COTTAGE TALES 3 – PROGRESSING THE DREAM – Ronny Flynn

Ronny & Brian

The previous article found us newly moved and coping with the poor state of repair in which we found the house, before we took a three week break in the USA. Aptly, we returned to the UK  on 1 January 2019, after a comfortable journey and to relatively mild weather. The house looked good and we were full of hope. During the trip away we had discussed how we would approach the renovations and prioritised the lists of what needed doing. We had also decided to try out local events by joining some clubs and societies. Brian had bought  a number of subscriptions for my birthday, and we would intersperse our house work with a couple of these a week. For example, there is a weekly film and food night where you pay £10 for a buffet meal and get the film for free; the local historical society has regular talks, and there are birdwatching trips at a local wildlife reserve. We had also been gifted vouchers for wine tastings in Sussex vineyards, a bargain dinner at a country house hotel, and two cream teas, a particular favourite of mine. The local church is very active and has monthly coffee and cake mornings with home made cakes by the Verger, and monthly evening music concerts. We would try them all.

Entering the house we found that the central heating overflow pipe had badly overflowed  and had leaked into part of the (non-thatched) roof on our extension which had faulty flashing. So there was water dripping through in a section of the house, the heating was off and the pipe was still pouring water. My fixit husband is good with central heating. He traced back the fault to a valve the heating engineers had shut off when they ‘improved’ the system just before we went away, turned the valve back on and moved the pipe away from the damaged roof. The leak stopped and turned into a trickle thank goodness. Not a good welcome home, but it could have been worse. That evening we went out and found a pub that was open for dinner. More comfort food. On the way home we saw an urban fox slinking around in the moonlight, and Brian saw it again the next day in our garden. Foxes and Hunter’s Moon go together; there are lots of pictures with the two.

We did contact the insurers who looked at the damage to the inside of the house, but our insurance excess is high and it wasn’t worth putting in a claim. It took a couple of weeks to dry out, and Brian worked on the central heating himself, identifying and repairing a faulty float, then two radiators, then an underfloor leak from one of the pipes. Finally,  the house was warm, though the central heating boiler still cuts out regularly so needs long-term attention.

For the next two months we drove backwards and forwards to the Milton Keynes house while we packed and sorted there, then returned to Hunter’s Moon to plan how we would tackle the project here. We spent about a third of our time in Milton Keynes which became a respite from the to-do list for the cottage. On one of the visits I was in MK and Brian was to follow with the trailer  so we could bring back a stock of garden pots and plants. Only  he was very late arriving as he had discovered an enormous fat ball blocking the kitchen sink that  had to be  cleared.  YUCK.

I painted the utility room, a grand name for an outside brick shed full of damp and draughts, with electricity but no sink or running water, but we needed a place to keep the washing machine, tumble dryer, freezer and cleaning equipment. The next priority was making a comfortable room to sleep in, which meant days of stripping off woodchip wallpaper that had been painted over. You have to break down the paint seal to penetrate the paper by slashing it so water can soak through, then scrape it off. Two previous homes had had acrylic stippled paint on every wall and we had needed a steam stripper, but with just one room we did without. However it still took three times longer than imagined – which seems to be the story of the cottage at every turn. But we have time. Brian cleaned out and insulated the small loft over this bedroom, which is situated in the 1970s extension to the house and therefore not as regulated, while I got on with the decorating. Choosing colours is always exciting and we went through a number of tester pots before deciding to…..paint the whole room in one neutral colour. Partly this is because we are planning an extension that will mean this room becomes our kitchen – see below.

In parallel to making some part of the house comfortable for us, there were all kinds of  improvements required. For example, we needed new tall chimney pots so we could have open fires; we wanted to clean the old oak beams as the black paint was a Victorian  later addition; remove the modern ceilings and false walls to expose original beams and woodwork; expose and clean up the oldest floorboards, and install underfloor heating to name just a few. There were things we needed to do outside to improve drainage and stop rising and penetrating damp. We also wished to convert the garage into a modern garden room with sleeping accommodation and a bathroom for guests, so we can turn our existing bathroom into a utility room and the bedroom being decorated into a kitchen, and our existing kitchen into a bathroom. Brian has excellent visualisation skills and would have become an architect if the training had not been so long and costly, so he has always used his skills on the houses we have extended. We hired the services of a heritage surveyor who could also draw up plans for the extension and apply for permission to carry out improvements. This process began in January, has slowly continued for two months, and will continue for more. We have to submit a Heritage Statement that makes a case for the extension and improvements and how they contribute to the preservation of the building and conservation area. We belong to a Listed Property Owners Club and had a fun day out in London at their yearly exhibition in February, picking up valuable advice from conservation officers, architects and suppliers to help with the application.

Meanwhile, those multiple keys and locks were replaced with new locks that opened with just two keys, and we hassled the selling agents about the hot tub until they sent someone over to drain and remove it, which took two men the best part of a day. Good riddance…

I also needed to run again. I had cursed but also missed the running in Port Vendres, where there were tough but rewarding hills. Milton Keynes is almost entirely flat so I was out of practice. Turn left and along and left again from the house and you can run up a hill on to the South Downs where the views are lovely and when there is sun, it’s always there. The first time I ran the route, I felt fine, beginner’s luck. After that it has varied, sometimes feeling much harder than others, but running down is always a pleasure. I ran once in January when it was so icy the hill was like a skating rink, not an experience I wish to repeat. This run according to my Fitbit is equivalent to 35 flights of stairs, whereas Port Vendres was 77. But it’s better than 0 on my usual Milton Keynes run, and should keep me fit if I stick with it.

We are learning so much about the history of the house as we go along. We had someone come to quote for sandblasting our beams and he drew attention to the oak beam across the fireplace, that had protective marks against bad spirits carved into it, plus candle burns deliberately placed in the wood for the same reason. We have discovered a Kent and Sussex  study group with expertise in the history of old buildings who will send a team to visit our house in July, carry out an assessment and write us a report -free of charge and  just because they enjoy doing it. We went to one of their study days where one of the members had written a history of their own house, and another was an expert on the ‘witch marks ‘ described  above. Both talks were fascinating and we gained valuable information on how to research our house history, which we are doing as we go along. We already know that we live in the oldest street in Shoreham-by-Sea,  the one that led directly to London, and that the  house is one of the oldest still surviving. It was a large ‘hall house’ with a timber frame, built as one  but split into two we think 150 years later, and clad in brick and flint. These later works seem to be dated as 1716, as we have found builder initials. We have a problem with damp, because over the years owners have sealed the flint walls with concrete which doesn’t allow the house to breathe and keeps the moisture in, so we need to remove this concrete from the outside, and replace it with lime mortar which is porous. With an eye to doing this ourselves  we invited a specialist who will mentor us, and she pointed out some details we would not have  noticed such as the black bricks that had been baked in a particular way with salt thrown on in the process, giving them a highly polished look; and the different ways the flint had been laid. We  also asked a local building firm who carry out conservation work to assess what they could help with. They basically said we couldn’t afford to employ them to take on large works, but they would be happy to work with us to carry out  smaller jobs we couldn’t manage ourselves – such as bricklaying, large amounts  of rendering and plastering. We now have to come up with a plan of works both small and large so we can work out who will do what. The technician and  surveyor have  provided a list of works and draft  plans so we need to  comment on these. We are hoping to meet with the local  conservation officer this month to discuss them and get advice.  The timing is now more urgent as creeping  privatisation and austerity has caused the local council to slap on charges for conservation meetings  from 1 April.

There are a few details of renovation we struggle with.  We want the ancient beams lightened but read that the sandblasting technique we were quoted for above was extremely invasive and messy. So we paid for a sample test of cleaning using a dry ice process. A ‘boy with a toy ‘ who wasn’t a boy came round and spent two hours haphazardly blasting test strips until we asked him to stop. The sandblasting expert had been respectful and complimentary, genuinely  loving his work and treating it as an art. This man had no affinity with the house, it could have been an old piece of rusted metal in a scrap yard. The method is advertised as less invasive and dirty than the sandblasting,  but it took us 4 hours to clean up after his mess with just a fraction of the beams that needed cleaning completed.  No way will we let this person and process back into the house. Oh, and we also do not like the finish it left, as the old wood looks ravaged. We have read that other owners have hand stripped their beams using chemical strippers, poultices with paste and other products, and have bought samples of all to try. We may therefore do the work ourselves, which is a real labour of love. We have parked the problem for now, along with what to do about our secondary double glazing. Although they are small,  we have many windows and the quotes have been expensive.

At the time of writing we have finally exchanged contracts and moved out of Milton Keynes completely.  The sale completes on 15 March and we  should get the money soon after.  The  cottage is  now chock full of boxes and furniture that we have to find homes for. We can’t believe how much redundant stuff we have even with over half of it in store,  and having downsized substantially already. We unpacked a few boxes but then left the cottage for several days while we drove to France to buy champagne and wine for  Kiran and Ed’s wedding. The four of us had a lovely weekend and we felt able to return with energy.  We  have an appointment with the conservation officer and surveyor to discuss the plans for the extension and have started having open fires.  We will be drawing up a detailed schedule of works now the money is coming in from the Milton Keynes house. We have our 40th wedding anniversary to look forward to,  and Kiran and Ed’s wedding is just after we return from a memories trip to  Wales where we honeymooned.  We are expecting to spend a wonderful summer and beyond finding out about our house and garden.  Apparently the owners before last lived in the cottage for 30 years and planted up most of it.  Every day we find something else to name.  The future looks good and we don’t regret our move in any way at all.  But we still have double the possessions we need….which we continue to battle with, fortunate that it’s the main (non)worry we have.

Our sincere thanks to Ronny for sharing the story of Hunters Moon Cottage with us.  And I am sure everyone will join with me in wishing them all the very best for their continuing renovations and life in the cottage.  The fireplace looks like the perfect spot for relaxing and sharing stories with friends.