Lancashire Interiors - at home with Christine Burn at Middle Highfield

PUBLISHED: 12:35 30 January 2014 | UPDATED: 15:24 31 March 2014

Christine Burns

Christine Burns


Playwright Christine Burn went from treading the boards to sanding them when she took on a major barn conversion just days after her husband left her. She talks to Ellie Hargreaves

An elephant has slept in here, says Christine Burn as we walk through her byre at the start of whats possibly Lancashire Lifes most unusual interiors feature. Actually, I dont think it got much sleep. Apparently it trumpeted all night because of the mice.But it was here, nonetheless.

A converted barn that once hosted a travelling circus, Middle Highfield is nothing if not packed to the oak rafters with stories. For 16 years playwright, actress and ex-TV presenter Christine has called this 4,000 square foot property home and in that time its seen poets, soap stars and a host of foreign visitors pass through the doors.

Designed by one of the men responsible for sets in The Italian Job an ex-boyfriend of Christines it comprises five bedrooms, two open plan living areas and a hand-painted stained glass window that thrills the occupants by day and the neighbours by night. And while its transformation from a hayloft and cowshed didnt quite go to plan, the story behind its conversion could be the script of a play.

I firmly believe every dwelling has a story. Hopefully my story will be more of a comedy than a tragedy though, laughs Christine, who bought Middle Highfield after seven years renting in the area and searching for the perfect home. Before that, she lived in Cheshire where, after a career with the BBC as a presenter and continuity announcer (the first female to hold such a position), Christine concentrated on her love of theatre.

I loved Alderley Edge but also spent a lot of time travelling with my work, says Christine, who runs the Lunchbox Theatre Company and counts former Coronation Street star Kate Ford among her past students. Id mounted a national tour of Jean Paul Sartres Huis Clos which was a roaring success. Despite the critical acclaim we lost money on the production and ended up having to sell our house. I always look on the bright side though, and it prompted another adventure - the chance to convert a barn.

After falling in love with the Lune Valley and discovering a dilapidated barn for sale in the hamlet of Aughton, Christine knew shed found the one. What she didnt know was that ten days after exchanging contracts, her husband would announce he was leaving.

He told me he was moving on - to another woman, she says. And suddenly there I was - a middle-aged mother with no experience of the building trade, no steady job and a hugely daunting project ahead of me. My family and friends wanted me to sell up but I was determined to see it through.

Bit by bit, and with the help of a wonderful builder and local farmer, Christine slowly turned the barn into a home. She lived in a touring caravan in the garden for three years, with three cats and a collie dog, before moving into the former cowshed an annexe that now welcomes orienteers from all over the world.

Friends helped me so much during the conversion that I now have them to stay whenever they like, she says.

From there the rest of the property was gradually converted into a home of two halves; the bigger of which Christines daughter and granddaughter occupied until recently. It wasnt easy but in the end we finished the project in good time, says Christine, who spent months up the scaffolding, painting under the eaves, or carrying tons of lime and sand for the mortar and sanding thousands of square feet of floorboards. During this time she kept the newly laid Welsh slate roof over her head by working as a voice-over artist, racking up commercials for everyone from Marks and Spencer to British Gas. She also worked as a cleaner to pay for enough insulation to ensure her heating bills are barely worth registering, and wrote and toured with a series of historical plays for schools a job she continues with now.

Despite a Fired Earth kitchen, hotel-inspired lighting and a bespoke iron and oak staircase that makes a feature of some of the original beams, Christines style isnt something from the pages of a glossy interiors magazine. There are no sumptuous sofas, polished surfaces or expensive scented candles. It certainly hasnt been painted with soothing shades of Farrow & Ball and finished with a scattering of plump silk cushions.

But, with exposed stone walls, a striking collection of paintings done by friends and a genuine knack for displaying beautifully her mismatched possessions, it screams personality just as much as its owner.

Im not afraid of dust, she laughs. I write poetry in it. And I have so many props, costumes and books which Ive collected over the years that Im never going to be able to work the minimalist look.

Sadly for passing circus animals and the dramatists and musicians who use her byre as a performance area, Christine has decided to sell up and embark on a new adventure in the theatrical mecca of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Theres a lot of me in this place and leaving it behind will be hard but Im ready to make my mark somewhere else, she says. I just hope the next people who live here have as much fun as Ive had.

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