Last week we began a new chapter as we completed our purchase of an 18th century cottage which sits in a little hamlet at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. And as chance would have it our completion date fell on my 55th birthday.
The cottage is not yet habitable as it has been lying empty for about a year and the ancient oil-fired boiler is beyond resuscitation. But it does have an inglenook fireplace with a log burning stove and one of the first jobs will be to sweep the chimney and light the stove.
Then it will need a complete overhaul. But the walls of local coursed sandstone and the roof are sound, every principal room has at least two windows so viewed on a sunny day it was light and bright and the garden at just over a third of an acre is the perfect size with a great deal of potential. There is a summer house and old apple trees (one dead from honey fungus – I spotted the tell-tale black bootlaces last week) and a rickety rose arbour and the view from the garden is straight up to the South Downs, weather permitting.
We collected the keys last Thursday and the weather was awful. The solid oak front door had swollen in the rain and it took us about half an hour to work out the correct keys and eventually to open the door into the utility space. My heart was already sinking and it sank into my boots as we re-explored the cottage. It smelt musty and stale and felt damp and gloomy. It is a cottage of three eras and the sheer amount of work needed suddenly hit home very hard. But I set to cleaning the downstairs shower room which was added in 2000 when an annex was created and is in a usable condition. We boiled the kettle and made tea and connected the new phone. We ate sandwiches in the summer house sitting on our old Lloyd Loom chairs with a blow heater warming the space. It was too wet to contemplate sweeping up any leaves and I was desperate to find solace in the garden, which is beautiful. There is a cotinus and a euonymus alatus, an acer and an arbutus, a magnolia and a Sorbus, there are abundant roses and one of the biggest Liriodendron Tulipifera trees you have ever seen. Already we have swept up 24 bags of its leaves. The best part of the day was locking up and leaving and walking around the hamlet as dusk fell. Lamps were lit and that delicious smell of wood smoke hung in the air.
I had no time to think about it on Friday. I went swimming and shopping and made a delicious apple and quince cake to welcome home our daughter and her boyfriend. I received a beautiful silver pendant in the shape of a sycamore seed from my daughter for my birthday which she had commissioned a Canterbury silversmith to make. Saturday was glorious and we had two lovely walks in beautiful autumn sunshine on our local North Downs. Being at home felt very good indeed
We returned to the cottage on Sunday driving down in scarily thick fog. A very good friend came over to cast his practised eye over the cottage and to give us some ideas and we laughed and I felt a bit better. The gardener came round to sweep up leaves and we talked about hedge cutting and plans for the front garden. She has been doing a couple of hours a week while the cottage has been empty which isn’t really enough but hopefully between us we can get back on top of it. She said we were seeing it at its worst and not to worry, everything will be fine.
We are down again tomorrow to meet the heating engineer (who condemned the boiler), an electrician, a pest controller and, I arranged this yesterday, a lettings agent.
If we do decide we have bitten off more than we can chew we have two options: we can sell it in the spring without doing anything (it will sell because of its location and prettiness and potential – which is why we bought it) or we can install a new boiler, scrub and paint the existing kitchen, fit a new bathroom, clean and decorate and tidy throughout and let it as a purely business transaction.
The third option (plan C) is to do the bare minimum to make it habitable for us for the odd weekend and see how we feel in a year’s time. I am hopeless at looking ahead. I live mostly in the present and occasionally I wallow in the past. But if we do think about the future the cottage appears a good place to settle. The hamlet has a good sense of community, two babies have been born recently – one to the farmer’s son only last week which must be a good omen, there is an Anglo-Saxon church, a good pub within walking distance and it seems as if we’ve already met most of the neighbours. There is a Roman villa nearby and if it’s good enough for the Romans …
But I feel so naive and inexperienced and I’m swimming in emotion. My husband has borne the brunt of this. He says we are in it together and can make it work but if not we will sell it.
We have more good friends coming over on Saturday who are just starting a major refurbishment project of their own. L and I worked together 30 years ago and I have seen at first hand how she has transformed unloved houses into welcoming homes. She has already given me some very good advice which is that I will have to learn to love it. I will need to roll up my sleeves, apply some elbow grease, install a boiler, put down some cheap carpet, hang some old curtains and give it time. She also says I need to see it through a set of seasons before making any decision.
This situation has made me realise how much I love my real home, which is nothing special, but is full of lovely memories and is clean, bright, warm and ours.
I keep thinking as I embark on this adventure about the trail-blazing example of Jessica from Rusty Duck and the inspiration of Chloris and her Blooming Garden, about Gillian making her Tales from a Happy House move to the South coast, and Sam who uprooted to A Coastal Plot and so many of you out there who live in the countryside in old houses with rambling gardens which started out as projects. This is a small 1500 square foot cottage in a third of an acre in a lovely Downland hamlet only 20 minutes drive from Chichester, three miles from a mainline station into London and with an award-winning farm shop (and excellent plant nursery) a couple of miles away. Surely we can cope and make it work?
For my husband it is a return to his roots. He was born and bred in Chichester and our life together has always held the promise of living in a cottage at the foot of the South Downs, which sounds romantic and foolish written down. We go to Sussex all the time because it’s nearby and gives us a different perspective. We take our bikes and cycle or walk for miles and come home feeling tired but restored. We visit gardens and houses, see fresh scenery and have a good day out and we will continue to do this as we have done for almost 30 years. Did we have to sink our life savings into an old cottage to prove our mettle to each other, to validate our relationship? I don’t think so. But we are not abandoning our home of the last quarter century. Work and life (and the allotment) will continue here and our new old cottage will be a work in progress. I will keep you posted.