A New Chapter

imageLast 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.

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36 thoughts on “A New Chapter

  1. I started off reading your post thinking ‘This is SO EXCITING!’, then I read on and realised all the fears, hopes and dreams that are wrapped up in such an undertaking. Your friend is completely right – once you roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, whether it’s in the house or garden, you will learn to love it. The garden sounds AMAZING (sorry, just have to use caps here) and you will love that, won’t you? And you haven’t made any decisions that can’t be undone if it doesn’t work out. Deep breaths, keep your eyes on the end prize and take it slowly. Many, many happy returns for your birthday. (What a thoughtful daughter you have – a lovely gift.) I look forward to hearing how it all goes, Sarah, and whatever you decide to do, I’m sure it’ll be right for you. Sam xx

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    1. Thank you for your wise and thoughtful words Sam. I am so out of my comfort zone with this. We haven’t burned any bridges and we can take it slowly. Last week was a turning point between the rose-tinted dream and the reality. My reaction surprised me, but I feel better for sharing it. At least we might see a glimmer of sunshine tomorrow. Old cottages with no heating are not nice in November I’ve found. Sarah xx

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      1. If I’d started my blog when we moved here and started renovating the house it would be a very emotional and different sort of read! Three years on and David is only just getting over the upheaval… (My parents live in this village so it was easier for me to adjust, although I didn’t grow up here.) The house is still on-going, as is the garden of course, but we have all grown to love being here. Wait until spring when the garden is revealing its treasures…

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  2. Congratulations on your birthday and on your exciting if daunting new project. I think your gardener is so wise, late autumn is a low point for gardens and houses that need a lot of TLC, at first glance both can seem overwhelming. This house rewarded six months of extensive building work with a flood in the kitchen the very first weekend we moved in, I nearly turned tail and ran for the hills. The chance to make the garden of your dreams is a wonderful thing, it sounds as though you are in its thrall as well.

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    1. Oh no! It is so good to follow your progress in your garden Kate and to know that others have trodden this path before. At the moment I can’t see beyond the gloom but I’m sure the cloud will lift as we push our way through. The garden does have a lot of potential and on the many occasions we’d seen it before completion it was always sunny. The sun will come out again, maybe not tomorrow but one day!

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    1. Thanks Sue, I do hope so. think I hit rock bottom last Thursday but sometimes you need to do that before you start resurfacing. Listen to me, giving myself advice. I love blogging!

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  3. Oh how exciting! I can well understand how scary it all is, just take it a day at a time and see how you feel about it in a while. When I first got my allotment (not in the same league I know) it terrified me, to the extent that I lay awake at night worrying about it. We’ve got to know each other now though, and although it’s never immaculate I’ve decided it’s a lovely place to be. I hope you and your cottage fall in love as well. CJ xx

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  4. I totally get allotment fear. I felt exactly the same way about mine at the beginning. But then I learnt to treat it as a resource which was there when I needed it rather than it needing me and now I just love being there. Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could have the same sort of relationship with the new cottage. I am so risk adverse that this is such a big step for me but I think we just need to take it slowly and surely and try not to have too many sleepless nights! Sarah xx

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  5. Well, first of all happy birthday! I think your cottage in the country sounds wonderful. What an exciting project. November is the worst time possible to take on something like this, it is so gloomy and damp. But cheer up, I am sure you will have an amazing time turning it into a home. Trust your instincts, you must have fallen in love with it when you saw it. As for the garden you can’ t beat having mature trees as a structure to set it off . You will have such fun planning and planting it. Even if you decide not to live in it yourselves, it is great to have a project like this. So exciting.
    I have honey fungus too, I suspect most old gardens do. It’ s not the end of the world, it mostly just finishes off sickly , old trees. I haven’ t lost anything I have planted so far.

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    1. Thank you Chloris, everything in the garden is growing like Topsy, so much so that we need about six days of hedge and verge cutting! We’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the scale of everything but at least we have a warm home to retreat to. The jury is still out on our long term plans. I may feel completely differently in the spring, but right now I am not loving it!

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  6. Stick with it. You can do a bit at a time, shut the door on it and then return home to warmth. There are worse ways (perhaps you had better not read my latest post…)
    Older properties will always have issues, it isn’t the same as living in a modern house but that’s part of their charm. As is the chance to peel back the layers, you’ll be amazed at what a voyage of discovery it will turn out to be. It sounds absolutely delightful and come Spring it will be so different. The apple tree will be in blossom, sunlight will flood the cottage and you will fall in love. It’s such an exciting thing to do, I’m really rather envious!

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    1. Thank you Jessica. I wish I did feel excited. At the moment I feel terrified. We had an electrician there all day today testing everything with the result that half the cottage is without light, we suspect rodents. On the plus side we don’t have rats, only a healthy colony of mice in the roof. Oh Jessica there is so much to do and it was yet another damp, grey day there today, but you’re right I need to think about all the positives and treat it as an adventure.

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  7. We are lucky enough to have an urban home which is convenient for work and a country home. My husband would probably not have a country home if he had the choice but it is essential for me to have quiet and country air. I have discovered that I appreciate the urban home more now that we spend time away from it which is a benefit I had not anticipated.

    Good luck with this exciting new project – make it a place which is different from your home – perhaps a place to try out new gardening ideas that are not possible in your established garden.

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    1. Thanks Alice, everything is very different from our home and garden. It is bliss arriving home and the feeling of relief and sanctuary here is not helping my feelings towards the cottage one iota!

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  8. Oh challenging times ahead Sarah but the potential rewards will outweigh any blood, sweat and tears that will no doubt ensue along the way. Although we’ve not embarked on anything quite the same we built our own house so I can understand your concerns and trepidation. Sometimes projects like this can seem completely overwhelming but once you break the work down into manageable chunks it starts to be less intimidating. It sounds as if you can tackle this at your own pace and also have the safety net of plans B and C which must be reassuring. The garden sounds like an absolute dream. Belated birthday greetings to you and all best wishes for the year to come.

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    1. Thank you for your sound advice Anna. Breaking the work down is what we started to do today. How exciting to build your own house, although I’m sure it wasn’t straightforward. I need to hold on to the idea of the dream garden because at the moment the real garden is overwhelming me!

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  9. Yes, such exciting times – but the potential dilemma of whether to leave your familiar home and move to your country cottage in the long term will be the toughest decision I think, There are lots of us bloggers who have taken on renovation or building projects and regret very little of it (although compared to Jessica’s experiences ours was pretty much trouble free!) and for the Golfer and I our relationship developed alongside our project as we had just married. This was pre-blog – but I have a photographic record of it all, including the Golfer’s Mum sitting wrapped up by an electric heater in a very bare room next to a tonne (one of many) of sand…happy days :). The garden though continues to develop from its blank beginning – but you have got such an interesting plot to begin with! I really look forward to hearing and seeing more. Belated Happy Birthday, then bravely upwards and onwards… 😉

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  10. Cathy you have hit the nail on the head. At the moment I can’t imagine living in the cottage and preferring it to our home of a quarter of a century. Today I was shivering audibly with cold and I can’t tell you how lovely it is to be home. I am trying to be brave, but it is so hard!

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  11. A cottage at the foot of the South Downs does sound romantic and not at all foolish (and the location sounds pretty idyllic, in a hamlet with a good community and a pub). Autumn and winter are gloomy months in any house but maybe it will be different in spring when the sun is shining and the places smells fresh and clean. It sounds an exciting adventure, whichever route you choose.

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  12. You’re right Anne, we just need to get through these winter months as best we can. Once we have heating and hot water I am sure I will feel better about being there and I can get on with cleaning it properly and making it feel mine. At the moment it just feels so unloved, which isn’t surprising as it has been empty for a year.

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  13. Wow, it sounds like quite an undertaking and will be a labor of love, of course. I have never done anything like this, but I’m very interested in learning about the process and will be looking forward to reading about what you do. Congratulations and all the best for a successful renovation and a lovely new place to stay.

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    1. Thanks Jennifer. I’ve never done anything like this before either and last week I was definitely doubting my sanity. But I think as long as we take baby steps we’ll be OK. Slowly but surely is the way to approach the renovation of an old cottage and we’re lucky to have the luxury of time.

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  14. It sounds wonderful… and yes, a challenge! I’m reminded of when we moved to Wiltshire on the cusp of marriage (he before, me afterwards) from the north east many moons ago. It was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Change is always tough no matter how positive the reasons for making that change. You’re being sensible by having a number of options open to you… so there is nothing to lose. And if you didn’t try out this opportunity, wouldn’t you regret not doing so later?

    November is always a rubbish time of the year to look at these things, so onwards and upwards 🙂

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    1. You’re right VP, in everything you say. I have been slightly overwhelmed by all the support in Blogland, it is so lovely being part of this community and sharing stuff.

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  15. If it’s any consolation, we did a similar thing a few years back and bought a neglected cottage in the Weald. When we finally got the keys we found a dead jackdaw that had made a huge mess in its final and prolonged days trying to escape. (Nice welcoming smell too). And two of the three chimneys were completely blocked by decades old and several feet deep jackdaw nests. A bat colony in the loft and a bee colony in another chimney completed our list of house-guests. The 1950’s Rayburn looked like it would never work again but within hours it was churning out loads of heat and scalding hot water. We loved living in that house, became very close friends with others in the hamlet and even discovered a bricked up, hidden cellar! It was definitely worth all the hard work – I rather envy you! Good luck. Dave

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  16. Hello David, it is so good to hear about your experience and to know that others have done this sort of thing before us and not only survived but enjoyed it. We had friends down today and I can’t tell you the difference that made. I hit rock bottom last week and really thought I couldn’t do it but it’s not a race, we still have our home and if it doesn’t work out at least we will know we tried.

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  17. Talk about projects, Sarah! An 18th century cottage is something I can only imagine – my house, built in 1951, is considered old here on the west coast of the US but then Californians generally lack a sense of history. I can understand the mix of excitement and apprehension you’re feeling but something strong drew you and your husband to the property and you owe it to yourselves to take things one step at a time and see how it goes. You have options, which is lucky and good to keep in mind, but don’t lose heart this early on. The cottage, garden and the hamlet sound lovely – focus on the potential and go home to your other house when you’re tired, your muscles ache, and you need the comforts of the familiar.

    A belated happy birthday! Fifty-five is a great time to embark on a new adventure.

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  18. Oh gosh, I am so excited for you and can also quite understand your misgivings. Also I’m quite envious – my dream of moving south was all wrapped up in a ridiculous notion of a flint farmhouse in West Sussex which we would never, EVER, be able to afford (and I don’t think we really want to live in the deep countryside anyway – moving from a city to a suburb was bad enough!)…but I can just imagine how charming this cottage is. Don’t give up on it yet. Let spring come. It could be the most incredible family home for you, and I imagine the area is wonderful. We are actually in Hampshire, but the West Sussex border is about 2 miles from us so we are often walking on the downs or exploring Chichester way. You might just have found yourself a bit of a gem in that house. Good luck, whatever you decide. x

    Oh, and happy birthday!!

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  19. I am sure I left a comment on here but no sign! It was very much to the effect that this is a hard time of year to be able to imagine what you can achieve in your cottage. And I think you are very lucky to be able to close the door on it on miserable days and come home to warmth, only to fall back in love over again when the spring comes! Sounds really exciting, in a terrifying sort of way!

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    1. Hi Elizabeth, thank you for your messages. Your point about old cottages needing to be lived in really made sense. We’ve turned up at countless holiday cottages in the middle of winter which are clean and well presented but it’s not until you light the fire or stove, open a bottle and start cooking supper that it starts to feel like home. How could an empty, cold cottage feel like home with the wind and rain howling around on a miserable November day? It needs heat, light, people and lots of love. I do hope we are able to do it.

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  20. I think I must have thought about leaving a comment and then got distracted – oops. I found this post fascinating as I hanker to live in a small cottage with a large garden but one where everything works and winters are warm and snug, summers are bright and breezy. I envy you this project, being able to truly make this cottage yours, the way you want it. Although the scale of things seems overwhelming, just take it one step at a time and take pleasure from it all gradually coming together. I used to live with a boyfriend who “did up” houses that we lived in, then moved onto the next project – the brick dust and cold was awful at times but the houses were always lovely at the end. (Then we’d move again.) Think of it like childbirth – bizarre, I know! Think about getting through the next wave and the next breath – it will all be worthwhile in the end. And looks like there’s quite a few of us that would happily step into your shoes! Caro x

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    1. I like the childbirth analogy Caro. Maybe I should see the refurbishment of the interior of the cottage (let’s ignore the outside for the time being) as a year long gestation project. Break it down into three month periods, one month, one week, one day a week even and see how far we get. I think we owe it to the cottage to see at its best in the spring. But I have been so overwhelmed by what’s needed that I panicked, felt I couldn’t do it and thought I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. We haven’t been down for a couple of weeks now and won’t be going this weekend but I am so encouraged by everyone out there in Blogland and my oldest friend (who’s done this sort of thing before) has promised lots of hand holding and support so, deep breath and here goes!

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