Period Property of the Month - July 2009
Ann Mori has transformed a down-and-out cottage into an enchanting home which is full of traditional character.
Enchanting little "New Cottage" in Oxfordshire is probably the oldest house in the village, dating all the way back to at least 1536 when it appeared on a local inventory. But when American academic, Ann Mori, found it in 1988, it was virtually derelict. "There was no bath, no loo and no heating," she says. "There was just one cold water tap, two light bulbs and an outhouse at the foot of the garden."
On the plus side, all the original oak and elm plank doors were still there in good condition and so were the original oak window frames and sills.
However, earthquake expert Ann thought the Grade II Listed cottage was straight out of a fairytale even though the garden was covered in an assortment of rabbit hutches, broken greenhouses, cold frames and eight foot nettles.
"New College at Oxford University owned it, but had put it up for auction," says Ann.
"I was so determined to get it that I had two surveyors give me a guide price, then I made an offer of slightly over £100,000. And I won!"
But then Ann was told she could not have a mortgage until the cottage had a bathroom and kitchen (it had neither).
"So after the auction, but before the payment, I had to persuade New College to let me install them," she says. "The kitchen was strictly temporary!" Luckily, they agreed.
Once that was sorted out and the mortgage arranged, Ann began the massive 'top-to-toe' task of her little thatched home, whilst remaining in her rented converted barn close-by.
In the first few days, she had all the layers of white gloss paint inside removed from the woodwork to reveal the natural oak beneath; two weeks later, all the rotten plaster was removed, "and we stripped it back to the stone," says Ann. Then the floor tiles were lifted from the earth to install a damp-proof membrane; some time later this floor was lifted again to put in underfloor heating. "Anyone living here before must have been freezing," she says. The whole place was then replastered and had new wiring put in.
Ann, who is a highly qualified engineer, had some clever ideas. "The spiral staircase was original, but, alas, proved to be rotten," she says. "So when I had it copied, I designed it so both the inside wall and the new stairs could be removed so we could easily haul big pieces of furniture upstairs. A local joiner did this and he also built an oak pillar to add extra support to the ceiling."
At her lowest point - when the place was gutted - Ann began to feel the cottage had no value. She adds, "But thank goodness it did all come together in the end!" The cottage had a few surprises. "The builder demolished some plasterboard round a hideous modern electric fire to reveal a Victorian range," she explains. "And I nearly had a fit when he then demolished the range as well. But he knew there was an inglenook behind and so it proved to be."
The top floor was one long bedroom with the stairs towards one end, so Ann put a bathroom behind this natural division.
"As for the ground floor, I made this into an open-plan living-dining-kitchen area and had the joiner build a new kitchen of pine units and Corian© worktops." After starting in the June, the indefatigable Ann was living in the cottage by Christmas.
Then she and some friends tackled the garden. "It took four people two weeks to clear," she says. "Then I landscaped and planted it myself along with a very good gardener, Henry Long." Some 20 years on, this cottage garden looks as though it has been there for centuries, bursting with old-fashioned flowers and even has a pretend 18th Century 'Gothic ruin', built by Ann's partner Spider recently.
However, there was no getting round the fact that little New Cottage with its single bedroom was ...well, tiny.
"So I decided to build a little underground house in the garden. I read the planning regulations and realised I didn't need permission if at least one of its corners was underground," she adds. "I excavated into a hill in the garden, then built into the side of it so two corners are underground! The planners hadn't thought of that, and I think they've adjusted the regulations now!"
Ann calls her guest accommodation The Burrows and it consists of a high vaulted sitting room, a bathroom, little kitchen area and a bedroom - the focal point of which is the fireplace which originally came from the Dorchester Hotel via an antique shop. She took over the project-management of The Burrows and sub-contracted the work. After a year, her troglodyte home was ready.
"I furnished and decorated it in a different way from the cottage," she says. "The cottage has an old English air belonging to the 16th Century and The Burrows is more lavish, based on paintings by Vermeer, showing 17th Century townhouse interiors. I really don't know which I like best!"
Ann has now decided to turn her hand to interior and garden design. You can find her on her website www.wildensteindesign.co.uk or 01865 351530