At just £35,000, this spectacular plot on the Mendip Hills was too good to miss, but it took a 10-year planning struggle before Chris and Anna Waelchli were able to build their charming, eco-friendly home.
From the balcony of their chalet bungalow on the Mendip Hills, Chris and Anna can see Somerset’s best. Glastonbury Tor, the Polden Hills and the highest point on Exmoor, 25 miles away, are all visible.
Being country lovers, it is hardly surprising that the couple fell for the two-and-a-quarter-acre site — especially as it cost them a mere £35,000. But 12 years on, as they describe their battles with the planners and the rollercoaster experience of their protracted self-build, the Waelchlis at times hit a rueful note when they admit that idealism rather took over when they bought the plot and planned a family home.
The fact is, only the youngest of their three children had the opportunity to live in the house before moving on to university. It was May 2009 – a full ten years after they bought the plot – when the Waelchlis eventually moved into their new home.
The key to the purchase was a document called a Certificate of Lawfulness for existing use. It came with the plot, on which stood a very small dilapidated fruit picker’s bungalow that had been built without planning permission. As the Waelchlis understood it, the certificate meant that, because of the time lapse, no action could be taken by the local authority to prevent an application to build on the site.
After a frosty response to their first application, for a fairly standard bungalow, the couple decided to withdraw their application and seek professional advice. This was to be the start of an agonising planning process. “We submitted three more applications to the district council and, after professional advice in all three cases, withdrew them,” Chris says. “By this stage we felt we were getting enmeshed in local politics and were very disillusioned.”
The real hammer blow was yet to come when, for reasons the Waelchlis still do not fully understand, the Certificate of Lawfulness was revoked. “We were back to square one,” Chris says. To get the certificate reinstated they had to prove that the previous building had been lived in for at least five years. The certificate was eventually reinstated, however it took Chris two years to collect the necessary proof.
When architect Wilf Burton arrived on the scene, he decided to come up with a more cautious approach. The new design was a smaller oak frame house with impeccable green credentials – including a planted roof and ground-source heat pump – he was advised that this would be more likely to succeed. It did.
Now all has ended happily, the Waelchlis love the house and the situation. “Not everybody would want to live here, at the top of a track with our only neighbours 40 yards away, but we think it is fantastic,” says Anna. “At times it seems like paradise.