Chris Cleeve has an unusual home.
He lives in Sutton House, an imposing three-storey Tudor building, constructed in 1535 – making it the oldest house in Hackney.
In its 500 years on Homerton High Street, the House has had many incarnations, from a seat of Tudor power and a Victorian school of etiquette, to a trade union headquarters and a squat occupied by anarcho-punks in the 80s.
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These days, Sutton House is a National Trust property which is open to the public, and Chris, as Operations Manager, lives there to run the house (along with two others) and look after it overnight.
“Living somewhere like this is a huge privilege. Every day I feel really lucky to be here,” says Chris.
“It’s a house that’s been lived in over generations of people, and used in different ways. I definitely feel part of that story…It feels like it’s part of a continuum.”
Chris moved into Sutton House eight years ago.
As a self-professed “history nerd”, he’d been working for the National Trust for the past seven years – first at Quarry Bank, a mill south of Manchester, and then at Morden Hall Park in South London, becoming increasingly interested in community engagement.
Living in North London, he didn’t think anything could entice him away – until the vacancy at Sutton House came up.
(Image: ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert)
“Sutton House is the granddaddy of community engagement,” says Chris, since Labour MP George Lansbury campaigned for the house to be made open to the public in 1938.
“I was really drawn to working there because the community in Hackney is so activated, and there’s so much going on there.
“Sutton House itself is particularly special – it’s a little bit like Doctor Who, because each generation it has had to adapt to the world around it…
“What happens there today is as relevant as all of the other periods.”
He adds that the chance to live in the building itself was “obviously a huge bonus – it’s the most beautiful building, it’s in central Hackney, and I’ve got it to myself.”
Sutton House is full of oak-panelled rooms, enormous fireplaces and Tudor portraiture.
(Image: ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert)
Chris’ lodgings —nestled in the house’s attic— are, however, a little more up-to-date.
“The house was restored in the 80s after the squatters left, so it’s fairly modern, compared to the wooden rooms.
“There’s a high, vaulted ceiling, and the attic space has been cleared out… It’s just really beautifully kitted out,” says Chris.
He adds: “It’s about three to four times bigger than anywhere else I’ve lived in London…It’s quite generous.”
You can still tell the building’s age from the low door frames, he points out.
Chris can’t make too many adjustments to the decor, but he says “it’s nicely decorated and it’s well-maintained, so that’s not a big problem for me…It’s like living in any rented place, really.”
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Maybe so, but not every rented property is rumoured to be haunted.
Is it unnerving being there alone?
“I’ve kept my eyes open, but not seen or experienced anything,” he says. “I feel like I’m the spooky one.”
Living in the building for eight years has given Chris an intimacy with it, greater than any of its many visitors.
It’s the courtyard at the heart of the house that he likes best.
“The courtyard is really, really astonishing. It’s this tranquil space,” says Chris.
(Image: ©National Trust Images/Rupert Truman)
“It catches the sun, and you can’t really hear anything. There’s wisteria growing, and all of these beautiful historic windows…it feels quite magical.”
In fact, the courtyard is so beautiful that people choose to get married there every year.
Chris says that, pre-pandemic, Sutton House hosted around 50 weddings a year.
He talks about hearing applause on a Saturday, “knowing that at that moment, two people had just committed to spend their lives together.
“It’s a really lovely thing to happen – just beneath my feet actually. It’s a huge privilege to be honest.”
Chris describes the building with affection —there’s a sense, almost of awe, with which he talks about it— but it’s the people who occupy Sutton House that he keeps coming back to.
(Image: Chris Cleeve)
“I love having people there all the time,” Chris says. “Sutton House is at its best when it’s being used – I think that’s the thing that makes it sing.”
Living at the property meant that he became a part of the community he was working with – and this connection with people, also using and sharing the property, is “really what makes it feel like home.”
Lockdown, therefore, was quiet.
Chris was alone in the house, marvelling at the size of the outdoor space, but equally picking up a lot of the maintenance tasks.
“It’s been inhabited over 500 years – constantly used, and adapting and reflecting to what’s going on around. For a moment, it felt like it wasn’t itself.”
The house’s fluid history continues to touch Chris —and its visitors— today.
(Image: ©National Trust Images/Oskar Proctor)
“That historical context makes everything a little bit more tolerable. So during the pandemic, knowing that the house has survived the plague, civil wars, two world wars – there’s some peace to know that these places survived. I think that’s why people connect with historic houses.”
He adds: “There’s something quite humbling —and also reassuring— about being that connected to somewhere and its survivors.”
Now, after eight years, Chris’ part in the story of Sutton House is coming to an end, ready to be handed over to someone else.
He’s accepted a new job in West London, and will move out in February.
“It’s a big change,” says Chris. “I’ll miss that sense of home.”
To find out more about Sutton House, visit their website here.
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