard, and the whole area was grassed. The main part of the church had been Seventeenth Century but the Tower was later. It had been rebuilt in mid-Victorian times when the tracery window was inserted on its western face. The oldest part of the church apart from one or two arch and window stones, was the chancel, and in here is the old family tomb of the Veels. One of the men demolishing the roof timbers in 1960 jumped down unknowingly onto the stone slab which covered the grave. The stone broke and he fell down among the mouldering skeletons. Luckily he was unhurt by his experience.