Love is an old house

WHEN we moved into this house more than 30 years ago, it was more a case of seeing potential than finding great beauty. The kitchen was a mess, the house had been empty for more than a year and after a week of central heating, one of us fell through the sitting room floor, which was chipboard straight on to the earth, and the garden was simply horrible. You could say it was love at first sight, but it was more a case of being drawn to an old house that was crying out to be loved.

So, over the years, we have loved it, and (we think) improved it and brought our own, perhaps eccentric, characters to it. We wouldn’t claim that anything we have done is authentic restoration. It’s not listed, although it is in a conservation area, so we haven’t had to adhere to the restrictions that official listing can bring.

Back to the kitchen – it was a grimy horror story with an aged built-in oven, a tiny sink, and cracked, inadequate worktops, impossible for people who love to cook. So the very first thing we did was have the kitchen completely remade – it wasn’t just a case of refitting. Everything had to be changed, except the boiler, which we had concealed with a cupboard, with shelves above for our collection of food and cookbooks. The boiler continued to give loyal service for about another 15 years, at which point it started that rather alarming bumping noise which is called “kettling.” When the gas engineer came to replace it, he guessed it was more than 40 years old and said the new one, now mounted on a wall, wouldn’t last anything like so long, although it met the current requirements. He was right; we are already on wall-mounted number two. The boiler cupboard now holds bags of nuts and grain, flour and pet food.

The hole in the sitting room floor, which revealed the interesting fact that we have no foundations, was dealt with and a new solid floor put down, with dehumidifiers working their socks off for the weeks it took to ensure we had a sitting room ready for the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.

We knew the house was old – late 17th century – and was outside the central area which was destroyed in the “great fire’ of 1707. The town centre has a collection of fine 18th century buildings, many designed and built by Nathaniel.Ireson, whose own house still stands.

The ground floor of our cottage has stone walls that are about two feet thick, the upstairs is probably a 100 years of so later, and the kitchen has an ancient flagstone floor and a walk-in larder which would have been a corridor to what is now the sitting room. It is one of the clues to its history, which has been confirmed in several old photos.

Back in the days of coach travel, Wincanton was an important stop on the route from London to Exeter and Plymouth. Today’s A303 roughly follows the coach road, but it is straighter and bypasses the old coaching towns – Amesbury, Shaftesbury, Mere, Wincanton, Ilchester and so on. Most of these towns still have recognisable coaching inns. They may be shops or flats or large houses or, sadly, derelict, but you can spot them by their size and often the presence of big doors under an arch, which would have led through to the stable yard.

More difficult to identify are the ale-houses which would also have served the coach trade. As we researched the history of our house, we learned that Wincanton had many ale-houses – one estimate is an improbable 120, at the height of the coaching era! Our cottage had been an ale-house – our sitting room would have been the bar and our larder the corridor to the kitchen or brewhouse. In the late 19th century it was still a “traveller’s rest” – with a hanging sign, depicting a bicycle, shown in a postcard of the time.

The garden was peculiar – there was a drain that ran around two sides, next to the house, and the rest was a raised area, about three feet high with a patchy, weedy lawn. So it was dangerous (easy to fall down the narrow deep gap) and ugly. We took a deep breath, called in some favours and (on the first wet weekend for weeks) with two strong friends, we dug it all out to ground level. In the process we found hundreds of old stones, probably from the old back wall knocked down when the house was extended backwards. One of our helpers was a builder so he laid a patio for us, using 18th century bricks we bought from a dealer whose store was in one of the old mines at Vobster, and he used the stone to make a crinkle-crankle wall for the patio. We even gained a little vegetable patch and a space for a greenhouse.

A few years ago, an ominous horizontal crack in the hall began to extend, and the resulting investigations led to the wall being demolished. We were amazingly lucky that this coincided with the construction of a new foyer at Bath Theatre Royal. The old wood and glass doors, destined for landfill, now make an interesting screen between the corridor and the dining room.

There is always something to do in old houses, and you never stop learning. I was struck by a short poem quoted recently by Country Life columnist Jonathan Self. Writing about the ongoing restoration of his much grander house, he describes himself as “drawn to old house projects like a moth to the flame.”

His feelings, he says, are summed up in this little eight-word poem by TE Hulme, who was killed in the First World War: “Old houses were scaffolding once / and workmen whistling.”

We understand just what he means.

Fanny Charles