Period Property of the Month - January 2008
A chance buy ten years ago, this pretty cottage has produced endless pleasure for its enterprising owners.
While Tilly Farnham was living in Virginia with her American husband, Joe, she felt a little homesick for England. As here, their daughter Lizzie was at boarding school so, as often as they could, the couple would fly over to see her. “We used to rent a cottage from a lady called Maggie Dillon-Godfray who had quite a few cottages – all charming – and I would try to persuade Joe to buy one,” says Tilly. “Then one day, just ten days before we were due to return after a three week visit, Joe said: “Ok, if you find a cottage, you can have one.”
For the next ten days, Tilly drove from estate agent to estate agent collecting brochures and poring over them. “I had to keep to a ten-mile radius of the cottage we were in because it was near where Maggie lived and she had said she would look after it for us while we were back in the States,” says Tilly That was 11 years ago and it was in the little village of Bledington on the Oxford-Gloucestershire border that the Farnhams found Thatch Cottage.
“And it still has its thatch, last replaced in 1998,” says Tilly. She continues: “The roof lasts about 20 years and the ridge needs replacing every ten so, when we changed this, we replaced half of the roof at the same time. It was delivered as huge bales of straw, the size of the sitting room. Just for half a roof, it filled up the driveway.
The Master Thatchers of Abingdon carried out the work and one of the thatchers was from Australia; here to learn the job." The original core of Thatch Cottage is thought to be 17th Century and was built with local stone, probably from the Sarsden Quarry. This is when the very distinctive bread oven, which protrudes out of the side of the house into the driveway, was built. "And of course other period features include the stone mullioned windows and vertical beams in the sitting room," says Tilly.
Previous owners had added an extension which created the kitchen, added a hallway and a small bathroom downstairs and a small bedroom upstairs.
However, the couple have made quite a few changes inside assisted by Maggie, who is an interior designer, and who advised them on decorating, choosing fabrics and other touches.
"We wanted the cottage to look as authentic as possible," says Tilly. "The oak beams were painted black so we had them cleaned back to their original oak colour. And as all the living rooms walls were the original Cotswold stone, we had them limewashed to lighten the room."
The couple put a hood over the grate in the inglenook fireplace and then blocked off the chimney cavity to prevent heat loss.
"We had the whole house repainted and Maggie suggested putting the big cupboards in the hall which are really useful," says Tilly. "Everything in here was done on a budget. It was a case of seeing something pretty in a little antique shop or junkyard and buying things here and there locally," she adds.
Because she was sticking to a budget, Maggie improved the kitchen by painting the cupboards to get a limewash effect and changing the worktops with blue tiles from Fired Earth.
"We changed the sink to a double ceramic one and have managed to incorporate a tiny Bosch dishwasher, a Homark hob and a Zanussi double oven. We replaced the cork floor with ceramic tiles and we put in the antique corner cupboard and pine table. These came from The Pine Shop in Chipping Campden," Tilly states.
Another change was in the main bedroom where the couple installed a Victorian fireplace, which was moved from the annexe they own next door.
"Joe also replaced the airing cupboard and bathroom doors in the hall with pine plank doors from Moreton-in-Marsh Reclamation Yard," says Tilly: "and in the bathroom we just added a shelf and a cupboard. My sister Gillian Hodge made the blinds in here and also the curtains in the guest bedroom and kitchen. She also made the lovely old-fashioned looking silk embroidery in the sitting room - it took her a year, but it's beautiful."
When it came to furnishing, Tilly found some wonderful bargains. One was their oak dining table which came from the village hall and which they bought for only £50. "Once Joe had put some polish on, it soon came up with a lovely sheen," says Tilly. "It seats eight people and four of the old pine chairs came from my other sister Pam."
In the guest bedroom, there is a Georgian chest of drawers with a Bodger's chair from Tilly's mother while, in the main bedroom, the bed is a Victorian reproduction bought in Evesham and decorated with a beautiful embroidered silk shawl from Staunton in Virginia.
Thatch Cottage came with another building just across the driveway which the Farnhams have called The Annexe. "It was like a stone-walled barn with earth floors, just a shell really, although it had been someone's home not too long ago," says Tilly. "The building itself is pretty old but I've no idea when it was built." So, after being granted planning permission, the Farnhams restored it to its status as a dwelling, adding a five foot extension to the back to incorporate a garage and create more space above. "We did everything," says Tilly. "We put in a damp-proof course, plastered the stone walls, repointed the exterior and installed a new chimney. We fitted a timber floor to create an upper floor comprising a galleried bedroom and en suite shower room. Downstairs we laid a floor of reconstituted Cotswold stone with underfloor heating. And we liked the existing fireplace so much, we moved it to the main bedroom of the cottage and replaced it here with a bigger one," says Tilly.
She adds: "The funny thing is that we did our house up with bargains but the best bargain of all was the cottage itself. When we bought it, we didn't realise how cosy it was and how peaceful or that we'd picked one of the friendliest villages in the Cotswolds in which to live."
What Makes Our House Special
It's mentioned in at least two books. The first is The Changing English Village" by M K Ashby who says that, in the early 19th Century, it was sold to a woman called Mary Cooke who had a baby boy out of wedlock. He grew up to become a cooper and owned the cottage till 1823 when he sold it for £60; quite a lot of money for those days, especially as we have learned that, in 1939, some 100 plus years later, it was sold for only £20.
The second is Discovering Cottage Architecture by Chris Powell who describes our very distinctive bread oven, which protrudes out of the side of the house and also the stone hood moulds over the ground floor windows (rather like eyebrows) which are characteristic of the period.