Roger’s done it! After several weeks and a lot of hard graft, he’s managed to remove the paint from the stone wall in the fireplace room and it looks fantastic. Not only were the painted stones unattractive, but the weather shield paint which had been used was holding in moisture, creating damp on the wall. Before returning the wooden floor boards, we had to let the stones dry. We repaired the supports under the floor, laid a damp proof membrane and added some insulation. The room is not quite completed — the ceiling still needs to be addressed and there is a window which needs replacing — but it has been transformed.
When Roger and I began to tackle the restoration project at Crockern, we knew we were taking on a project with unknown dimensions. Since we weren’t raising children, we agreed we could instead nurture and care for an old house. And like those who swell with pride when their children do something terrific, our completed projects give us enormous pleasure and satisfaction. And I suppose, like parents of teenagers, we see the host of projects looming ahead as unpredictable, sometimes difficult and always an unknown challenge. Naturally through the process we’ve learned a thing or two and it seems high time to pause and share.
- Live with the house and the space before making big decisions and do not rush into major projects. We received this advice from a friend before we moved to Crockern and boy oh boy, was he right! Early days necessitated some immediate decisions — a new roof and the replacement of a couple of supporting beams — but it’s crazy how many times we’ve changed our ideas as we’ve lived with the house through the seasons.
- Embrace the stories and history of the house. We don’t have to strip every room back to expose original details. In fact, if we did we’d probably have cows, sheep, goats and chickens living in the kitchen! This house has evolved over time at the hands of many residents and we want to honour that history where we can. We have had to undo a few “fixes” from the past while at the same time installing a few modern interventions in order to make the house more energy efficient.
- Do research, and then do some more research. And if you think that’s enough, do even more research. Questions I’ve never considered in previous houses loom large here: How to remove paint from walls? How to treat wood so it continues to breathe in a damp climate? How to do dry stone walling? How to build a plinth for an oil tank? What are the local building materials and which ones hold up in this climate? How to address drafts or damp without creating a bigger problem. What vegetables and plants can we grow on Dartmoor? How to live with a generator? How do we maintain our spring so our water is clean?
- Accept that it is unreasonable to expect every room in the house to be constantly warm and dry. Back in the day, living in a stone farmhouse was a hard-life. Weather on Dartmoor can be wild, wet and windy. When the winter storms raged these past few months, there was nothing more wonderful than keeping cozy by the wood burner. Thank goodness the paint is off the walls and the floors are back in position!
- Be prepared to compromise. Some things which would be ideal in a modern house are simply not suited for a traditional farmhouse. That said, I want to find a way to hide the electrical wires which currently run across beams.
- Definitely do not attempt to do everything at once. Our time, expertise and budget have limits, and it’s simply more manageable to renovate one area at a time. It has taken us time to learn new skills and to find tradesmen we work with well. Of course, addressing one room at a time has an added benefit: when we are fed up with the mess or hit the inevitable snag, we can simply retire to another room and avoid the headache for a few days. When renovating, rushing into any decision or action can be costly, but more, the end product is just that and you gotta live with it.
- There are times when I may covet luxurious interiors with all their modern and easy conveniences but anything too contemporary, glitzy, let alone square and level, would just not be in keeping with this old house. These traditional farmhouses were the homes for centuries to hardworking families and their animals. We need to strike a balance between the practicality-tradition of using whatever materials were to hand and aesthetics. While being too precious might ultimately make the house too clinical we also don’t want to use what fell off a truck and utter, “That’ll do”. We aren’t afraid to use modern fittings, but if we can repair it and it looks pleasing, that might be the better solution. Sometimes, an honest visible repair is just the ticket.
- While it is important for us to make and stick to a budget; sometimes, it is important to accept that we love this place and that may mean spending money which may never come back to us. WAIT! I’m a tightwad, did I just write that? But here’s the thing, over the years many of us have spent loads on cars with full knowledge that they depreciate in value every time we drive them. It’s important to see our home as something more than just an investment.
- Accept that we’re in it for the long haul and approach this old house as if we are its guardians. In Crockern’s 200 (or so) year history, our time living here is just a short event. When we started this project we set out on a 5-10 year schedule and after 4 years, we’re about half way done with the house. The outbuildings loom large and will change the overall time frame to something looking like 10-15 years in total. The thing is, if we rush it we won’t discover what needs to be done. This sort of renovation and living may not be for everyone but we love it and want to take time to enjoy our home, too.
- And last, DO NOT FORGET to put a light on the inside of the closet under the stairs when we eventually move the hot water tank. It’s damned frustrating to not be able to see in there.
As Crockern continues to teach us how to proceed with renovations and restorations, it continues to teach us a lot about ourselves. We experience our need to laugh and relax as well as have a good old argument and get filthy dirty on a project in equal measure. As I sit by the fire writing, Sam is by my side napping, and Roger is heading back out to the barn to get some wood. There is a small part of the floor which needs patching before we can finish off the trim. We’ve nearly finished stripping the old paint and sanding some stairs revealing some beautifully aged pine full of knots and burls. There is a window to replace and how we will finish the ceiling in this room remains a mystery. That said, we like what we’ve done so far and the truth is we’re not really in any rush.