In the spring of 2002 the Waughs were a young couple looking to move up the property ladder. Graham, then 26 and Elizabeth, three years his junior, wanted to buy and renovate a house in one of two places: either in Essex, where Elizabeth had grown up or in Graham's home county of Ross-shire in the Highlands of Scotland. Who would find the perfect home first? They tell PPUK the story of how they came to own their very own Scottish manor house.
"We had been house hunting for quite a while and after several properties in the South East fell through, Graham took to trawling the internet and by chance he came upon Assynt House."
"It dated from the 1700s and was situated just outside the peaceful village of Evanton, in Ross-shire. It appeared to be in a sorry state of repair and its surrounding six acres of woodland had been completely reclaimed by nature. Unperturbed, probably because of our youth and innocence, we visited the agents in Edinburgh and arranged a viewing. Alarmingly, they asked us to sign an agreement stating that we entered the property at our own risk!
"It was a damp drizzly afternoon as we approached. The once magnificent house looked sad with trees growing from the chimneys and a crumbling patched-up exterior. It soon became clear that the estate agent's details were compiled some time ago! There was wet rot and dry rot and the roof over the very top room had collapsed. What's more, we couldn't even see the inside of the house because a dangerous building order had been placed on it.
"In spite of this, there was a lot of interest from other buyers and we wondered whether we would ever be able to buy the house. Even so, we still asked a local architect to have a look for us. On the day he arrived people in the building trade were being allowed inside, so armed with a disposable camera, he bravely entered. Emerging half an hour later shaking his head, he strongly advised us against placing a bid. Some internal walls and floors would have to be replaced, everything needed completely re-wiring and re-plumbing, the roof was in a terrible state and the interior and exterior walls needed to be stripped back to the stone and treated.
"This reinforced our view that it wasn't a sensible investment but we just didn't think the house deserved to be knocked down. The next day we walked through the overgrown gardens and came across a terraced lawn that was completely hidden under a 30ft high overgrown yew hedge. The old gates and steps were still there; it was like the enchanted 'Secret Garden!'
"We knew that the place was something special but it certainly needed drastic action! There was only three weeks to decide if we wanted to place a bid but after several long evenings of discussion between ourselves and our parents we decided to make an offer. Honestly though, we didn't think we had a chance of being successful, the house was so unique and seemed to have so many prospective buyers. In fact, we found out later that Strutt and Parker had sent out more than 700 sets of details, asking for offers over £75,000."
"Two months later we walked into Assynt House, our offer of £132,000 had been accepted and we had swapped a two bed terrace house in Essex for this! The layout was perfect with a huge wood lined living room and wonderful high ceilings, but the smell of decomposing wood and mould was overwhelming. Unfortunately the entire house and outbuildings had been looted for anything of value and broken crockery was strewn across the floor together with an old safe that had been too heavy to steal! In the lounge a musty army jacket hung on a stool in the corner. Who had that belonged to,we wondered?
"Before even thinking about any internal renovation, we had to first to make the house watertight and safe to enter. The floors were acro-propped to hold them up, the loose chimneypots were removed and scaffolding was erected to prevent the east gable from collapsing. After a time, we were able to fell some of the larger Douglas Fir trees and use the timber to replace the rotten wood in the living room. It was shocking to see the state of some of the wood and sandstone which was removed from the house. You could crumble bits of them in your hand!
"After making the house safe to work on, the next step was to plan a complete renovation. The house was Grade II listed and a historic Scottish building so the planning offices were all consulted, but with the exception of adding our en-suite bathrooms, we didn't want to change a thing. We were adamant, for example, that the original cornicing and details were to be reinstated.
"We decided to keep our own jobs for over a year but in August 2003 we moved up to Scotland where Graham's parents took us in. We had moved all our belongings into a relative's garage. It was incredibly hard to leave family and friends in Essex but this was a real adventure and we also had each other. "Work started on renovating Assynt when we got the go ahead from the planning department. Each floor was replaced, doors and panelling were salvaged and the roof received new timbers and re-claimed slates. Then came winter and with it a host of new problems and much slower progress. We realised that the project just wasn't being managed well at all and Graham decided that he would have to become a reluctant and inexperienced project manager, on-site every day. The workmen soon started to take advantage of his age. The plumber then disappeared after the first phase which held everything up and we were not getting on that well with the architect; relationships with both would remain strained for the remainder of the project."
It was about this time that Graham and Elizabeth couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. The building was still in a sorry state and the budget had wandered worryingly off-target. Everybody kept asking when the house would be finished and the couple did wonder if they had made the mistake of a lifetime."
TO BE CONTINUED... Next time, the Waughs conclude their renovation adventure and proudly reveal the sensational and valuable manor house they now own.
August 2002 Graham spots Assynt House while browsing the internet. We travel to Ross-shire for an external viewing.
September 2002 After much discussion we decide on our bid and wait to see if our offer is accepted on Assynt House.
October 2002 Early this month we step into Assynt House for the first time as its new but apprehensive owners.
October - December Work begins to ensure the house is secure for the winter. Some temporary roofing is installed. March 2003 Work begins on dismantling the damaged interior walls and floors and replacing them with new timbers.
August 2003 We move up to Scotland from Essex. Our furniture is stored and we stay with Graham's parents.
September 2003 The old roof was carefully taken off and a new roof went up. The house is watertight at last!
October 2003 - February 2004 Walls were framed and plasterboarded. Plumbing and electrical work starts.
Spring 2004 The new windows start to arrive, interior walls are skimmed with plaster. We begin work on the garden.
May 2004 The AGA arrives and two weeks later the rest of the kitchen is fitted. It won't be used for six months.
June - July 2004 Reconstruction of the intricate plasterwork and cornicing starts. The exterior was re-harled.
August - September Bathrooms start to be fitted. Internal painting is now a daily routine! (To be continued next time).
When taking on a large scale renovation do very thorough research, but still don't forget to budget for cost and time overruns, and always be prepared for the unexpected.
More details about Assynt House: See www.assynthouse.com