When, in spring 1999, Graham and Rachael Barker spotted that a dilapidated old brick-fronted house in the Suffolk town of Needham Market was for sale at £75,000 they were quick off the mark and paid the full asking price to secure their dream home.
The low price reflected the fact that much of the garden had been hived off the Grade II building for a new housing development at the rear. It also indicated the state of the three-bedroomed property, which although dating from the second half of the 16th century and known to have a fine late-Medieval oak frame, had been badly neglected.
"The house had served as a restaurant since the 1950s. The Medieval timber frame was almost completely concealed and was just waiting to be exposed and revealed in all its glory," says Graham, a conservation builder, who was brought up in the town.
Another reason for the house's low price was the rather strident red brick frontage, believed to have been added around 1850 - 1860. "From the front you would have had no idea that the brick-faced building, with its two red doors, concealed a fine timber-framed late-Medieval merchant's house, with some beautiful rolled mouldings on the internal beamed ceilings," says Graham. Downstairs, very few of the richly-carved beams were visible. Almost all had been obscured by plasterboard and insulation materials. However, when Graham and his colleagues got up onto the roof they found a really splendid example of a late-Medieval clasped purlin roof, with lovely curved windbraces. They were not entirely surprised because there are many more houses like this in Needham Market, all with brick frontages, some of which they have worked on.
With his experience of working on old buildings, Graham had the confidence and knowledge to set to with a will, removing all the modern petitioning and stripping the interior right back to its timber frame. All this made living in the building, together with children Luke and Georgia, then aged two and one, very difficult. Graham and Rachael coped with this by carving a living space out of the first floor living accommodation, using the unaltered 1950s bathroom, and sleeping in two bedrooms. They created a temporary kitchen on what is now the upstairs landing.
The bathroom was in a pretty bad state and the couple had to live with it, and the temporary kitchen, for two-and-a-half years rather than the six months they originally had in mind. This was because Graham often had to break off to do building work for other people. However, it has all been worthwhile because now it is all finished Graham reckons the total cost of the work, including all materials and the three grants they received, has been a mere £32,000. However, this does not take account of Graham's labour, and he thinks he and Rachael did about 85% of the work themselves.
"Fitting it into a very busy programme at the same time as working on other people's houses has not always been easy but we have managed with a very small team," says Graham. "It was mainly myself, with occasional help from my brother Melvin, a plumber and two other assistants."
Graham says far too many people who purchase real gems of old houses seem to lack sympathy with the building. "My advice is not to rush at the job. Live in the house for a while and learn all about the way it is constructed before starting work. You can do this by asking around, reading books and magazines and, if necessary, going on courses. Don't forget that by interfering with the building too much and not using traditional materials in the restoration you can easily do more harm than good."
Melvin did most of the roof repairs while Graham removed and repaired every one of the thin bar vertical sliding sash windows at the front. He also made the bedroom balustrading, and all the fitted kitchen cupboards, repaired the upstairs rear leaded light windows, did the pargeting on the inside kitchen wall and also all the plastering and panelling in the refurbished lounge.
The result of all this has been dramatic. There is now a wealth of heavily chamfered beams downstairs, all of which indicated that the house was of quite a high status - quite likely the home of a Needham Market wool merchant according to local historians.
Graham and Rachael adopted a similarly practical approach towards the furnishings. In the sitting room the Victorian mirror was bought second-hand from friends and the fireplace insert was a fire damaged reject that cost £80. In the second sitting room Graham has cleverly adapted some panelling he bought through a friend for £1,000.
It is the master bedroom that provides the real 'wow factor' in the house. It soars right up to the ridge, with all the magnificent oak framing revealed. At a higher level is a gallery, accessed by a ladder, where Graham and Rachael will be able to watch TV, read and retreat from the children.
The en suite bathroom stands on the site of the former bathroom, and in pride of place in the centre is the old cast iron roll top bath which Graham bought for £60 through a local newspaper advertisement and kept in storage. The basin is also reclaimed and cost him £10, while the panelled oak screen cost him just £15 a few years ago.
"Having exposed the Medieval roof over the master bedroom I am tempted to seek listed building consent to use the rest of the roof as an attic room, but this can follow at a later stage. The important thing is that we have proved that it is quite feasible to restore a glorious old beamed house like this on quite a low budget," says Graham.