for People with a Passion for Period Property
Period Property of the Month - August 2004
When the Zernys became the proud owners of 'Cobwebs' cottage, it was a dream come true. Margaret Kemsley discovers why.
Living the dream
Cobwebs cottage, the Zernys’ dream home

The bespoke oak kitchen cabinets and American black walnut worktops are from local firm Thornhill Interiors, who Will and Jeanette cannot praise highly enough. Elizabethan carpenters’ marks have been found on the exposed wall timbers under layers of black paint. The terracotta floor tiles are from The Tile Depot.As long as Will and Jeanette Zerny can remember, they have always wanted to live in a cottage. The fact that their dream has only very recently been realised has not stopped them, over the years, from collecting furniture and other items for the beamed, low-ceilinged rooms that dwelt so clearly in their imagination. The almost spooky accuracy of their vision is borne out by a tour of Cobwebs, the timbered Buckinghamshire cottage they purchased just over a year ago. The property provides the perfect backdrop not only for their accumulated treasures, but also for some of Jeanette's output as a talented water-colourist, printmaker and former sculptress.

Part of an idyllic collection of period properties facing inwards onto a central green, Cobwebs is one of the oldest houses in the hamlet and looks out to the rear over undulating meadows. The Zernys are still in the early stages of researching its history but believe that the cottage is Elizabethan in origin, possibly part of a major local farmstead called Church Farm. In more modern times the cottage suffered a decline in its fortunes, and as recently as 1952 an auction catalogue described the property as two modest tenanted dwellings Reed and Cobwebs Cottages. By the time the Zernys took possession, the property was generally in a good state of repair with a wealth of original features preserved intact, if often obscured by inappropriate modern decoration.

From the very first, their guiding principle at Cobwebs has been to let the building's beautiful architecture speak for itself. This approach has been used to great effect in the kitchen, the long, narrow dimensions of which have not proved an impediment to the creation of a spacious, practical room. Wall-cupboards and a breakfast bar have been removed and replaced with bespoke solid oak cabinets capped with American black walnut worktops. Modern appliances - freezer, fridge and dishwasher - have been concealed behind mellow oak doors, leaving pride-of-place to the dark blue Rayburn, which cooks, heats water and runs the central heating system. Leading off the kitchen is a useful utility area and loo, and access to Jeanette's studio.

Whilst respecting the cottage's history and architecture, the couple are adamant that they don't want their home to be a museum, and the light-filled living room is a case in point. The traditional features of the room such as ceiling beams, inglenook with woodburning stove, and exposed wall timbers, have all been enhanced by the contrast with neutral backgrounds and stylish modern furniture. The addition of simple crewel-work curtains, repeated in subtly-different variations throughout the house, completes the look.

The dining room, on the other side of the huge central chimney breast, contains a number of lovely pieces acquired over the yearThis slightly more substantial stairway leads to a separate second-floor room. The two attic rooms are connected by a low doorway.s. A mid-18th century dropleaf mahogany table and set of six 19th century spindle-backed chairs suit the proportions of the room perfectly, whilst a 17th century oak coffer and sidetable play host to displays of pewter and pottery. Here, as elsewhere in the cottage, simple black iron wall-lights draw the eye without detracting from the understated elegance of the room.

As might be expected, stairs of one sort or another feature prominently throughout Cobwebs' three stories. One set rise from the quarry-tiled hallway, meeting another staircase rising from the kitchen at a spectacular, irregularly-shaped 'middle landing', open to the rafters and flooded with light. The area is dominated by the soaring brickwork of the chimney piece, immaculately restored and flanked on either side by a third staircase and a quirky, purpose-made ladder of indeterminate age both leading to rooms on the second floor.

The colour scheme in the master bedroom has remained much as the Zernys found it, the sprigged wallpaper and Crown's Soft Apricot emulsion complementing plain blackened beams and stripped pine floorboards. A small en-suite shower has been tucked in under the eaves and a separate walk-in dressing area avoids cluttering the low-ceilinged main room with too much heavy furniture.

Both first floor bedrooms boast beautiful 1850s cast-iron and brass bedsteads (from The Antique Bedstead Company), but both created problems when it came to placing the beds on dramatically-sloping cottage floors! Will came to the rescue here by using his skills as an engineer to create machined steel 'heels' that fit unobtrusively to the feet of the beds to level them up.

The family bathroom is a great example of the transformation that can be achieved with a few deft touches. Bright orange rag-rolling on walls and ceiling, black beams and black-and-white vinyl floor tiles have given way to more Soft Apricot emulsion, stripped timbers and a stripped pine floor. The original bathroom suite has been retained but repositioned, creating extra space for a large walk-in shower.

The second-floor bedrooms, high up under the rafters, are romantic in the extreme, with their unconventional access and 4' high doorways ducking under the purlins.

In the bathroom, the Zernys painstakingly stripped and sanded the floorboards and exposed timbers themselves. The existing bathroom suite was also repositioned to create more space.They had been used as children's bedrooms, and apparently are very popular with the Zernys' two children, now both decidedly grown-up! The second of the rooms also doubles as an office.

The gardens surrounding the cottage are laid mainly to lawn, with lovely weathered brick paths hugging the building and beds of cottage-garden annuals, dotted with examples of Jeanette's metalwork sculpture, drifting seamlessly into the shade of a stand of fruit trees. A swing-seat has been set up on the base of an old pigsty, providing the perfect vantage point for the contemplation of future gardening projects!

Within the space of a year Will and Jeanette have completed a comprehensive restoration at Cobwebs, with very little disturbance to the fabric of this beautiful old building. Their success owes much to their conviction that you do not own an old property, but are merely its guardian. "We treasure Cobwebs for its beauty and history", says Jeanette, "and hope that we can preserve it for generations to come".