COTTAGE TALES – HANGING ON TO THE DREAM by Ronny Flynn

 

Hunters Moon Cottage

In a previous issue I wrote about buying Hunter’s Moon cottage in Sussex, a 16th century thatched heritage listed building.

Whilst not expecting buying and selling homes to be easy, we were still naively optimistic that the purchase would go more smoothly than it did.  The detailed survey we commissioned found no structural defects but identified plenty of upgrading work needed, which we budgeted for. However, when a property is listed as heritage, all works carried out to the exterior and some to the interior need to have listed building consent as a legal requirement, and some did not have this, which was potentially very costly. We spent a great deal of time to-ing and fro-ing over costs and consequences until the owners offered a good reduction, which we accepted…….and which they then withdrew on the day we were to exchange contracts, asking for more money! Several more weeks of to-ing and fro-ing ensued, with the owners refusing to budge until we had abandoned all hope of owning our dream, and started looking at other properties.  Whereupon the owners changed their minds and met us halfway on costs, and the purchase was on again.

Ronny & Brian

We have to incorporate the expense and inconvenience of putting right the illegal works as well as the work we planned, but at least we have some of the costs of doing this covered. We exchanged contracts and set the completion date for 6 weeks after, which gave us time to draw up lists, more lists and lists of lists. We had sold our home in Milton Keynes and were set to move out in early December, when our buyers lost their sale, So we relaxed a little (we had a long time ago borrowed money so we could move to Hunter’s Moon without having to rely on selling Milton Keynes), and worked on a slow staggered move.

Moving day number one was Friday 30 November when we travelled down with a trailer and top box and estate car full of cleaning materials and machines, basic supplies and workwear, and took possession of the keys. We had booked a cleaning firm for the Monday, but they would not clean the loft and the garage, which we knew were a mess. There was also a small potting shed and a garden room we would need to tackle.

The Ancient Fireplace
A Mouldy Place

After a few days of wet and windy weather we were grateful that the sun shone for our drive down and we made it before dusk. The days were short, barely eight hours of light and we wanted to photograph everything as we found it. We were not prepared for how squalid the owners had left the garden and garage and outbuildings. It was a hazard of mould, wet leaves, broken flowerpots, dirt and debris and old boxes. They had not removed a hot tub from the garden, and it was full of water. The inside of the house was not as bad- we think the division of labour was gendered and the man was an utter slob and the woman somewhat better. They had not cleared up after themselves and part of the staircase had been removed and stuck back on with acrylic sealant, and there were flaked paint and scrapes everywhere. They had done some petty things such as removing batteries from the smoke alarms and leaving the garbage bins overflowing. We were angry. Owners have to sign to say that they will leave the place clean and tidy and remove all debris, and they had not done it. However, the question is always one of scale and as they had not actually trashed the place, we felt we could not sue them, but we did need them to remove their eyesore of a hot tub.

We took stock. The inside of the house was a lovely shape and size, but we would have to look again carefully at our possessions as the rooms were smaller than remembered. The central heating worked and the house was warm. This has been one of my greatest fears about living there. In previous old houses my feet had been permanently cold, despite always wearing socks and indoor shoes, and I was dreading the draughts. Happily, the cottage did not feel cold and draughty at least when the doors were shut. Most of the windows are old but have rudimentary double glazing which keeps the draughts out. For this I am thankful. There are some beautiful old oak beams which we are looking forward to having lightened, as they have been painted black. The compact size of the house means we can tackle the rooms one at a time and they are manageable. On the first evening we took photos, unpacked our cleaning materials and other supplies, checked into our bed and breakfast (we had no beds or bedding yet) and walked back to the house from there, where we drank a bottle of prosecco and ate potato chips. We toasted the house and ourselves and our future there. We have two pubs with food within 5 minutes walk, and we ate dinner at one of them before walking back to the B and B for the night.

Keys and more keys

When we moved into our current home in Milton Keynes we streamlined our house keys. Just one for the front, one for the back, and one that unlocks all the padlocks. The cottage has four different keys for the front door, four different keys for the back ; one for the outside utility room and three for the garage- 12 keys and all different. The owners had unhelpfully labelled none of them, so it was left to us to sort through a large pile of keys in order to find the ones we needed.

Day Two found us slightly overwhelmed by the scope of the work just to make the house liveable, and a bit reluctant to get going. Added to this, it was raining heavily- but at least we could see what happens to thatch in the rain! We drove to the house and spent a long time just looking and thinking. How would we prioritise all the jobs? Before the cleaners came on Monday we wanted to have as blank a slate as possible in as many rooms. Removing all the old carpets and floor coverings was too big a job for now, so we would clean them. The owners had taken some of the fitted cupboards in the main bedroom, and left others. These were not even IKEA standard so we decided to remove them as they were so flimsy and poorly erected. I made a list of all the window locks needed for insurance purposes. Every window had a different lock, or none at all, and a different type of double glazing or none at all. The windows are mostly leaded lights but have been poorly maintained and some of the leads need renovating. All need cleaning around the sills, fittings and frames. The cleaners would have to do their best, but some of the glazing was screwed in place and would need removing. Brian decided to tackle the garage so we could store our things.

The Attic

Having decided on tasks for the day, we avoided doing them and went out for lunch to a local farmers market. We feasted on vegetable tortilla and spinach and feta pie, then made our way into the town and had lemon and ginger cake and coffee. Comfort food. The town is full of cafes. Shoreham-by-Sea must have more per head than anywhere. We vowed to try them all over time. But we needed to get something done so we returned and worked into the evening. I took down the old cupboards in one bedroom and Brian cleared the filthy garage. When we had had enough, we tried the nearest pub, one we knew quite well, and they served a range of tapas at really good prices. Four of these were enough for dinner so we ate and returned to the bed and breakfast.

The Bedroom – work in progress

Day 3 found us dragging ourselves reluctantly to the house on a damp day and forcing ourselves to work through the ‘to-do’ list. Experience has taught us that there are ups and downs to moving and renovating homes, and we are lucky that we don’t have to do any of it under pressure, but can go with the flow. Bags and bags of rubbish and old cupboards went into the trailer for the tip, but it took Brian ages to do this as he needed a permit, which involved completing then downloading and printing a form, and providing proof of residence. Luckily Brian had brought a printer but the proof of residence and the printing paper were at the B and B a mile and a half away ……..and the rubbish tip opened at the weekend but closed for the two days after so we dropped off a load but the next load had to be piled on the drive waiting for Wednesday. The garage we inherited was a small single one, that had been partitioned off into three smaller rooms, mostly useless and badly made bits of space but we couldn’t knock everything down just yet. Brian took down one plywood and plasterboard partition, and I put a coat of sealant paint on the floor of the best room of the three, which had been used as an office (ironically, the male owner ran a home repair and renovation business, an unbelievable joke). Brian then went into the loft space with a large vacuum cleaner and sucked up years of dirt, debris and ancient cobwebs. He uncovered beams damaged by woodworm and beetles, but also found patches of original wattle and daub, which we will need to preserve. We took a take-away dinner back to the B and B and ate to give us strength for tomorrow, a major cleaning Monday.

Everyone who came to clean worked solidly, but it was not enough. However, we felt the house was less polluted and there was motivation to complete it. I cannot imagine how people live with themselves when the sink plugs are clogged with hair and filth; the toilet bowls and rims are brown with crap, and the inside of the oven unspeakably encrusted with dirt. Brian spent much of the day hauling old insulation from the loft, and finishing off the cleaning. He then picked up a van and we locked up the cottage and drove to Milton Keynes (about 4 hours) where we would spend the next day loading some of our possessions and moving them down. We booked another two nights in the B and B as we knew the house would take time to set up in order to spend a night there.  The downpour of rain held off until we were close to Shoreham for which we were thankful, but then lasted for two days. The highlight of the time was the three hours we spent with the man who had surveyed the cottage prior to us buying. He walked us through the house with his survey in mind, and we were able to ask questions and obtain advice. We also hired his firm to make detailed drawings of the house and land which we could use as the basis for our plans and renovations. He confirmed that the cottage had indeed been neglected and botched, but that the owners had been completely unaware of this, and had proudly shown him all the ‘improvements’. We were able to establish what we could remove and replace and what would need approvals, plus discuss ideas for an extension. Apart from the doing, the plans were encouraging and we felt optimistic. He would gather our ideas and submit an application to the local authority for all the improvement work, and later for the extension. After he left we emptied the van into the cottage and Brian returned it. We ate out, trying our third pub before our final night in the B and B.

After that, we needed to speed up as we were leaving for the USA in five days time and we had to make the house bearable to come back to, plus fit in another visit to Milton Keynes. So we had the chimney swept; shampooed all the horrid carpets; unloaded our possessions and made up the bedroom; painted the ‘office’ part of the garage; pressure washed the paths, garage door and more; called in a central heating firm as some of the radiators had stopped working; and still made time to visit the Christmas Market in the town where we had mulled wine and mince pies. We bought two books on Old Shoreham that showed Hunter’s Moon as one of a number of thatched cottages in the 1880s, the others demolished long ago,  and felt part of the town. Our first night left us optimistic – mainly because it had stopped raining, but also because the sun reached in through the bedroom window in the morning. But we did need dressing gowns, which had not been needed since we left our Edwardian house in Milton Keynes more than nine years earlier, and which I had thankfully not disposed of. On the way back from our visit to Milton Keynes we stopped and bought a large  coir mat and additional doormats for the cottage, and still liked the house when we arrived. On the day before we left for the US, the central heating engineers made progress, and we had the pest treatment firm to estimate the damage and cost of making the woodwork sound. We moved items into the newly painted ‘office’ and prepared the utility room for decorating when we return. All the time, we were trying to sort the WiFi and the burglar alarm and the fire alarms so we could leave and feel the house was safe. The systems are now all wireless so we can take advantage of technology and rid the house of the metres and metres of redundant cables and wires messing up the house.

To be continued……