It’s been a year since we moved up to North Yorkshire and into our 200-year-old Georgian cottage near the historical site of the Battle of Marston Moor.
It had the character, the history, the space and the views. What it didn’t have was many modern conveniences. The previous owner had lived in the property for nearly 35 years and hadn’t really done much to the place for a while. As well as needing extensive redecoration throughout, there was no gas connection, not even a bath, old electrical storage heaters to keep the place warm, cracks across many of the walls and ceilings, signs of woodworm throughout, cement-based mortar in the brickwork, rotting window frames and door cills, and a fair proportion of damaged roof slates, as well as a lot of foliage growing out of the guttering and around the walls of the building.
But we could see beyond all that. In essence, this was a lovely building that just needed to be brought back to glory. Its character shined through and my girlfriend and I were both smitten. With its status as a listed property, we also felt like we’d be owning a tiny little piece of history and that appealed to us as well.
One of the crucial decisions that we made was to get a full specialist survey before we bought the cottage. At £840 it made an assessment of the structural elements, which is exactly what we were looking for. We didn’t want to be taking on a house that could be on the brink of collapse or had a host of hidden surprises that could prove costly.
The good news was that the house wasn’t falling down. The cracking of walls is historic and there is no evidence of subsidence. There were no signs of walls leaning in or out or openings to windows and doors being out of square. The bad news was that the cottage was in need of a lot of work, some urgent and some that could wait a little while.
Due to the Grade II listing, we’ve been in contact with the borough council prior to carrying out any work, to ensure we don’t require listed building consent. Fortunately, so far everything has been able to progress without us having to apply for consent.
Our initial priorities were to prevent any further damage and dilapidation to the property, so we had the woodworm checked out and removed dense foliage from around the house walls to prevent degradation of the brickwork and reduce the likelihood of water ingress and damp. There was also a distinct smell of sewerage wafting around the house, which we tracked down to a disused soil pipe hidden in one of the walls. Not only had it come away from the main sewer pipe under the house, but it also had a big hole hacked into it as it entered the upstairs space. At some point our third bedroom must have been a bathroom.
For the woodworm, many companies offer free surveys, but we chose a firm that charges for a survey. My concerns with a free survey were that the only way a company can make their money is by selling their services afterwards. I was concerned that I could be paying for work that didn’t necessarily need to be carried out.
Luckily the surveyed showed that the woodworm infestations in the cottage are old and likely to be inactive. As the survey was carried out in January – outside the beetle’s flight season – there is still a slim chance of a current infestation. I took sections of wood under the stairs and in the loft that had signs of woodworm activity, inked the holes with a permanent marker and added the date. Since then, I’ve kept checking back and no fresh holes have appeared, so it looks like we’re woodworm-free.
When we first moved in, one of the things that struck me was the fireplace in the living room, for two reasons. First of all, it’s a large and imposing stone fireplace, hand carved and solid – a great feature for the room. Secondly, it was a blackened mess. There were horrendous soot stains all over it. This fireplace had certainly seen better days.
The only thing that was able to shift all the grime and burnt-on carbon was tri-sodium phosphate (TSP). I’d heard that it works very well for cleaning away organic compounds, but I was concerned about its aggressive nature. I tried it – fully protected – and was amazed by the difference. If you have thick, stubborn soot marks that you just cannot remove from your fireplace, I would definitely recommend you try TSP, but only as a last resort.
The three biggest jobs that we have undertaken so far are the gas connection, radiator system installation and bathroom overhaul.
For the gas connection and radiator installation, the borough council asked us to use a semi-concealed meter box, make as little damage to the fabric of the property as possible and use a black boiler flue on the outside wall. For the bathroom, we were told that as it’s housed in a relatively new extension to the property and we were essentially replacing the old bathroom suite, removing some stud walling and not interfering with the fabric of the original house or relocating the bathroom to another area of the house, we were clear to proceed without applying for listed building consent.
We wanted period cast iron radiators in the lounge and dining room, to act as feature pieces and contrast with our plans to use clean, modern design for the majority of the furnishings. As modern cast iron central heating systems only became widespread by the end of the 19th century, we were unable to source a design that would match the age of our Georgian Cottage, circa 1820. Though we weren’t sure we wanted a central heating system that could be confused as an original feature, as the cottage has never had central heating in its 200-year history.
A trawl through the internet uncovered Cast Iron Radiators in Scarborough, less than an hour away. We purchased some of their 765mm Arts and Crafts radiators, with the design dating back to 1892. The designs look great in our cottage and the combi boiler and gas central heating have made such an impact on our lives. Much of the damp that we were experiencing has cleared up and we no longer have to sit in our snowboarding gear just to stay warm!
There were a few surprises along the way. When it came to drilling through the outside wall to connect up to the mains gas pipe, the installer hit a problem. The walls were far thicker than he anticipated and his longest drill bit was too short. It was the first time he’d had this problem – it turns out that our walls are around 900mm thick. A mummified mouse under the floorboards upstairs, a wasp nest in the loft and a dead bird in the water tank were a few more of the little surprises that the cottage reveled to us along the way.
Now the combi boiler and gas central heating have been installed we finally have a warm house and the radiators look astounding.
The bathroom installation, which I recently wrote about in detail, was a serious undertaking.
As we were living in the house throughout the refit, I had to make sure that we had some semblance of a bathroom. I temporarily installed the new toilet and placed our new double ended slipper bath below our old electric shower, connecting it into the waste and using it as a temporary shower tray.
I removed some stud walling. As our bathroom is on the ground floor near the back door of the property, once the walls were down I needed to construct the skeleton of a new stud wall fairly quickly, so we had a four-sided room that didn’t open out straight onto the back garden.
We had a very precise vision of what we wanted the bathroom to look like. I decided to do much of the work myself, as there was a bespoke element to the build. On the wish list we had floating bathroom units – designed and built to fit the space precisely – a double slipper bath, a standalone walk-in shower, wet room floor and a counter top hewn from a single piece of holly.
Now we finally have a working bathroom that we are very proud of. From three horrible pokey boxes that were cold, mouldy and uncomfortable we now have a warm and modern bathroom that has been designed to be sympathetic with the 200-year-old cottage that it’s housed within.
And there’s still plenty more to do. At the moment we’re battling with moles in the garden, installing secondary double glazing, sorting out faults with the internet due to the elderly cabling and sockets installed in the cottage, and arranging for a new water connection as our flow rate is now down to a trickle since we installed the combi boiler. Our supply pipe has been collecting mineral deposits over the decades and slowly restricting the flow rate, which is compounded by the fact that we’re on a shared water supply.