There can surely be few better – certainly for sea-lovers – plots in Britain on which to site a house than that now owned by Nigel and Sandra Atherton. The original builder of the house, a well-regarded British sea captain, certainly thought so, building a charming cottage on the promontory reclaimed from, and now overlooking, the Exe Estuary in the early 1900s. While the cottage had been improved by its previous owners with new windows and a new heating system, Nigel and Sandra were rather fighting against the tide, so to speak, of outdated design.
It was something that the couple could see past — just about. “We were looking to move to Topsham for many years,” explains Nigel, “and had in fact fallen in love with a house just up the road. It was at the height of the property boom in 2005-6 and it ended up going to sealed bids, but we lost out.” Fate dealt a corker of a hand, however, because the successful bidders lived in and owned that sailor- built cottage up the road — they were elderly and looking to downsize. An agent made the connection, and showed Nigel and Sandra the cottage immediately.
“We took some convincing,” says Sandra. “The cottage itself wasn’t in a bad state at all, but we could foresee a lot of work if it was going to be made into something like how we wanted it. We’d previously lived in new houses and to tell the truth we weren’t setting out to take on a ‘project’. And then we saw the view. We had always wanted a waterfront property, so we just couldn’t walk away.” Oh, yes — that view. The three-quarters-of-an-acre near-square plot enjoys views of the river and estuary to the west and south. “You do feel like you’re on the bridge of a ship,” explains Sandra, and it’s true — it’s a unique setting and it must be brilliant sitting out of an evening effectively out at sea.
So having signed up for the cottage, Nigel and Sandra identified that there were two main problems. “Firstly,” says Nigel, “and most importantly, we found that until you were out in the garden it was really difficult to feel that you were on the coast. The internal layout seemed to barely recognise that the sea was there at all, never mind make the most of it. We needed to completely change that. Secondly, the interior itself was very dark — thanks to the small windows, low ceilings and boxy rooms. “We felt that if we could open up the layout and remodel the house to make more of this amazing location – as well as improve its exterior look (new window positions, cladding, roof and so on) – we could really have a dream home.” Nigel and Sandra were helped at this stage by architect Peter Sutton, of Totnes-based practice Harrison Sutton. “He immediately recognised that the layout was awkward and we spent hours walking through the cottage, trying to work out what to do with it internally and outside,” says Nigel. “Another key problem with the house was that it didn’t have any natural frontage, no defined entrance — something that Peter was keen to address.”
The scheme they eventually decided on was one of modest extension but with a significant programme of remodelling work, in addition to mainly cosmetic improvements to the outside. The cottage would be extended to the north, replacing a former detached garage with a new wing consisting of an attached garage, new bedroom with en suite and, to the riverfacing rear, a large ‘pool’ room (and attached sauna) with folding sliding doors on both aspects that would completely open up. Outside, a comprehensive landscaping scheme would include a swimming pool (they initially wanted an indoor pool but removed it from the plans in the face of local objection) and more covered outdoor space to maximise outdoor eating and living potential.
The most significant part of the project was, however, the internal remodelling scheme. Moving the front door from its existing hidden position at the side of the house to the front was key to the plan. “We really wanted a much more impressive entrance hall,” says Nigel, and so they planned for a spectacular double-height space with a sweeping staircase. “The architect warned us against this,” explains Nigel, “as it would mean removing the bedroom built into the eaves at the front of the house. But we insisted — and to be honest we weren’t really interested in the number of rooms. We wanted quality, not quantity.”
Externally, the cottage has undergone a significant makeover. The redbrick walls have been rendered white – which certainly helps with the whole American theme that you get from the interiors – and the roof has been recovered with beautiful old reclaimed Delabole slate tiles. The most important changes, however, have been the more subtle ones. “The dormer windows that enjoyed the views were surprisingly small — you didn’t get much of the view at all in those rooms upstairs,” says Nigel. “We cut away the roofline and made them into full height windows. Where possible we’ve maximized window space.”
The project took some 15 months in total. “Our builders, Kingston Builders, made the whole project seem stress-free,” says Sandra. “Just after we’d agreed on what we were going to do to the cottage, we invited all the neighbours and interested friends and family round for a party to talk over the plans and get their views. If there was something they objected to, we tried where possible to accommodate them. After all, we know that this is going to be our home for life, and so we want to make sure we get on with those around us.”
It’s this pragmatic, positive approach that has served Nigel and Sandra well from the beginning. This is not a couple who set out on a renovation project for its own sake, but more because they fell in love with a location and wanted to make it fit. They have been single-minded in design terms and they have succeeded in creating a fabulous set of spaces that certainly make more of their unique position than they could have imagined possible when they bought the cottage in the first place. The cottage has been subtly improved in a way that’s very true to its original character and style, and you can’t help but feel a little envious of this charming couple as they sit down and enjoy a glass of wine or two, watching the boats go by their spectacular home.