Hacking their way through the overgrown garden to reach Abbey Cottage, David and Elaine Badham shared a single thought. “We immediately knew we wanted to rescue the house,” recalls David. “It was in a terrible condition that would put most people off, but I was looking for a retirement project to keep me busy.”

As a former builder, David has tackled more than his fair share of renovations over the years — extending and remodelling numerous homes for clients and his own family. “Our daughter saw Abbey Cottage advertised in the paper and knew it would appeal to our love of renovation projects,” he explains. “We put our own home on the market and away we went.”

The Badhams took out a bridging loan to purchase the house, but four years passed before planning permission was granted for an extension. During that time they set to work renovating the existing Grade II listed building, which dates back to the 17th century.

“It had been lived in by an elderly gentleman, and hadn’t been touched for 25 years,” says Elaine, also retired. “It took us almost three weeks just to clear a path to the back of the garden, and the cottage itself was uninhabitable, with broken windows and no doors. All that was left was the Aga in the kitchen — we had to start completely from scratch.”

When it was originally built, the timber frame structure would have been infilled with wattle and daub, but at some point this was replaced with brick – work. These walls remain structurally sound, and have now been limewashed externally and finished internally with traditional flexible lime plaster.

Instead of a cement-based concrete floor in the kitchen, the Badhams installed a recyclable, breathable Limecrete flooring system – ideal for historic buildings – which has been topped with ceramic tiles. The listed cottage was re-thatched using long straw to match the previous roof, as specified by English Heritage, and the entire building was rewired and fitted with a new oil-fired central heating system.

“Our two sons helped out, and we made our own oak framed windows,” says David. “These needed to be single glazed, with diamond-paned leaded lights in metal frames to imitate the originals — which we employed a specialist to make. They are a real feature and help to give the cottage its chocolate-box character.”

In addition to the windows, David also crafted oak doors, stairs and door furniture. Elaine set to work landscaping the extensive gardens, creating rambling country borders and neat box hedging.

The couple lived in their previous home during the initial stages of the work, but when this was sold they moved into the unfinished cottage and continued the renovation. This included restoring the old Aga, which has been totally rebuilt, freshly enamelled and now takes pride of place in the spacious beamed kitchen.

“It cost about £3,000 to restore the old Aga, so we saved quite a bit on the price of buying a brand new one,” says Elaine. “When we first moved into the cottage we had no heating or hot water and boiled kettles to wash. It was pretty miserable for the first couple of months, so getting the Aga installed for Christmas felt like a real luxury.”

Original ceiling beams had been covered over in the sitting room and these have now been exposed and cleaned. New wooden flooring was laid in the dining hall, where the brick fireplace has been fitted with a woodburning stove. Window seats existed in several rooms, and Elaine made cushions for these in addition to new blinds and curtains for the whole house.

The ancient two-up, two-down cottage was originally part of a farm and had already been extended over the years, with a sitting room and first floor bedroom added to one end and a single storey addition forming an L-shaped building. David and Elaine proposed building a drawing room on the ground floor, with a secondary staircase leading up to a fourth bedroom and en suite shower room above.

Plans were produced for the new extension, stepped down from the existing cottage in order to maximise head height in this part of the house. The split-level design also ensures that, externally, the brick and block extension sits lower than the original building.

“We were told by the listed building officer that the new extension must be roofed in slate, but we wanted long straw thatch to match the roof of the old cottage, and eventually we won our case,” explains Elaine. “There’s very little maintenance involved — as long as you keep the ridge well preserved, it will last for years.”

Building work finally began on site in 2007, and David and his sons constructed a highly insulated timber frame, which they clad with an outer leaf of reclaimed mixed stock bricks, laid with traditional lime mortar. Unlike the main house, these have been left unpainted to ensure that the junction between the old and new buildings remains clear.

The thatched roof of the extension tucks below that of the original cottage, and single glazed windows were once again required. “There were a few disputes between the listed building people and the Building Control officer, but in the end they decided that the integrity of the building took priority over heat loss through the glazing,” says David.

Fire regulations required the extension to have a door opening outside, and a secondary oak staircase leading up to the fourth bedroom. A structural oak post rises up beside this corner staircase in the drawing room, which acts as a TV and ‘summer’ sitting room — stepping up into the neighbouring ‘winter’ room, with a double-sided fireplace and woodburning stove.

The extension took around four months to build, and has been linked to the old cottage using stainless steel wall ties. Internally, David once again crafted the staircase, doors and other joinery, acting as site foreman for the various trades. “We’ve known the tradesmen we used for years, so everything was very relaxed and friendly on site,” he says.

Not content to finally sit back and enjoy retirement, David has now embarked on another project. “When we bought Abbey Cottage it came with two acres of land, and now we’re part way through constructing a new cottage in the garden. I think building must be in the blood — it’s just something I love to do.”

Photography c/o Knight Frank

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