My serene retreat from the stresses of life

John Craven, vice-chancellor of University of Portsmouth pictured at his home in Rogate
John Craven, vice-chancellor of University of Portsmouth pictured at his home in Rogate
The Bridge Tavern and Camber Dock''''Picture: Paul Simpso

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University of Portsmouth Vice-Chancellor Professor John Craven escapes the pressures of work by retreating to an historic home in the countryside. ALINE

NASSIF reports.

Away from the turmoil of swingeing budget cuts and major tuition fee hikes, Professor John Craven enjoys the peaceful serenity of his idyllic Tudor home.

The 62-year-old vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth is seemingly at his happiest when sitting on an island in the middle of his garden pond, next to a statue of a gorilla.

Prof Craven’s home and garden at Rogate, near Petersfield are a real labour of love – and a source of education. Once a year about a dozen post-graduate students of architectural history at the university are invited to take a closer look at the timber-framed converted farmhouse and step back in time.

Prof Craven, who moved to the property in 1997, almost a year after he joined the university, says: ‘I’m so lucky to live here and I’m glad to give students the chance to study it.

‘Many of them are from other countries like Nepal, China and Turkey and what strikes them immediately is the thatched roof. Where they come from it is what you see on poor people’s houses.

‘But in England thatched roofs are highly desirable and the students enjoy learning about the technique of thatching that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

‘They also try to work out how this place looked originally, how it was built and what has been done to make it livable, such as putting in hot water and electricity.’

The original farmhouse, which dates back to about 1580 to 1620, is framed in solid oak. On one side it has been extended by attaching a barn.

On the other side is a 250-year-old extension, probably originally built as a dairy, plus a further extension added in 1971.

Prof Craven has a romantic story behind the evolution of his Grade II-listed home. ‘The story may not be true but I rather wish it was as I like it so much. I’ve been told a farmer lived here and then he got prosperous and built an even bigger and better house just over the road.

‘Our house has two staircases that suggests it could have been divided into farm workers’ cottages.’

These days it is just Prof Craven and his wife Laura, 61, a secondary school English teacher in Farnborough, who live there.

But while daughter Rebecca, 29, a government lawyer, and son Matthew, 32, a doctor, have fled the nest, four female cats keep them company. Tosca (named after Puccini’s tragic heroine), Phoebe (character in Friends), Spinoza (17th century philosopher) and Emanuelle (female version of former York City captain Emmanuel Panther) make the most of their historic habitat.

Tosca has made herself comfortable on a soft blue sofa in the living room as Prof Craven points out the impressive inglenook fireplace and a footstool under which there used to be a well.

Directly above is the main bedroom, where you can still see the carpenters’ marks on thick beams linked together by wooden dowels.

Low ceilings are part of the charm of this cosy house. It is tucked away in a charmingly haphazard landscape of untamed shrubbery to the front and delightful orchards, vegetable patches and pond areas round the back.

Prof Craven has single-handedly built walls, ponds, trellises, arbours and even a greenhouse. He admits he is lucky he enjoys the mowing and building, while Laura enjoys planting the seeds.

He says: ‘We make an excellent team and we’re both out gardening every weekend. It’s hard work but it’s a different type of hard work to what I do at the university.

‘It’s really nice to come home to somewhere like this. It takes me about half-an-hour to drive out here from Portsmouth – and the distance is important.

‘No-one from the university lives in the village and it means I’m off duty.’

He adds: ‘Before I moved out here I used to play cricket a lot, but this place is pretty all-absorbing.

‘Sometimes I will come back home after a difficult day in the office and sit on my island with my gorilla and contemplate the world.’