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At Oxgate Farm

August 1, 2014
by the gentle author

The quaint timbered dwelling with gables and a roughcast exterior manifests the idyll of domesticity for many and, as testimony to its potency, suburban streets up and down the country are lined with approximations to this notion in varying degrees of authenticity. Yet in a suburb north of Cricklewood, among the acres of development which spread across the land during the twentieth century, stands just such a house that is the embodiment of the romantic retreat, only this example dates from 1465 and it is not the result of architectural whimsy but a rare survival from another age.

Five miles up the Edgware Rd, where it becomes a dual carriageway, you turn left and walk up Oxgate Lane through the light industrial estate built upon the Oxgate farmlands laid out in 1285. At the crossroads, you turn right into Coles Hill Rd, described by B W Dexter in ‘Cricklewood Old & New ‘ in 1908 as having “all the charm of an untouched rural pathway with luxurious hedgerows and many varieties of wild flowers.” These days, it might be characterised as unremitting suburbia if it were not for the presence of Oxgate Farm, still asserting itself, undeterred by the changes that time has wrought.

Still roofed with its handmade tiles and floored with ancient worn flags, this is the oldest house in the Borough. Originally one of the eight Prebendal manors of St Paul’s Cathedral, the surviving building is believed to be a wing of the fifteenth century manor house, which was occupied in 1465 by Bartholomew Willesden, collector of the King’s taxes, and in 1500 by Henry Frowk, Lord Mayor. Elizabeth I’s half-brother, Lord Chief Warden of the Cinque Ports, Sir John Parrott, also lived here – he is best remembered today as the prototype for Shakespeare’s character of Falstaff.

Over the centuries, the manor reduced in size from a thousand acres until just the house and back garden are left today today. In the second half of the twentieth century, it was home to the painter Marie Burtwhistle and then Shakespearian actor Mark Dignam and his wife Virginia, who cherished the house for its romance. But now, two years after Virginia’s death, Oxgate Farm has reached an impasse in its existence. At the beginning of the twentieth century brick footings were installed that have subsided, removing support for the timber frame structure so that, in some cases, the joists no longer meet the exterior walls and bedroom floors lurch at alarming angles. Shored up with scaffolding props and recently refused support by English Heritage, the property is too costly for the current owners to repair.

Like a great old galleon cast up by a tidal wave to sit in the beach car park surrounded by modern vehicles, Oxgate Farm languishes today, yet it is an historically important and irresistibly charismatic building that cannot be allowed just to fall down.

Former residents Bartholomew Willesden of Oxgate and his wife portrayed in brasses of 1492

The humped ridge of the roof

Numbers upon the joists made by fifteenth century joiners to ensure the frame fits together correctly

An eighteenth century indenture to lease Oxgang Farm

Thomas Powell bought the property in 1751

Holes in the door, so the farmer could check his livestock from the parlour when the kitchen was a byre

Nineteenth century residents at the south door

The south door today

The farm is to be seen on the left in this late nineteenth century photo

The south entrance photographed in 1968

Nineteenth century wallpaper revealed in the bathroom

Shakespearian actor Mark Dignam & his wife Virginia bought the house in 1968

Mark Dignam’s study, untouched since he died

The south side of the house is held up by scaffolding props at present

The brick wall is collapsing forward at the front of the house

Oxgate Farm and shop in 1968

Click here to visit the Oxgate Farm facebook page

31 Responses leave one →
  1. August 1, 2014

    I hope someone turns up who will be able to save and restore this beautiful property, it would be a crime to let it rot and crumble. Valerie

  2. Bee [Tingey] permalink
    August 1, 2014

    It seems criminal that this magnificent old dwelling is being allowed to fall down. Far too many old properties have been lost to the nation.
    Surely English Heritage could could come to an agreement with the current owners.

  3. cynthia booker permalink
    August 1, 2014

    I concur, Valerie-Jael. Very careful restoration and it would be an even more wonderful asset to the community.

  4. Sue Redmond permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Love your blog, do you have a link to Facebook, it would be great to see it there too!
    Kind regards

  5. August 1, 2014

    Ah this is beautiful and so rare for London, so much to save! So many people would love to visit. I do hope something can be done. When you look at the money that is spent on the smallest new property in central London…!

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Shame on English Heritage, then!

  7. August 1, 2014

    Has the Landmark Trust been approached ?

  8. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Seem’s to be something strange going on hear, the last owner has been dead for over two year’s but was the property sold on after her death ? or is it still owned by family member’s ? if it was sold on, I seriously doubt that any lender would have granted a mortgage on such a property so it would almost certainly have been sold to a cash buyer, and even in it’s currant state of disrepair I’m sure this property would still command a substantial purchase price, and yet it is stated that the currant owner’s cannot afford to finance any repair’s ? unless the property has been inherited by someone who has no access to fund’s I fail to understand how anyone would purchase such a property for cash and yet leave themselves with no money for badly needed and such obvious repair’s ? or am I missing something ?

  9. August 1, 2014

    One of Englands million mystic & romantic places one can fall in love with… — like Cotchford Farm in East-Sussex for example!

    Love & Peace

  10. August 1, 2014

    On what basis can English Heritage refuse support? This building IS English heritage.

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Perhaps this is a chance for English Heritage to redeem themselves. But let’s not hold our breath. It follows their recent shameful stance over Smithfield Market where they refused to oppose the proposal to destroy it. They were shown up by Save Britain’s Heritage and the Victorian Society who managed to persuade Eric Pickles to reject the development plans. If they cannot get involved with a building such as this it makes one wonder what their purpose is.

  12. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Come on English heritage,live up to your name!Or what use are you?

  13. Pauline Taylor permalink
    August 1, 2014

    I agree with Robert Green, something is amiss here. Who actually owns this building now and who approached English Heritage. We, that is my son, persuaded them to change their opinion on a local building by doing his research and providing them with all the necessary maps and provenance that they needed. This was after our local Council had failed in their attempt to get it listed. Perhaps someone could do something similar for this historic building, it would be such a shame to see it go after all these centuries, and just think of all the stories that it could tell.

  14. John Campbell permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Totally sympathise with everyone’s comments and am certainly in your camp but I have worked on buildings this old and the reality is that the ravages of time sometimes mean that unless you took this down brick by brick and rebuilt it there is no real way to restore it. Then, in my opinion all authenticity is lost and you are merely building a theme park item. Time is cruel on buildings and the original build would have been basic and unremarkable to say the least. Hate to say it but these old dwellings returned to dust long ago and for a very good reason. I think unless it were of some historic significance it would serve no purpose to try and restore it.

  15. Victoria permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Sincerely hope the farm can be restored and the money found. Lottery funding perhaps, but given building significance English Heritage would seem the natural funder.

  16. Jayne Todd permalink
    August 1, 2014

    HA this been reported to the Vernacular Buildings Group?

  17. David Green permalink
    August 1, 2014

    I’m very concerned by this. I should know this house as I grew up near the area but haven’t lived in London for 30 years and can’t remember it. I certainly knew Coles green road. If there is a campaign to save the building I would like to know. Why are English heritage not supportive? Or The national Trust?

  18. August 3, 2014

    How about asking Richard Brandon for the money?

  19. Shaun Prendergast permalink
    August 3, 2014

    This is clearly an important building and should be saved.

  20. August 5, 2014

    It would be nice to see a follow-up article addressing questions of current ownership and the involvement of English Heritage, the response of local planning councils, the National Trust, any planned public access, etc. as raised in some of the comments. This is a fascinating building. Thank you for the report.

  21. Alison Hopkins permalink
    August 5, 2014

    I’ve known the farm since I was a small child. My parents knew the Dignams well – and I still live a hundred yards from the place. I am also the former councillor for Dollis Hill and would desperately love to see the farm properly conserved.

    There is nothing amiss about the ownership: the farm was bequeathed within the family, but they simply don’t have the money needed to restore it. It has massive local importance, especially with the loss of Dollis Hill House.

    If enough people chipped in enough money, we could keep the farm and with it, the plans to make it a real community resource which is what the owners want.

  22. Stephen Barker permalink
    August 6, 2014

    The previous owners whilst they may have cherished the house for it’s history obviously could not or did not carry out the work required to maintain it. The building’s present condition is not the result of two years neglect. As for the role of English Heritage without knowing all the facts it is hard to comment, but the fact that their budget has been significantly reduced in recent years has obviously restricted their ability to act in such cases.

    If the current owners cannot afford to repair the building what are their intentions? Will they sell it to either someone or an organisation that can do so. How much of the work the building requires can they finance themselves? The other factor is how much time is available to find a solution before the house becomes beyond repair.

    I doubt that the National Trust would take it on unless it came with a substantial dowry and the Landmark Trust being a charity would have to have a fund raising campaign if they were to acquire it for conversion to be used as a holiday let. The HLF would require matching funds if they were to make a grant and I strongly doubt that they would do so if the house was to remain in private ownership with no access for the public.

    It would be interesting to know what local feeling is regarding the house and whether any action has been taken locally to preserve it for the benefit of the local community. Is the local council involved in trying to preserve this building.

  23. Jim Graham permalink
    February 2, 2015

    Yes, what are the local (Brent) Council doing to try to save this historice building. Not much history left in this area, Im affraid i am suspicious that this is a means to an end, ie another plot of land for gready developers with the council looking on.

  24. Robin Hicks permalink
    September 27, 2015

    My Aunt – Mairie Burtwistle bought the house in the 1950’s and ran it as a rooming house – mainly for men from the Commonwealth. When she asked a surveyor if it was sound buy he said “it should have fallen down in its first 100 years but it will see us out”. It did but how awful to see how it looks now 40 or so years later.
    I have pictures of it in happier times and a map of the Ox Gate lands including a field called “Welsh Harp” which was of course flooded to make a reservoir for the canal

  25. Tony Glazier permalink
    October 5, 2015

    I have lived in the area for quite a long time and have always wondered about this building.

    But I am aware of the reality that its cheaply constructed, has had virtually no maintenance over the last 100 years. Sadly apart from the outside there is nothing of any real importance.

    It seems the current owners don’t have any money to restore it, English Heritage have declined, Brent Council have no interest in it and the current owners don’t want to sell it to someone who will be able to restore it. So currently its just going to continue to deteriorate until it falls down.

    Perhaps I should remind anyone in the area that Dollis Hill House had the roof burnt off. For about 12 years it was left like that surrounded by scaffolding with no attempt being made by Brent to repair it. Eventually it was demolished! If there was any money to be spent it would have been well worth while keeping and far more than Oxgate Farm.

    The lovely old black and white building by Willesden Library seems not to have any substantial future either. At one tine Brent were going to demolish it.

    The reality of the current world is that all most people want is high rise council flats and MacDonalds. No one wants to retain the older buildings any more.

  26. Doreen Boon permalink
    May 2, 2016

    Important childhood memories of Oxgate farm and its residents.
    Mark and Virginia Dignam were friends of my parents Eric & Margherritta Boon. We lived in Dollis Hill on the lower side of Gladstone Park. Oxgate farm was at the top of the park .

    Mark and Virginia were both actors and had 3 children;= Peter, Rebecca and Katy. I remember Mark as a quiet, reserved man with authority. Virginia was the opposite flamboyant, gregarious and jovial. To me she was everything an actress should be;- beautiful, larger than life, a bulbous rosy face framed by period black long curls. Her clothes were as theatrical as she was- long full skirts, feminine blouses and always with a shawl. Virginia had a very distinct and loud laugh which was infectious.

    Some of my happiest memories were time spent with The Dignams at The Farm. Nothing about them or The Farm was ordinary. They were very hospitable and sociable holding several parties throughout the year which were attended by 100’s (to a young child) of other unconventional people. As Katy and I were the same age we used to hide under the large farmhouse tables and watch the adults talk about politics, theatre and current affairs. I remember being really chuffed that Anthony Booth (the tv actor and Cherri Blairs dad) gave me a chewing gum.
    Virginia used to drive me to drama lessons with Katy at Hampstead theatre. Even the act of her driving felt special as I was used to mainly men driving in those days. I could see very clearly that Virginia’s life was so much more than being a mum and a housewife (which most woman were in those days) and as she seemed so happy I guess she offered me the prospect of an alternative. The other enduring memory I have of her was a firm kindness a bit like Claire Rayner!
    Anyway, I havent seen any of The Dignams for over 30 years. I would love to reconnect with them again-particulary Katy who was my best friend for a few of my precious childhood years. I would also like to hear from you if you were at any of those parties in the 1960;s and early 70’s.
    The house should be preserved for future generations as it is a very important part of our social and geographical history.

  27. Simon Stephenson permalink
    January 22, 2017

    I do so hope this fine building can be saved, everyone can learn so much of the rich history of the area.

    Criminal that Gladstone house was demolished, hopefully someone will step in here.

  28. James Williams permalink
    July 12, 2018

    So interesting reading these comments by people who know about the history of the house and its former occupants. I hope things end well.

  29. laura christou permalink
    May 23, 2021

    I went to school with Katy as she was in my year group at John Kelly. She wasnt very forthcoming about details of her house but we were aware that it was a historical building and worth a lot of money at the time. It would be a tragedy if this house was not restored. someone out there must have the money. so few buildings of interest left in Brent. Met up with Katy 10 years ago with other school friends when we were turning 50. She was doing well.

  30. Doreen Boon permalink
    June 28, 2023

    Update on a reunion with two of the children from Oxgate Farm. I am Doreen Boon and I posted here on 2nd May 2016. I was hoping for a re-union with my childhood friend Katy and her big sister Rebecca. I didnt see any reply here so a few months ago on a visit to my nephew who lives in NW2 I stopped at The Farm. It looked derelict but I tried a desperate and old fashioned method of communicating-I wrote a note. In fact, all I had was a yellow post it note; but I scribbled my name and number and invited a response. I popped it through the letterbox expecting it to be lost in junk mail. To my absolute amazement 2 weeks later I got a text from the older sister now known as Rabia. Rabia arranged a meet up with Katy and myself a few week slater in a cafe in Muswell Hill. (I now live in Sussex). It was wonderful to meet them again after 50 years! A challenge to summarise our lives in a few hours!. Both daughters have tried strenuously to save and restore the house but as it is a listed building there have been many obstacles which has made this impossible. I promise if I win the lottery I will try to restore it. From Doren Boon.

  31. janice Bartholomeusz permalink
    July 2, 2023

    What amazing comments about the farm
    On another note I swear I remember years ago hearing that the farm was severely haunted and now I can’t find anything about it. Even apparently the paranormal people came in. Is this a figment of my imàgination

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