If time stood still, it would probably take root in Austwick in the Yorkshire Dales — just as Simon and Sally did when they moved to this idyllic location almost 20 years ago, buying the village smithy and filling station on the edge of the pretty village green. “We knew it was going to need a lot of work, but the location was perfect and it had a workshop,” says Simon. “Those two factors sold it to us.”
The couple’s move to the rural village near Settle was a life-changing decision. After years of working on farms, Simon wanted to switch direction and run his own business making furniture. The workshop was ideal for his new venture and they agreed to live in the cottage – which had belonged to one family for generations – while they gradually renovated it around them, funding the project bit by bit. It wasn’t until they moved into the property that they began to appreciate the true extent of its appeal. Most of the true character of the 300-year-old blacksmith’s house had been covered up over the years and when Sally and Simon began to strip away the fixtures and fittings of a 1970s overhaul they found a whole host of original features — including a slate wall. “Slate would have been locally quarried and probably cheap to buy,” says Simon. “We didn’t understand why we couldn’t hammer nails into the sitting room wall but when we pulled off the plaster we found the entire wall had been built of slate. It makes the room quite dark, but it’s an interesting part of the cottage’s history so it seemed a shame to just cover it up again.”
Window slates, thick oak beams and original floors had also been boxed in, painted over or covered in bitumen as fashions dictated. But it would take Sally and Simon many years to uncover the full extent of the property’s past and bring it – revamped, glazed and respectfully extended – into the 21st century. “We couldn’t afford to employ people to do it for us and we had two young children, so we nibbled away at it when we had time,” recalls Sally. “We always knew we would be in it for the long haul, but it’s worked to our advantage because we’ve been able to live in the cottage, and understand the way it works, before making any major changes. As it is, the house has evolved with us.’’
Although the cottage sits in the middle of National Parkland, it isn’t listed so Sally and Simon started their long-haul project by removing the petrol pumps and tanks from outside the door. “The holes had to be treated with dry ice to get rid of the fumes then filled with concrete, while the fire brigade stood by in case of any mishaps,” remembers Simon. Although the couple have sympathetically re-rendered the front of the property in keeping with its village centre location, they were able to redesign the interior as they wanted, removing internal walls, opening up living areas and changing the first floor layout to create a practical family home, workshop and showroom.
The sitting room was the first major project. The original fireplace had been bricked up so they reinstated it only to find that the walls – which were lower than the road outside – suffered from damp. They hired a local builder to help them dig up the slate floor – most of which fractured into tiny pieces – and laid a waterproof membrane under concrete. The walls were then tanked with a membrane, bitumen and plaster. “It was at that point we discovered the huge slate slabs which made up one wall,” recalls Simon. “We’ve since discovered that it’s not unusual around these parts, but we had to think long and hard about whether or not to cover it up again because it makes the room look so dark. In the end we decided to go with it.”
Once the sitting room was complete, Simon and Sally didn’t do much to the house for a further five years, when they started to develop the kitchen. It was originally three small rooms, including a pantry and lobby, and was still decorated in ’70s orange paint which they covered with the children’s drawings. “You learn to live with these things after a while,” grimaces Sally. Nonetheless, Sally was mightily relieved when they eventually remodelled the kitchen, knocking the small areas into one large room and tanking the walls with bitumen. They also dug a drainage channel down the full length of the room, chipping away with an angle grinder until they could connect it to an outside drain. An original curved wall, which had been boxed square, was reinstated but to do this they had to take out an RSJ over a doorway. “We soon realised this had been supporting one of the cross beams,” says Simon. “At first we tried to replace the beam, but things started to move about upstairs and we couldn’t afford the risk of taking it out, so we used another beam to support it instead.”
Simon and Sally wanted to bring more light into the house, so the exterior wall – which was held together by a lintel made from a piece of metal railway track – was knocked down and rebuilt to create a larger window and new door. Rubble was carried in barrows through the house and out the front door. A fireplace was opened up in the thick cottage walls to create space for an Aga and Simon hand-built the units to replace freestanding pine cupboards they’d installed shortly after moving in. But Sally and Simon’s most ambitious project was still to come.
The original cottage was very compact and space was tight for a growing family. There was plenty of room to extend outwards into the garden and create a living area which would not only give them more space, but also open up the spectacular views across the countryside. “The original windows at the back of the house were very small and didn’t do justice to the views,” says Sally. “Our initial plan was for something half the size of the room we ended up with, but the architect suggested we make it bigger and redesign the hall, stairs and landing window.”
The land slopes away from the house at the back so the foundations had to be dug deep enough to allow for the gradient. “We have no direct access to the back of the cottage so all the concrete had to be put in skips and craned over the roof,” recalls Simon. Once the solid oak frame and two walls of glass were in place, the original exterior wall was knocked out to create an opening into the new room, the remaining wall was sandblasted and the limestone floor laid.
The upper floor of the house has also been remodelled by reducing the spacious landing to create larger bedrooms. Sally and Simon knocked two bedrooms into one and removed the low ceiling, after insulating and plastering out the attic, to create a vaulted room. The beam structures make it difficult to create enough storage space, so they saved half of the attic floor to create a mezzanine storage area. “We had to make up a bed in the sitting room every night for nine months while our bedroom was done,” remembers Sally. “One job always seemed to lead to two more — one time we discovered smoke and tar coming through the wall in our bedroom from the fireplace below and had to tank the wall to prevent it happening.”
As the couple’s children, Megan and Greig, grew up, they were able to lend a hand with the projects, and came to accept the chaos as ‘the norm’ in a house which never seemed to be finished. “We spent a whole year without a door on the bathroom,” says Sally. “We had a piece of material at the opening and whistled to let others know it was occupied. There were certainly times when we wondered what on earth we were doing, but you get used to living in the chaos because you know there will be an end to it one day.”
That day is almost upon them. Apart from a few finishing touches, the old smithy has finally evolved from a small, unmodernised cottage into a very special family home, with free-flowing rooms, plenty of living space and 300 years of character. “We love the house and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t walk into the extension and think ‘wow’,” says Simon. “But we also have time to do all those things that we put on hold for years, like cycling, walking and catching up with friends. When you’re in the middle of it all you don’t realise just how all consuming it becomes. Sometimes it was overwhelming when we had a business to run, a family to raise and a house in chaos, but you just muddle through. You know you’ll get there in the end.”
Because the walls of Sally and Simon’s house are lower than the road, they were found to be suffering from damp. This type of damp tends to be caused by earth piled against the walls, creating horizontal penetrating damp — not remedied by standard damp-proof courses which only prevent vertical rising damp. The Robinsons hired a local builder to dig up the slate floor and lay a waterproof membrane under concrete. The walls were then tanked with a membrane, bitumen and plaster. Externally, the obvious solution where possible is to remove the earth, ideally six inches or more below the internal floor level. If not, a good solution is a gravel-filled trench adjacent to the damp wall with a perforated plastic pipe as deep as possible, but not below the footings, to drain away water to a lower point such as a soakaway or drain. Other areas of damp at low level can be the result of accumulated hygroscopic salts which can build up over time when rising damp is unchecked, leaving a white deposit behind which will itself attract moisture in the air to create a damp patch. On conservation projects it is practice to use a series of poultices to extract the salts and, together with removing the initial damp source, will solve the problem.