Actor leads house renovation for refugees

ACTOR Jeremy Irons is helping to renovate a property in Watlington so that a refugee family can live in it.

The film star, who lives in the town, is among the group of people known as the Watlington Welcome who have been fixing up the building in High Street to make it fit for a family of four to live in.

The team has refurbished the kitchen and bathroom, insulated the walls of the former shop unit and fitted new doors. The work is due to be completed within weeks.

The property and the neighboring library was left by Charlotte Coxe to Oxfordshire County Council for the benefit of the people of Watlington in her will in 1949. The building has been unused since the charity Age Concern moved out in 2009 and was badly in need of repairs .

A year ago, Irons called for it to be used to house a refugee family, stating he would be prepared to help raise enough money to pay to make the property habitable for a family of four and to underwrite some of the cost himself. Watlington Parish Council had been trying to negotiate the transfer of ownership of No 33, which it wanted to use to fulfill Mrs Coxe’s wishes, since 2017.

In 2018 it was agreed to become the sole trustee of the property and in November last year the deal with the county council was finally secured.

Irons said he first acted on his desire to transform the house in 2021.

He said: “A few days after Christmas, I interrupted my evening dog walk by calling on our Catholic priest, Father Andrew Foster in Watcombe Road, for a cup of tea.

“During our chat, I posited the idea that we in Watlington should do our bit in the refugee crisis.

“I knew that 33 High Street had been inexplicably and disgracefully empty for around 12 years. Surely we could house a family there?

“He was immediately enthusiastic and suggested I contact the chairman of the parish council, Matt Reid.

“Matt agreed to meet and the next evening I found myself seated opposite this dynamo of a man drinking tea in my sitting room.

“Matt was also immediately enthusiastic as he recognized both something we as a community should be doing and also a possible route out of the stasis which has surrounded 33 High Street for too long.

“He arranged for me to join the next parish council meeting by Zoom. On screen, I listened as the councilors listed the problems and outlined the history of the building.

“I underlined the immediacy of the need and the waste of potential to the town of this building being unused.

“The councillors listened politely and one then summed up her view: ‘This is a wonderful idea but it will never happen.’

“I have lived in Watlington for 35 years and on my father’s advice, always avoided local politics.

“I knew most of the councillors by sight but apart from my screen persona, few of them knew me. Had they done so, they would have known that that remark was like a red rag to a bull.

“I could not waste the time needed to set up a charity but instead decided that our initiative should be called Watlington Welcome and I approached like-minded professionals to join Matt and I as its committee.

“Stefanie O’Bryen, the Watlington solicitor, agreed to cover the legal side; Brian Hope, the man who helped me rebuild a castle in Ireland, took on the role of building manager; and Gillian Powell, recently retired as PA to the principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford University, our secretary.

“Matt — a man who understands the intricacies of local and county politics — and I met again for a war council.

“’Where do we go from here?’ I asked, ‘Who are the players, who do we have to convince to allow us to get this move?’

“I knew what little power I had was in threatening to raise the profile of the woeful situation that for 12 years had been allowed to occur. By suggesting the cottage’s use as a temporary home for refugees I was able to tap into the community’s desire to help and I made it plain I was happy to embarrass any elective representative who apparently stood in our way.

“Matt went to work and got Watlington’s county councilor Freddie Van Mierlo on board. He is a Liberal Democrat member still in his first term but has already proven himself to be a mover and a shaker in working across a range of departments at County Hall.

“His subsequent negotiations to get the Charlotte Coxe Charitable Trust untangled from the county council and allow Watlington Welcome to prepare the cottage for the occupation has certainly earned my vote for the rest of his political career.

“On Matt’s suggestion, I arranged a call to the leader of the county council, Councilor Liz Leffman, and got her onside, promising to do all in her power to bring this matter from the bottom to the top of the pile of the myriad of problems facing any county council.

“Soon, we got permission to clear the garden of 12 years of brambles, nettles and detritus. Brian set to with a digger to clear the matted roots. I cleared the guttering and downpipes from blockages which had been exacerbating the damp in the building.

“Trying to clear the main drain, we discovered it had been broken by the ‘mole’ laying the gas main down the high street. Fortunately, this was soon repaired.

“In February 2022, we were initially engaged with Thames Water to book our new water connection. As I speak, they haven’t been able to do this yet, but we have now promised a connection date of early March, 13 months after our initial request. ‘The wheels of God grind slow…’

“While waiting for permission to start interior work on the cottage, Stefanie located the house contents of a cottage that could have been ours if we emptied it immediately. We did, with the help of friends and my horsebox, store almost everything we might need in my garage.

“Meanwhile, Gill surfed the net, finding people who were happy to donate kitchens, shower screens, beds and bedding. We were ready, just waiting for permission to start our refurbishment.”

Having worked on the interior almost every day this month, Irons says the house is almost ready.

He said: “Of course, when that permission eventually came, we were all occupied in other ways but eventually we got started.

“The exterior window decoration has been delayed by the frosts but we are plumbed, with a refurbished kitchen and bathroom, the electrics are almost completed and with carpets going down within weeks. As soon as they are, we will move in the furniture and be ready to welcome our guests.

“Watlington Welcome will continue by offering whatever support is needed during their time in our community, whether they decide to join our society or return to their country.

“We have generously been offered the cottage for 12 months rent-free and in that time, much can change and peace could come.

“Meanwhile, through the generosity of Chris Kemp, from Stoke Talmage, bandleader of the OMJ Big Band David Batchelor and Rev Daniel Thompson and his choir, we’re having a fundraising concert at St Leonard’s Church next Friday. It sold out in days.

“We could have filled the church twice over but it’s a wonderful example of a community coming together, not just to hear great jazz, but to support a local initiative which is designed to support a family whose recent history makes our lives privileged here seem as a dream.

“The people who have facilitated this project — local politicians, donors, trades people and volunteers — are to be thanked, particularly Matt Reid, without whose savvy and hard work this would never have happened.

“In many ways, this country is not working very well at the moment but when people move out of their comfort zone and pitch in, it’s wonderful to see what can be achieved.”

To help the project, donations can be made to: Watlington Welcome, attn. Gillian Powell, 1 Norton Cottages, Brightwell Baldwin, OX495NX or via bank transfer to Coutts Bank. Sort code 18-00-02, account number 00665436, account name JJ Irons Watlington Welcome.

Irons added: “And we’re looking for a garden shed if you’re throwing one out.”