The fact and fiction of buying a historic cottage.
“Ye gentle souls who dream of rural ease,
Whom the smooth stream and smoother sonnet please,
Go! if the peaceful cot your praises share,
Go look within, and ask if peace be there;
If peace be his—that drooping, weary sire.
Or theirs, that offspring round their feeble fire;
Or hers, that matron pale, whose trembling hand
Turns on the wretched hearth th’ expiring brand!”
This is an excerpt from ‘The Village” by George Crabbe, which he penned in 1783 to dispel the idilic image of cottage life held by many. The industrial revolution was still in its infancy, only 20 years since the beginnings of the mass migration from country side to town, as more and more agricultural folk traded fields for factories, and yet many people already romanticised and reminisced ‘the good old days’ of the cottage. Crabbe’s poem exposes the reality for the cottagers that were left behind in the country. Times were harder than ever, there were fewer labourers, less people locally to buy their produce, families were separated and communities that had lived side by side for generations were becoming fractured. In short, life in the cottage was tough.
So how did we go from the cottage being the most humble, meanest of functional dwellings, to it being an aspirational home for hundreds of thousands in the 21st century. I think there are many reasons people are drawn to cottages, but mainly they are either buying into the idea of a way of life, (in exactly the same way the Georgians of Crabbes era saw the rose tinted lifestyle of the cottage dweller) or they have a passion and appreciation for the history and bones of the building.
I guess I fall into both categories. I grew up in a village environment, but always lived in a modern house. My love of all things country started young, (I mean in the rural sense, not the genre, although my rendition of Islands in the Stream is pretty something…) My aunt used to take me to her friends farm, and I was never happier than when I was up to my knees in cow poo and had a few dogs running around me. I was the antithesis of my Mum. At home, everything was always spotlessly clean, I wasn’t allowed a dog and getting plastered in mud was generally frowned up on. The feel of the kitchen in the farm house is etched into my memory… the warmth of the Aga, the dogs curled up in front of it, the pots hanging from beams and cakes being made at the scrubbed table. When I grow up, I thought, this is exactly the kind of house I’m going to live in, dogs and all.
Fast forward a fair few years, and finally, we are in a position to buy that dream house. I see a thatched cottage come on the market, back in my home village, about a ten minute walk from where I work. Somehow, from the moment I see the “FOR SALE’ sign, I know it’s going to be mine. I go and view it on my own, phone Bugs and tell him I love it. “Put an offer in,” he says.
Somehow, I have convinced Bugs this is a good idea. We have renovated 2 houses so far and we are a good team. We reckon we can take on a proper ‘project.’ Bugs and my Dad are extremely practical and have great DIY skills so we reckon we can do a lot of the work ourselves. “Don’t be ridiculous” I say, “ours isn’t even on the market yet!” The same day I phone the agents, the next day our house sells. It was as easy as that. Except it took nearly 5 months for the chain to complete.
In that time, we had a survey done and an inspection by a timber and damp ‘specialist.’ I use the quotation marks in that deliberate sarcastic fashion, as I honestly believe that the majority of these companies are absolute charlatans… but that’s a story for another post. The long and the short of it was, according to those surveys, we should run for the hills. But I couldn’t. I was already emotionally invested. I am normally a very circumspect person, but now, I threw all my eggs into this timber framed basket.
Was it worth the wait? Is it the dream house, the vision I have had since childhood? If you had asked me in the first few weeks, I would have said emphatically NO! In fact, it was pretty traumatic.
Once we’d moved in, we started to uncover issues with the house, and although your head knows that this was always likely, your heart sinks a bit with every new problem.
Then there were the spiders… oh god the spiders! Every night, without fail, I would be faced with a monster in the kitchen or the hall. It was sending my anxiety levels through the roof and saw me going to bed literally fully clothed, from top to toe, lying awake trying to make out anything moving in the gloom.
The final nail in the dream house coffin came when someone set fire to our garden fence. (I now think it was probably accidental) The fire brigade came out (I had already extinguished it, hey, I’m a fireman’s daughter) and went on to tell me how a thatched cottage had been set alight in an arson attack in a near by village. Suddenly, the dream really had turned to ashes. I had watched a thatched pub burn to the ground in minutes once whilst in Dorset, and just kept thinking, if ours caught fire while we were asleep, would we get out?
I tried for a couple of days to put a brave face on it, but eventually cracked, completely breaking down and sobbing to Bugs that I felt we’d made a huge mistake… that I couldn’t live here and just wanted to ‘go home!’ I wanted my clean, safe, modern house back! To his credit, he didn’t flip out… he totally went with it, saying all the right things, that it didn’t matter if we had to move again, but I had to give it a chance…. that I would regret it if I didn’t. He was totally right of course.
We started to decorate and renovate upstairs, the only part that wouldn’t be affected if we extended, and as I stripped away decades of gloss paint I started to ‘feel’ the house. I began to research previous occupiers and I delved more into local history. With each new thing I found, the more I felt how enormously privileged we are to be a part of this buildings history, and I guess that’s the real pull of owning a historic building. It’s knowing that it’s going to be standing and appreciated long after you’ve gone, and that you have contributed in some way to it’s future. It sounds a cliché, but you never really own a house like this, you’re just it’s caretaker for a moment in it’s history. That’s the feeling I had been waiting for, now it felt like home, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, especially now the spiders have moved out.
So should you buy a cottage?
- There will be huge spiders and mice… Not true. Once we’d moved in, the spiders moved out. Now we honestly get no more than the average house, hence why I’m still living here! Nor have we ever had mice.
- It’s freezing in the winter and cold in the summer… Nope! Opposite actually, our cottage is lovely and warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
- You have to thatch it several times…. well… our thatch has been on nearly 40 years and is still going. You will probably need to thatch once in your lifetime…
- That you will turn into Tom & Barbara and suddenly go all organic and self sufficient… I doubt it. I can get a Dominos delivered.
- That renovating a cottage will give you a good return on your investment… Yep, that’s total fiction.
- It will be a money pit. Unless you are very wealthy, or you genuinely enjoy DIY don’t even think about it. I read somewhere that unless you regard your home as a hobby you shouldn’t consider buying a historic property and I think that sums it up.
- You will have draughts, condensation, more cobwebs than a hammer horror movie and woodlice in random places.
- Your home insurance will be pretty steep if you have thatch, double steep if you also have a wood burner.
- If the property is listed (all buildings built before 1700 that are still in a reasonably original condition and most dating between 1700 and 1840. Some later property may be listed if it is of particular historical importance) then you will need listed building consent to carry out most alterations. As long as what you want to do is reasonable and sympathetic you stand a good chance of getting it, but it comes at a price. We found that the conservation officer would simply not deal with us as ‘laymen’ and we had to involve a consultant to submit our application. This can be very costly, however worth every penny to save you having a stroke from the stress of it!
- If you have a passion for your home, a yearning for tradition, can afford the time and money to maintain it, and don’t mind dusting (because believe me, there is more dust in a cottage than in Ghandi’s flip flop) then you will probably find it one of the most relaxing environments to live in. Unless you’re over 6 feet tall, then it will be a literal pain in the neck.
Love Kerrie. x