for People with a Passion for Period Property

Period Property of the Month - December 2009

Little did Sue and Phil Churchill realise, when they bought pretty Lantern Cottage, that the peaceful Avon had another side to its character.

A watery tale

The front garden with its mass of campanulas

The back garden: The table came from the Barn Antiques Centre and Sue painted it in light green Hammerite to protect it  from rust.

As soon as Sue Churchill and her husband Phil stepped into tiny Lantern Cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon they were enchanted. The Grade II listed cottage, thought to date from the 1600s, was built with an oak timber frame infilled with wattle and daub. There was a garden both back and front full of old-fashioned flowers and an ancient lantern, giving the cottage its name, hung at the front door.

Inside there were some charming features: a narrow spiral staircase, elm floorboards, a huge oak lintel across an inglenook fireplace, a bread oven and some very old 'teardrop' glass in the windows in the living room. There were two tiny bedrooms upstairs and a sitting room, kitchen and bathroom downstairs, the last two rooms probably added in the 1940s.

"Within half an hour we knew we were going to buy it even though we didn't have a deposit!" says Sue, "but we loved it so much we managed to persuade the owners to sell it to us."

That was 12 years ago. Since then a couple of watery events have meant they have had to learn a lot about floods and how to control them at Lantern Cottage. Just five minutes' walk away across a field winds the tranquil River Avon but soon after the couple, plus Maisie their lurcher-collie dog moved in, the river burst its banks. Luckily, that first time, it did not cause too much damage.

The study: the nursing chair which Sue re-covered once belonged to Phil's grandmother.

However, two years ago the floods returned, along with many other parts of the country, and this time the effect was catastrophic; the water was one metre deep and when it subsided left a layer of sewage throughout the ground floor. The kitchen was a disaster area and everything, including the white goods, had to be thrown away. All the flooring, from quarry tiles to carpet, was ruined. The wiring was irreparable, the tiling in the bathroom, which had been glued to a wood backing, had popped out and the basin and loo were broken. Many household items were unsalvageable.

"Whilst all this was going on, I was in London running a children's centre launch," says Sue who with Phil runs a management and marketing consultancy, Churchill Associates. "Heavy rain there caused delays and all my attention was focused on making the day a success. Afterwards, I drove along streets turned into streams and listened to news stories of flooding; but I only found out that our cottage was affected when a neighbour rang me on my mobile; there was no point in driving to inspect the damage as the area was cut off."

Fortunately the same neighbour waded in to the rescue (almost literally) and saved most of their old and antique furniture by moving what he could upstairs and stacking the rest.

"Lots of loving waxing and plenty of elbow grease achieved miracles," says Sue, "and the curtains also survived as he had tied them in a knot above the flood level."

Once the waters had subsided the insurance company was reluctant for the couple to clear anything as they wanted their specialists to come in and inspect first. "But there were not enough of these people to go round," says Sue. "Eventually, I went in and spent a weekend clearing up and making lists of ruined items."

The chair is one of a pair bought locally and the demi-lune table is from the Chudleigh junkshop. The curtain across the foot of the stairs helps to keep draughts out.

The place was full of damp, despite dehumidifiers humming away for months and renovation work could not start until the building was dry again.

Lifting the sewage-drenched sisal carpet in the sitting room took an entire day and used up a box of Stanley knife blades, as the underlay had been glued to the floor and the carpet glued to the underlay. "It was all done by me, by hand: not a pleasant job!" smiles Sue. "So my best advice is never have sisal carpets if you're in a flood area."

Washing clean everything in the cupboards was laborious, as Sue had no electricity and no hot water and had to boil up water in saucepans. "And, of course, in the early days, we could not use the loos because of the risk of overloading the sewers even more."

The bedroom: above the door a triangle of the original wattle (daub now missing) made from withy branches can be seen. Sue made the matching fabric covers to the cupboards as well as the Laura Ashley beige gingham curtains and valence.

This time the Churchills and their insurance company were able to make their lovely old cottage virtually 'flood-proof' by introducing certain design measures. "As the entire downstairs had to be replastered we were advised to use traditional lime plaster as it is porous and allows the building to breathe," says Sue. "This should speed up the drying out if it floods again. "We had to rewire but this time all the electrics have been installed at first floor level and the cables dropped down so that all wiring downstairs runs a good metre above floor level.

"We also changed all the old timber flooring throughout the ground floor to porcelain tiles which are the least porous of floor materials and easy to clean." Nevertheless, it was the kitchen that saw the biggest change. "We got rid of all the damaged pine cupboards and now have door-less cupboards made of engineering bricks, (tiled over to look more attractive), standing on four inch plinths with Corian worktops"

The same style cupboards were installed in the bathroom and new mosaic tiling applied to the walls. "The only wood we now have downstairs is the original 17th Century oak in the doors and door frames and the elm timbering," says Sue. "And we know we can empty the ground floor of all its furniture and rugs in 45 minutes should there be another flood warning. Or, if we empty the kitchen cupboards too, it's 60 minutes."

After all these traumas have the Churchills any doubts about Lantern Cottage? It seems not. As Sue explains, "We love our cottage because it's so quiet and peaceful. It's surrounded by beautiful countryside and within easy access of many attractions like the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's a great retreat and an escape from the pressures of everyday life."