Although there has been a mill in Stoke Holy Cross since Roman times and there are several mentions in the Doomsday Book, 1814 stands out as a key date in the village's history when Jeremiah Colman moved out of Norwich and leased the mill. The business flourished and by the middle of the century steam driven engines were providing the power to drive an extensive factory site which, as well as four grades of mustard, also produced starch, indigo blue, gum, flour and paper. However, the arrival of the railway in Norwich prompted the factory to be relocated to Carrow Road, Norwich, in 1856 and by 1865 Colman's had left the village completely with many of the factory buildings dismantled and the property bought by the Dunston Estate. Today, little remains.
When you find a house which has enormous potential, but is obviously in need of a great deal of work, there is a decision to be made: either you can go forwards and commit or just shrug your shoulders and walk away. I did the former and looking back, I don't regret it for a single moment.
For a start, you would really have to want a place like this and I just fell in love with the cottage at first sight. Tucked away as it was in a close beside an old mill and surrounded by fields and meadows near the River Tas, with its picket fence and the well by the gate. I knew for sure that this was the place where I wanted to settle. Yes, I had to look for its strong points with all the cement and the white uPVC windows and porch, but it had real charm. It was just that in no way did I realise the extent of the work or how long it would take. As things turned out, I pushed myself further and achieved more than I ever thought I could which was immensely rewarding.
In retrospect, the works seem to have fallen into three distinct stages: firstly, starting out to do those few necessary alterations; secondly, having to undertake more extensive structural work due to the problems which emerged; and thirdly, committing to the long haul and accepting the expense and effort needed to get the cottage right, problems solved, and its original character restored.
I had a small budget (a little over £4,000) and naively thought it would take about two months to do only the essentials: to replace the uPVC double glazing with timber framed windows and the white plastic porch with an oak frame; to remove the gravel and paving slabs from the front and to reinstate grass and a proper garden (there had to be roses around the door); to update the colour scheme and to replace harsh fluorescent strip lighting. The rest would have to wait until I could afford it, perhaps in a year or two.
However, the cottage had been largely untouched for many years and, although the vendors had great affection for it, they wanted to smarten it up for sale in the quickest way possible, not taking the structure of the building into consideration. Although it caused lots of headaches, this was the best thing that could have happened as, if I had only painted and wallpapered, I would never have learnt about traditional building practices nor met all the amazing people who gave me so much help and support. I also felt that researching the building's origins would help me get to grips with the nuts and bolts of the building and how best to approach restoring it.
One project which was top of my list, and which I knew would make an immediate difference to the look and feel of the cottage, was replacing the white uPVC double glazing with timber frame windows. They are the eyes and soul of a building and the white plastic definitely seemed to drain it of character. I initially opted for single glazed sash windows, as in my last house. Due to the new building regulations, my only chance of getting around this was the cottage being in the conservation area. I was floored on two counts: the cottage was not listed and two of the other cottages already had plastic double glazing. For a few weeks I drove around with my head craning out of the car looking at as many local buildings as possible, to get a feel for the local 19th-century style. I also bought several books (the best of which was Hugh Lander's 'Dos and Don'ts of House and Cottage Restoration') and spoke to as many people as I could, but had to admit that not many cottages had sash windows. By mid-July, looking at my spiralling costs and bearing in mind the higher cost of the sashes, the final decision had to be for double glazed casements.
It took two months for the frames to arrive, a lot of painting by yours truly (French Gray - Farrow & Ball) but they were fitted in early-September 2004; definitely the right choice for the cottage, and what a difference! Although I wanted to make a difference to the cottage, it was not as though I set out with ideas of embarking on a major 'restoration' project. It developed as it went along, almost of its own volition.
It was the kitchen which changed everything.
Of all the rooms, it needed the most immediate attention and one of the first things I did after moving in was to order new units as the existing ones were fit only for the skip. The concrete floor would need attention as it was so uneven it made you feel slightly seasick. Yet Mark's first comment (Mark, by the way, was the builder later replaced by my super neighbour, Tony) was that there might be floor bricks under the concrete,
There was probably a fireplace behind a seemingly blank wall, which did not seem to have any ventilation and, by the way, there seemed to be damp in the walls. In no time at all, he had drilled a hole in the concrete to reveal bricks and a hole in the wall to uncover the fireplace. Just discovering this and realising there might be more hidden features justified my instinct about the potential of the cottage and was an incentive to take a more drastic approach than I'd planned. However, I was still cautious about the cost of going too far.
It was not until the kitchen units came off the wall that the implications hit me. The walls were covered in not one, but up to three layers of plasterboard with the brickwork behind running with damp; stripping back at least one complete wall seemed the only way to establish the cause. Not only had the plasterboard been cut so it touched the ground, allowing any moisture to migrate upwards, but it had been attached to the brickwork with mastic, glue and a type of cement, meaning that the walls could not breathe and moisture was trapped within the cavity. Still hanging onto my budget, we decided to see if stripping only half the room would be enough to allow the walls to dry out. However, as there seemed to be damp everywhere, it was a case of doing the whole room, which involved literally hand chiseling every last bit of mastic and cement off the brickwork, very time consuming and thus very expensive.
One positive was that the room actually became larger and better proportioned once the layers were off. The plasterboard and tiles had covered some original wooden reveals and door mouldings and the kitchen seemed warmer and more welcoming, even though it was north facing. But the time spent here alone blew my initial estimate of two months out the window. The brickwork would need time to dry out and we established that it should be finished in lime to counter any future damp (I would need to find a lime plasterer - quite a rare breed and always busy) and then limewashed. Also, when the concrete came up there were gaps, so matching floor bricks would have be found.
Dealing with the damp became an overriding issue. A survey prior to purchase had revealed high levels in most of the walls, which I originally put down to the thickness of the outer walls. However, removing the plasterboard in the kitchen had alleviated the damp there and unblocking the fireplace had increased the airflow. So with this is mind, we found that the ground levels were higher outside than in and concrete abutted the wall, the rear wall had been re-pointed in places and in others totally covered in cement render, so trapping any moisture within the walls.
At the front, cement render over the flint and brick and cement flags abutted the front wall, the porch walls were covered with cement render with the base also in cement, all causing damp retention. When the render was removed and the ground levels corrected, the walls started to dry out immediately and the damp smell disappeared. By digging a sort of French drain by the front wall of the cottage, this kept any damp earth away from the wall. By late-summer, we seemed to be making some headway and there was a real feeling of liberation.
From mustard factory to cottagesl Mary's research enabled her to discover that, after lying empty for 25 years, the three-storey mustard factory was converted into a row of two-storey cottages, in 1991. This provided much needed accommodation for estate labourers.
- The total original cost of converting the building was £350.
- When the Dunstan estate was broken up and sold in 1954, No.3 Mill Cottages was bought by the sitting tenant, Arthur Timms, for £125 and in due course he married Freda Brock from No.1. Freda and her forebears had many connections with the mill and village and she lived to become the grand old lady of the terrace, eventually dying in 2002.
- Mary's history puzzle was now complete as she bought No.3 from Freda's family a couple of years later.
- The discovery of the unusual origins of her cottage was a great help to Mary as it explained many of the unusual features, such as the foot thick walls, altered brickwork and load bearing loft joists.
- Mary did extensive research to find out about her cottage and the history and earlier inhabitants of her village.
- From the Norfolk Record Office she was able to view many original papers including leases, estate papers, lawyers' letters, building estimates and sale documents.
- From neighbours she discovered further details of earlier residents of the cottages and details of the links to Colman's Mustard.
- Damp busters
Here are the seven things that Mary did to get rid of the damp from her kitchen.
- Remove plasterboard and mastic glue covering the walls.
- Open up fireplace to improve ventilation.
- Remove cement renders inside and out.
- Remove concrete floor covering (to reveal original floor bricks).
- Use lime plaster and limewash.
- Lower outside ground levels.
- Dig French drains against outside walls.
1814 Jeremiah Colman leases Stoke Holy Cross mill.
1840s Extensive factory development by the Colman family.
1856 Colmans start to move to Carrow Road, Norwich.
1865 Stoke Holy Cross factory abandoned.
1891 The mustard factory converted to cottages.
1957 Arthur Timms buys freehold of No.3 for a £125. (His widow, Freda, dies in 2002).
2004 Mary Beasley buys No.3 from Feda Timms' estate.