Dorian Bowen had been searching for the perfect Welsh cottage for the best part of a decade when he came across a derelict old smallholding landlocked in the middle of a Carmarthenshire field.
"It was in terrible condition," admits Dorian. "The windows had gone, water was pouring in the roof and there was so much ivy across the slate roof that I thought it might actually be thatched - but at least it hadn't been modernized!"
Dorian had travelled as far north as Snowdonia, and eastwards into the Brecon Beacons searching for the perfect Welsh cottage, but pleasingly they found their little piece of paradise virtually on their doorstep, just a couple of miles from where Dorian grew up. The cottage was smothered in ivy and trees were growing out of gaping holes in the walls. Yet inside all the original features remained, including some of the furniture.
"It was like the family had just upped and left back in 1965 when the cottage was abandoned," says Dorian, "hence the cottage was lucky to survive all those horrible 'improvements' of the 1970s and 1980s."
Bryn Eglur (translated means 'Clear Hill', pronounced Brin Eg-lir) is a simple 'tyddyn'; a traditional smallholding cottage with attached byre. Built in 1755, it has a traditional layout of 'cegin' (kitchen) and 'parlwr' (parlour) downstairs, a small dairy outshot to the rear, and two interconnected bedrooms upstairs. Holdings like this once formed the backbone of the rural Welsh housing stock.
"I knew straight away that I'd found the house of my dreams," says Dorian, "and although there was an awful lot of work to do I wanted to bring this cottage back into my community."
To preserve the original layout as much as possible the bathroom has been fitted in the old dairy, and the former cowshed has been converted to a country kitchen. This meant that the four core rooms (two bedrooms, the old kitchen and parlour) could remain in their original uses. Only minimal modern conveniences have been added, so no television, stereo or telephone have been installed. Even electric sockets have been kept to a minimum and the couple use candles and oil lamps for much of their lighting.
Attention to detail is what makes Bryn Eglur so refreshing. The wickerwork chimney hood has been rebuilt using local hazel and daub, and steel plates have been inserted into rotten floor joists to enable every possible square inch of original timber to be preserved. Even the original Victorian paintwork survives on the matchboard panelling, showing a century of wear and character.
Dorian is evangelical about authenticity in building renovation. "Employing traditional materials and methods generally costs no more than modern equivalents - but it is important to set aside enough time as this kind of work does take longer than modern building techniques."
Hence at Bryn Eglur limewash is used instead of modern plastic paints, the new windows are authentic copies of 'Georgian' cottage originals, and the plasters and mortars are all lime based instead of using cement or gypsum. The few concessions to modernity have been taken with sustainability in mind, so the roof insulation is all sheepswool, and a discrete solar panel has been hidden on a roof to the rear to warm the hot water. "Where we have inserted modern facilities we have tried to be honest about it. I'm not the kind to go for a Victorian reproduction loo with brass fittings. A cottage like this would never have had such 'modern' conveniences then, so I've gone for a simple, contemporary design in the kitchen and bathroom that doesn't try and fool anyone with fake charm."
What impresses most about the project is how a community came together to see it happen. Dorian comes from a large family and they all helped out, whether working on site or just in bringing tea and cakes down to the people working. Bryn Eglur was originally a 'home-made' home, and it is great to see that it has been restored by the hands of the couple who will be living there. Where extra help was hired in, it came locally, hence craftsmen like the stonemasons already knew how to maintain and recreate the local vernacular traditions.
So has Dorian found his perfect Welsh cottage? "Yes," he smiles. "I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I knew all along how it would look when it was finished, but I wasn't prepared for the magical atmosphere in the house. It is such a peaceful place, and I'm glad that its long history will now have a chance to continue." To celebrate the end of the project the whole community turned out to drink a toast to the newly-restored ancient home, and before long the simple house-warming turned into a full-blown 'twmpath' with traditional music, dance, songs and high spirits.
After having stood cold, empty and silent for 40 years, Bryn Eglur was aglow with the warmth from the fire in the inglenook and the ancient walls echoed with tales and songs in the rich local dialect. Here was a home that had been rescued from the brink of dereliction, and was being welcomed back into its community with open arms. It was for scenes like this that the cliché 'heart-warming' was coined.
Pictures courtesy of the Welsh TV channel SC4 and their TV programme 'The Perfect House'.
Dorian's top tips
1. Take your time! Don't rush the renovation as you can easily destroy a century of character if you are in a rush to get things finished.
2. Sit down and think what it is about the house that you love and make sure that you keep those details. If you love the lived in look then keep original paint surfaces even if slightly damaged.
3. Do your homework. Get all the books you can and read up on the history of the house and how it was used.
4. Be prepared to compromise - the building comes first. We've kept the bathroom downstairs as there was no easy way of installing one on the first floor.
Would Dorian do anything differently?
The restoration project ran smoothly with no major disasters and kept to budget. However, were they to tackle a similar project again Dorian would plan further ahead to buy in some of the materials (such as slate floor slabs) which can be difficult to find. The house is currently heated by solid-fuel underfloor heating run by the Rayburn stove, but with hindsight they would have run the system on oil which would give greater flexibility. The original open wickerwork chimney hood is a delight but they are considering lining inside with a discrete steel flue for added safety.
Feb 2003 First saw the house and began to negotiate purchase.
Feb 2004 Completed purchase after planning permission granted.
Feb 2004 - April 2004 Making the building watertight, securing with tarpaulins and adding temporary structural supports.
Summer 2004 Researching different builders, seeing their work, and getting quotes.
Oct 2004 - Dec 2004 Builders start work, starting first on the new roof and chimneys.
Nov 2004 - Jan 2005 Repairs to the walls using lime mortars.
Dec 2004 - Feb 2005 Rebuilding the collapsed byre and conversion to a kitchen.
March 2005 Structural repairs to internal walls and floors. April 2005 External drainage, private sewage, and landscaping.
May 2005 Plumbing, underfloor heating and laying slate floor.
June 2005 Conversion of former dairy to bathroom. Summer 2005 Decorating, limewashing and 'snagging'.
Sept 2005 Party to celebrate the completion of the project!