Imagine spending six years renovating a sublime 16th century home, only to see it burn down. In a remarkable story, Penny and Mark Sloper reveal how they managed to start all over again.
“Our dream house almost killed us,” sounds like classic renovators’ hyperbole, but when Penny Sloper expresses the sentiment she is totally serious. For late in the evening of 6th November 2006, just a few months after completing the lengthy restoration of their beautiful Tudor house, Penny, husband Mark and children Ellie and Michael were roused from their beds by an unusual clicking sound — which turned out to be clay tiles exploding on the roof “like shrapnel”. Suddenly the power cut out as the roof space, for reasons still disputed, burst into flames. The family rapidly evacuated to the garden, where they could only stand and watch as six years of hard work – but far more than that, their home; their possessions; their memories – went up in smoke. Can you imagine?
Thankfully the family escaped unharmed, but ahead of them stood a world of uncertainty. Where would they live? Was anything salvageable? Could they bring themselves to start again?
Ironically, the couple had paid particular attention to safety features such as smoke detectors and rewiring. “None of the smoke detectors activated during the fire because all the heat and smoke was above them — there does not seem to be any advice to fit smoke detectors in the roof space of domestic dwellings,” says Penny.
The next morning Penny and Mark assessed the scene. “All of the ancient roof structure was lost,” says Penny, “The rest of the house suffered major water damage, and was soaked in a toxic ‘soup’ of melted roof insulation and bituminised roof felt.”
The couple had previously attended a course on ancient building maintenance and restoration, where architect Nick Joyce had given an impressive lecture. After the fire, the couple knew exactly who to contact and ended up engaging practice partner Alex Matthews, to whom the couple state they will be eternally grateful. “Alex took great care in surveying the house over a period of several weeks before deciding on the best course of action,” recalls Penny.
Builders Brothwell & Miles came recommended by Alex and turned out to be true craftsmen with great attention to detail. They painstakingly spliced oak into the timber frame and sensitively replaced beams where necessary — they even replicated the original slanted roof section. “They were real grafters,” says Mark.
After a slow start, the family were able to move back in a few months before completion in August 2008. Three years on, the family have happily settled back into life at Firs House, although the events of that night still evoke strong emotions. “As well as sadness, we felt guilt,” says Penny. “But we got through it all thanks to our loving family and good-hearted neighbours and friends; the professionalism and sensitivity of our architects, builders and craftsmen; and sometimes having to focus very hard on believing that somehow it was all going to happen. Hopefully our house is now in a fit state to last another 400 years and we have redeemed ourselves as its caretakers.”