Renovation Blog, Part Three: Navigating the Arctic Tundra

I’ve been a bit slow to write up the next blog, the theme of which was going to be our first couple of weekends camping out in the new digs. In the blur of the last month, a whirlwind of decision making ahead of the contractors moving in to start work, my recollection of our first few visits are slightly foggy. Nevertheless, there are definitely some highlights that stand out (and lowlights – by the second time we headed out to the house, we’d learned from chilly experience that a storage heater would be a very wise investment). I’ve also never been so grateful for my hot water bottle which I carried around in my hoodie kangaroo-style, underneath sedimentary layers of other clothing. The house hasn’t been heated for quite some time and, we think because the previous owner passed away and understandably stopped responding to bills, the gas was also switched off – I did do my best to crack out the arctic puns but Jan was having Nunavut, rolling up his sleeves and getting to work right away! I’d initially deemed wearing two jumpers under a hoodie and socks thicker than a Giant Sequoia sufficient defence against the chill. I was wrong. Needless to say, both of us clung to the puppy that night, a source of heat greater than the sun, who diplomatically rotated between our sleeping bags. The second weekend, however, we came more prepared, armed with a storage heater lugged up from London, the hot water bottle and a kettle to make hot cups of tea. Bliss.

What did redeem that first cold night was the discovery of the baked goods on offer in the pub-cum-café-cum-deli that exists a convenient (read: dangerous) stone’s hop from our front door. I’m delighted to report that it serves freshly baked cinnamon knots, roughly the size of my fist. The Danes would approve – I’ve never forgotten the sheer scale of the pastries we hoovered up in Copenhagen. Viking fuel, indeed. Anyway, you can bet that every morning we’ve woken up in the new digs, I’ve been first in queue.

First night in our new home!

The first weekend we went up to the house was mostly making plans for what we wanted to do on the next visit. DIY-wise, there wasn’t a huge amount that could be done ahead of the work carried out by our wonderful contractors, but we also couldn’t resist the urge to do something. One DIY task that we probably started on too hastily was sanding down the many layers of paint that covered the stairs and window frames. Luckily, only one had been partially sanded down before we realised, post googling heat guns as a way of quickly removing paint, that the presence of lead might pose a problem. Uh oh. Lead, as it turns out, was a legal ingredient in new paint until the early 1990s and, even then, the sale of previously manufactured lead paint was permitted to continue. Many houses built before 1978 contain lead paint and this house was built approximately 200 years beforehand with enough layers of paint to sink the Titanic. Ho hum – thus arose the first of the many surprises we had expected to encounter during this project. After googling what to do, we quickly sprayed water over the whole area in the hope that it would weigh down the powdered sugar layer of white dust that had settled over the hallway. Luckily, we had some heavy duty face masks and so hopefully didn’t breathe too much of it in. We also washed everything down very thoroughly around the area before sweeping up the sodden dust (note to future selves from the ghosts of Jan and Lizzy past: don’t sand lead paint, ultimate DIY faux pas. Our bad.) Lead dust is very adhesive so, post clean up, everything we were wearing went into a black bin bag and straight into the washing machine on a high temperature. When the repair work is finished, the contractors will also use a special industrial Hepa filter to hoover up everything so that we can give the space a good wash down pre furniture going in etc. On our next visit, we tested paint covered surfaces throughout the house for lead and, sure enough, the main culprits were the doors and window frames. Luckily, the wooden floors were lead free which will definitely make the restoration process much less of a faff! As for the doors and windows, they will be taken out and professionally stripped and restored to their former glory before reinstallation, hopefully sometime before winter. Brrr.

Waging war on the lead dust: a warming sight for any new neighbour who spotted us stalking through the house dressed like an extra from Chernobyl into the dark of night.

One task we could get on with, free of the fear of causing irreversible bodily damage, was stripping wallpaper. Oh, the satisfaction! This was actually quite a pretty print in the spare bedroom but it was very old and stained and we were still itching to start on some sort of reno work. Doused with soapy warm water, the wallpaper came off like a dream (credit goes to Jan for deciphering the perfect removal technique). I’ve recently discovered Desert Island Discs (cant believe this has been in existence since the 1940s?! I only just got the memo) and so we listened to the astronaut Tim Peakes wax lyrical about life in orbit to the tune of Queen’s Greatest Hits whilst we got to grips with Planet House Reno. Ada was in seventh heaven making papier-mâché out of the remnants.

Eyes on the prize

She’s also been busy charming the local fish and chip shop into giving her a few chipz – these were snuffled up even faster than I could get the kettle on. We were happy to learn that our new town is very dog friendly and, going off the levels of Ada adoration (adaration?) we’ve encountered so far, I can well believe it! Hoping that this will translate into making new friends more quickly too – even in London, we’ve been amazed by how much more people talk to each other when you have a dog in tow. We’ll be sorry to leave the whippet commune that has formed here in our local park (Ada has had a better social life than us over lockdown) so it’s encouraging to know that there will be plenty of other pup pals for her over in Wiltshire too. Pup’s gotta play!

In between wallpaper stripping, we’ve also been heading out to explore the countryside. This town is on the toe of the Cotswolds and it’s already been so lovely to step out into the rolling hills and fields. The air is currently very fragrant with the smell of wild garlic which carpets the local woodlands. I foraged for some last time we were there to make into a pesto sauce type thing at home. Next up: mushroom hunting in the autumn! Hopefully alongside my parents-in-law who, like many Czechs, know far more about mushrooms than I do. No slow death by liver poisoning over here, please. The other great thing about walking in this neck of woods is the constellation of tiny villages dotted over the fields, each with its own local pub. Thus, you can motivate any tired/reluctant walkers by hovering a frequent carrot stick-cum-frothy pint (or cream tea as a back up option) in front of their nose to keep pace going.

View from the local pub which sits next to this aqueduct, a hot spot for wild swimming!

At this time of writing, the contractors are now well underway and it’s been exciting to see our renovation plans slowly come to fruition. Our next trip up there will be over the bank holiday weekend and I can already smell those cinnamon knots! Until next time.

Bye for now!

Renovation Blog, Part Two: What have we got ourselves into?

After basking in the rosy glow of having won the bidding war for our new home (get innnnn), we realised that we had to get down to the serious business of surveying the building – which (if like me pre-house purchase, you have no idea what I’m talking about) is when someone comes to inspect the property and assess it for any problems that you will need to deal with as the owner. As a very old house, we soon clocked that the usual modern-build HouseBuyer Report wouldn’t cut the mustard and that we needed to send in the Big Guns, aka find someone to carry out a full Building Survey. After some searching around, we found a great local surveyor who specialised in Georgian buildings and before we knew it, we had a list as long as one arm of things that needed fixin’. Our main fear had been that the house would be declared structurally unsound and we’d have to withdraw our offer. Fortunately for us, it’s a pretty solid house and isn’t going to collapse in a heap of rubble any time soon, although there are a few stretches of timber that will be treated for suspected woodworm. Ho hum.

Despite the solid bones, the house is still in need of some serious TLC. The previous owner was an elderly antiques collector who had lived there for the past twenty years before passing away and, I suspect, possibly found it quite tricky to maintain in his later years. He must have had a good set of knees though to get him up and down all the stairs! Judging from the million nails that Jan extracted from the walls on our last visit, we think that he must also have filled the house from top to toe with paintings – which I kind of love!

Anyway, the list of things that we want to repair or bring up to a modern standard is fairly hefty. It’s fair to say we’re becoming well-versed in the language of period houses – last summer I couldn’t have told you anything about K11 tanking systems or stone lamination! Here’s a rough summary for those interested in the nitty-gritty of old house renovations (if not, skip ahead!):

Cosmetic changes:

  • Bathroom renovation, including removing a plaster wall in the two story extension on the first floor. This plaster wall is to be reconfigured, to create a separate walk in closet, and a utility room.
  • Repair of the sash windows where wood has rotted. Replace broken glass panel on the second floor (done according to the original Georgian design and using reclaimed antique glass with Listed Building Consent) 
  • Treatment of stone lamination on exterior walls, and the chimney stack
  • Repair the stone hood to porch
  • Replacement of tiled and slate roof coverings where they are damaged
  • Repairs or replacement of the casement windows on the rear extension, as these are in a very poor condition
  • Kitchen renovation 
  • Removing existing carpets, and restoring original wooden floors where possible
  • Repair the bottom of the front door
  • Reattach skirting boards where they came loose within the property, and replace any that have been damaged by damp
  • Take down the front downpipe, wire brush, repair and re-erect. This is currently leaking onto the exterior walls, causing their deterioration (including lamination). Replace the lower section plastic segments of the downpipes with metal sections of the same design as the upper sections. Clean or similarly repair the rear downpipe and gutter arrangement, as they appear blocked and cause penetrating dampness to the south east corner of the first floor drawing room.

Structural changes:

  • Damp-proofing treatment:
  • Plaster to be removed to full height in the basement and varying heights in the ground floor
  • Installation of a horizontal and vertical damp-proof course and a K11 tanking system to the basement walls and the kitchen floor
  • Re-render and skim the walls with a lime-based breathable plaster, fitting thermal insulation board dry lining where required
  • All accessible timbers throughout the property to be treated for woodworm using fungicide/insecticide preservative
  • Electrical rewiring throughout the property including an integrated fire alarm system and new lighting, plug, ethernet and access points
  • Plumbing to be updated in the kitchen and new bathroom/en-suite 
  • Internal insulation of the two story extension 
  • Installation of new chimney flue lining
  • Replace the former cole hole to the cellar with a V-shaped ventilation system, to stop dampness from entering the basement while allowing for ventilation to occur
  • Possible replacement of caps to parapet wall, and the installation of damp proof courses beneath the caps and over the head of the parapet wall, to reduce the risk of penetrating dampness coming down vertically

So yeah, there’s quite a bit! Are we mad? Definitely not ruling that possibility out. After all, neither of us has renovated a house this old before. Or any house, for that matter! I suspect that, after taking on this lovely house, we’ll probably want to live in simple new-built white box for the rest of our days. Although, I’m not sure I really mean that. I’ve never found they hold quite the same magic as period buildings, brimming with quirks and the patina of those who have lived there before us. On one of these windows in the photo below (our bedroom to be), we found that someone had etched in tiny swirly fairy writing the name ‘William Pearce’ into the uneven glass – I have no idea if it’s been there for 50 or 200 years. I can’t wait to discover more details like this!

Anyway, the building survey was way back in October and, after a brief moment of wondering if we should opt for something a tad more straight forward (and lots of contractor visits and quotes to work out if the renovation was affordable), we decided just to go for it. We feel it’s a wonderful opportunity to steward such a beautiful old house and breathe some new life back into it. It has a really friendly atmosphere – I can’t help but imagine that the previous owner was like the rosy-cheeked Narnian-esque old Professor and would be happy to see this home full of life and colour and people again.

Here are some photos of the house as it looks currently:

Living room
The kitchen which will be removed and replaced. The floor will be extended to make room for a dining space.
Entrance hallway
Our bedroom
Spare bedroom
What will become our office/studio space
Courtyard garden with a hidden face in the ivy

I just realised I don’t have any photos of the current bathroom on my phone. At the moment, it’s quite an awkward shape sitting parallel to a long corridor that leads to another small room. We thought that this could be reconfigured to make better use of the space available and so our builders will remove the non load-bearing wall between the bathroom and corridor/extra room. They will then reconfigure that wall to create a bathroom, utility room and an additional space leading off from our bedroom that we will probably use as a walk in closet. Originally we wanted to turn it into an en-suite but, after some thought, it seemed a bit pointless to have two lovely bathrooms when it was mostly just the two of us (and family in future if we decide to go down that road) in the house. At this point, we would definitely find the extra storage more useful. Our plumber will make sure all the plumbing is installed for an en-suite to give some flexibility down the road and also if should we sell the house in future and that’s a bonus. So hopefully this grand plan will help us make the most of the new bathroom area!

Next time, I’ll write about our first (rather chilly) weekend camping in our new home but I hope this blog gives some background to the work that we’ll be carrying out. We’re grateful to be working with contractors that have come highly recommended from other Georgian house owners and who so far have been brilliant and really helpful. Time for all hands on deck!!