Article by Janice Morley
IT FELT as if it was meant to be. When video games creator Matt, 31, and his 30-year-old partner Dr Fangfei Liu, a life sciences consultant, saw the Clock Tower Penthouse in Aldershot, Hampshire, they knew at once they had to have it for their first home together.
The couple fell in love with the striking new home in the 109ft-tall centrepiece tower atop the magnificent, Grade II-listed former Cambridge Military Hospital. The 12-acre site has been expertly renovated and redeveloped by Weston Homes as part of Gun Hill Park – a new address providing 140 apartments and mews houses.
The unique penthouse, covering six floors within this Victorian landmark and crowned by the clock turret itself and its 8ft-wide timepiece, was the first property Matt and Fangfei viewed – and it spoiled them for anything else they might have gone on to see.
Built on a hilltop away from the town, Cambridge Military Hospital opened in 1879 and was used to treat injured returning troops, through conflicts from the Boer War (1899-1902) to the Gulf War (1990-91). Florence Nightingale had a strong influence on the hospital’s design and recommended it as a place of recovery, for its wide, light and airy corridors and towering ceilings. It became celebrated for its excellence and was much-visited by royalty, as its picture-gallery walls attest. After the Second World War it was embraced as a community hospital and many local people were born there, until its closure as a hospital in 1996. Now this historic site has itself given birth, to handsome, sustainably converted homes in a renovation challenge that, while not for the faint-hearted, was relished by Weston Homes chairman, Bob Weston.
THAT CLEVER CLOCK TOWER
The 2,088sq ft, three-bedroom Clock Tower Penthouse skilfully combines contemporary living spaces with heritage features including large, sturdy black Victorian wrought-iron windows. The main lower level comprises a long entrance “gallery” plus staircase, the spacious living room, a family kitchen/diner, the main bedroom with en suite bathroom and walk-in dressing room, and the second bedroom, also en suite.
Spiralling upwards from here, the clock tower above provides five more hexagonal levels, starting with the second-floor cinema/media room and a spacious third-floor bathroom. On the fourth floor is a treat of a third bedroom, with high vaulted ceiling and feature windows, while the fifth floor, in a cupola with porthole windows, originally home to the tower’s bell, is now a viewing platform with panoramic vistas over Aldershot and the countryside beyond.
As the oak stairs grow narrower and steeper the higher you climb, you reach the space housing the mechanics for the exterior clock – a room for fun, fantasy and childlike imaginings.
‘YOU CAN’T BE ORDINARY IF YOU OWN A CLOCK TOWER’
Matt grew up in Brighton and met Fangfei, who is Chinese, four years ago when they lived in Nottingham, where she was doing her degree at Nottingham University. Matt can run his computer games company largely from home, but when Fangfei left university she landed an office-based post as an assistant life sciences consultant in Farnham, Surrey – so their home search centred on the Aldershot area. In their methodical way they scoured websites and made lists of properties and neighbourhoods.
“We wanted a new-build house at first,” says Matt. “I had watched my parents restore an old house and I never wanted to go through that. Much of the new-build stuff we saw was in the middle of nowhere and pretty ordinary. Then we spotted Gun Hill Park, a short commute to Farnham for Fangfei.
“We didn’t want a house any longer! We wanted the Clock Tower Penthouse. It is an apartment but it feels like a house because it is on its own, soaring above the building. It was stuck in my mind from the moment we saw it – the first and only property we viewed. It just felt so right. It was big and light and it was just so unusual. It didn’t have a garden, but we absolutely did not want to cope with one. We were terrible gardeners at our rented flat.”
They were able to buy the penthouse with the proceeds from the sale of one of Matt’s video games and they moved in right at the end of April this year, without a stick of furniture. They swiftly bought a bed, then a desk and are slowly accumulating other “stuff”. The tall walls are white, offering a blank canvas for decor. Matt laughs: “When wondering what to buy first, Fangfei looked up at the height of the walls and suggested I start by getting a very long ladder.”
It is an interior that offers so many opportunities for creativity and Matt and Fangfei are ready to embrace the space with an “anything goes” attitude. The second-floor room, the ideal TV/film nest, will maybe get backlit film-poster wallpaper, carpets in crazy colours and sofas covered in a fabric print of their favourite sweeties. ‘We are thinking of the unexpected,” says Matt. “It is a Clock Tower. You can’t be ordinary if you own a Clock Tower.”
After a month in their new home, Matt says, “I woke one morning with the sun streaming through these massive, arched windows and wondered where I was. It was like some incredible dream fantasy. My Dad had said, ‘Only you two would buy something like this’. I’m just
so glad we found it. Our new home is not only top of the building but it sits on a hill. We can see our apartment on our way home, long before we get here. Then we drive up, park outside and walk up this grand staircase. It’s nuts really.
“When we walk through this building we feel its past. Other people who have bought here say they feel it has an atmosphere of its own. We discovered an old documentary on it the other day. We want to continue searching through the archives.”
The couple are very enthusiastic about being part of the Gun Hill Park community. “We have met some great people since we moved in,” adds Matt. “The community has started on really good grounds. We already have a WhatsApp group. A lot of people seem, like me, to work from home.”
While thrilled with living in a truly stunning period property, Matt and Fangfei fully appreciate that the remarkable renovation by Weston Homes means the Clock Tower Penthouse comes with low-energy heating, low water use, temperature-controlled taps, money-saving lighting, fitted cupboards, carefully laid wood-effect floors and tightly fitting windows that minimise heat loss.
Weston Homes has its own expertly staffed, hi-tech factories where its products are monitored to ensure this efficiency. Matt agrees: “Yes, that is what attracted us to this home – it is an amazing renovation. When I said I wanted to buy a new home, I never imagined we would get all the character of this amazing old building but with a brand-new finish.
“Can you imagine the cost of trying to renovate something like this yourself? But it was all done for us.”
Case study: Matt Woolven, 31, video games creator and Dr Fangfei Liu, 30, life sciences consultant.
Bought: Clock Tower Penthouse, Gun Hill Park