On a grey day of pouring rain James and Minnie Vosper came to view an 1840s cottage on the north Cornish coast. Little did they know that it would be the start of a 3-year house extension and renovation project that would culminate in the home of their dreams.
“The ceilings were so low James couldn’t even stand up,” says Minnie. “The estate agent took one look at him – he’s 6ft 4in – and discounted us as potential buyers.” But while James was muttering about it being a potential money pit, Minnie was overwhelmed by the magical spell cast by the cottage. “It had clearly been a much-loved family home, but it was very tired and needed modernising,” she says. “There were three small bedrooms and two reception rooms plus an 1980s lean-to at the back — the downstairs bathroom and kitchen. There was also a conservatory.”
As for the nearly one-acre grounds, they were very overgrown and had been neglected for years. “They were on a steep slope exposed to the sea winds; there were just lots of weeds, brambles and bindweed,” says Minnie, a keen gardener. Hidden and secluded, yet only one mile from the beach, the traditional stone and cob-built cottage was unlisted. “But we were keen to retain its character, seeing it as part of the local heritage,” says Minnie.
Planning the renovation
In March 2018 the couple moved in, full of ideas and enthusiasm. They knew they wanted to build an extension. But after consulting local architect Joe Reilly of Coal Architecture & Interior Design, they realised they couldn’t afford to build at the same time as remodel the cottage. “The brief was to firstly renovate and reconfigure the cottage, and further down the line to add a contemporary double storey extension that would forge a stronger connection to the gardens and landscape beyond.”
To help fund the work, during phase 1 – the cottage renovation – James worked away, while Minnie project-managed. An old one-room cabin in the garden, built by previous owners, became their temporary home for six months – along with their three dogs.
The first spring and summer was spent clearing out the front garden to create more space, for which they hired a driver and JCB. “After removing 200 tonnes of soil we could finally see the cottage properly — until then it had been hidden by a rising front garden and a nine foot hedge,” says Minnie. “Ben Walters used stone from a local quarry to build the new drystone walling, plus a set of steps to a hilltop boundary path giving far-reaching sea views. All the slate for the steps was found by rummaging around the garden, but it was like doing a jigsaw to make it work.”
Remodelling the historic Cornish cottage
Along with local builders, Shaun Hawthorn and his trusty labourer Marco, they then gutted and remodelled the cottage in the late summer of 2018. “Luckily, we didn’t need to repair the roof or change the single-glazed windows," says Minnie. "But we did combine the lean-to kitchen and downstairs bathroom to create a long galley kitchen with underfloor heating, a pitched internal ceiling and three new Velux windows".
They also built a new oak-framed garden room on the site of the old conservatory with underfloor heating. This, too, was clad in metal on one side along with the roof when they later built the rear extension. “The builders were not keen to quote a fixed price as they didn’t know what they would find, so they worked on a time and materials basis. This created a great working relationship and Shaun helped us make choices to suit our overall budget.”
The floors on the cottage ground floor were lowered and tiled in porcelain so that James could at last stand up in his own home. They also moved various stud walls upstairs to create two big bedrooms and an upstairs bathroom. The whole place was rewired and replastered. Luckily, Minnie’s brother Chris Nash, who lives locally, is a plumber and heating engineer. “So he was dragged into the project to replumb the house and install oil central heating,” says Minnie. “His intricate chrome pipework with traditional Munson rings under the sink in the main bathroom is a wonderful feature, though he cursed his sister a few times during its installation!”
As the building progressed, James worked with Rich Rijkebusch, a talented local joiner and furniture maker, to design the bespoke woodwork. This included the new oak-framed garden room, glazed internal doors, a replacement porch, window shutters, stair handrails, spindles and burr oak kitchen cupboard fronts. Finally, after an industrious nine months, the cottage interior was finished just in time for Christmas.
The extension gets underway
Early in the new year of 2019, the extension foundations were laid and a new retaining wall built to shore up the bank. Then the builders stripped the house exterior back to the stone and re-rendered the front façade in lime.
Then phase 2 – the extension – began. Now it was Minnie’s turn to work away while James project managed. Local builder Toby Thipthorp erected the timber frame, with James helping, to keep extension cost down. Work generally progressed at pace and with the windows in, the extension was finished by December 2021.
The extension boasts a spacious lounge and utility room with an en-suite bedroom and dressing room above. Named the ‘summer lounge’, it has underfloor heating, large glass picture windows and sliding doors. “From here we can look out at palm trees, a 150-year-old gnarled olive tree and many varieties of tropical plants,” says Minnie. "The views from our bedroom are wonderful, particularly the sunsets,” she says.
“At just over three years, it took a lot longer than we thought to finish, largely due to the pandemic,” says Minnie. “But it was worth the wait!”
Vintage and reclaimed interiors
With the extension finished, Minnie could indulge in her passion for designing and sourcing interiors. Throughout the house they have used vintage finds and bespoke crafted pieces including original lighting, ballroom chandeliers and copper trawler lights in beautiful verdigris.
“We have a beautiful, original French swan-shaped tap from a chateau for our en-suite basin,” she says. “And I even found a stunning bathroom double sink for a bargain at my favourite local reclamation and furniture yard. As I love all things French we have lots of original French pieces and objects throughout the house, which gives it a lovely relaxed feeling.”
As for the hillside windswept gardens, these have been extensively landscaped and planted by Minnie and James over the last three years with help from local landscapers Joe Harper and Alan Hignell. The house now sits within a tropical oasis, with drystone walls and paths into their own little wood. Here you can find Hamish’s Retreat, their new log summer house. “We are secluded by trees and have wonderful distant hillside and sea views,” says Minnie. “People tell us it’s a hidden paradise.”
Red corrugated metal chosen as a robust material
“All the external surfaces of the extension are clad in red corrugated metal, which is more commonly found on agricultural buildings,” says architect Joe Reilly of Coal Architecture & Interior Design. “The material was chosen primarily for its bold colour, so that it acts as a vibrant backdrop for the subtropical gardens. We liked the idea of the extension appearing like a strange red object within the garden, to create a slightly surreal composition of form and colour. On a more practical note, the corrugated metal is an extremely robust material and provides good protection from the sometimes extreme Cornish weather.”
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