I’ve been in Dorset all my life. Its a beautiful county and a very special place. Over the years we have lived in some great spots — usually they have been places in the countryside away from the noise and traffic of towns. Lyme Regis was an exception to this rule.
We restored a cottage here with sea views, and spent three happy years with a more than manageable back garden and the girls’ schools on our doorstep. Lyme is a charming sea side town with its famous cob harbor wall and its small fleet of working fishing boats. Its a mecca for fossil hunters and a busy place in the summer, lots of people come to holiday here. This brings a vibrancy to the town and of course it relies on the trade.
But I almost prefer it in the winter. When the steep shop lined main street is quiet and the wind and rain take control. I’m somehow drawn to the sea when the elements are at work. February’s storms were spectacular and awesome — a sight to behold. I wont forget being parked in the Landrover on Monmouth Beach in the teeth of a gale, the vehicle physically moving in the wind.
The storms which devastated the South West in February were terrifying and spectacular
We loved it there and planned to stay, but there was always the call of the countryside. So when the opportunity arose to buy a little place just out of the town we took the chance before it was too late.
This little house is about three miles west of Lyme Regis, in fact we can walk there from the town through the magical and wild under cliff that runs from Lyme to Seaton, another small harbor town. The under cliff remains completely unspoiled and remote, it forms part of our World Heritage coastline and is both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Coastal Preservation Area. Its literally inaccessible and as such hasn’t changed in thousands of years, bar the contours of its slowly evolving eroding geography.
Our Property sits high above the under cliff tucked into the hill side with indescribable views south over the English Channel and north west up the vast wood lined goyle. It was originally a summerhouse within the curtilage of a big Victorian mansion house.
The estate was built by a rich tea merchant and was completely self sufficient with its own school, chapel, gardens, farms, slaughter house and private beach. In the earlier part of the 1900s it became a popular boarding school which changed the nature and look of the estate considerably. Over the years The Summerhouse fell into disrepair, eventually becoming ruinous. It was reclaimed by the laurel, ivy and ash, and for 50 or so years sat quietly.
The under cliff forms part of the World Heritage coastline. It is both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Coastal Preservation Area
My wife’s parents were fortunate enough buy The Summerhouse at auction when the school closed down and the estate was broken up and sold. My father in law could see the potential in the site and was soon able to connect to the place with his love of trees and the great outdoors. He dedicated many an hour peeling back the brambles that had shrouded the gardens in years of neglect, managing the woodlands and finding treasures of the summerhouse’s early 1900’s heyday.
There are beautiful and considered concrete paths with an elaborate pond, and a ring of overgrown yew trees circling a central bed. The Summerhouse was duly restored to a habitable condition.
They owned it for several years and during this time they created an orchard and discovered the old drop ponds that would have once formed part of the formal water garden on the estate.
In 2006 my beautiful wife an I were married there. It was one of the best days of my life. It was such a great space to hold a party, we cooked a pig and projected film onto canvas spanning the ash trees in the garden.
The Summerhouse has had residential planning permission since 2009 but it’s very small and as such only really big enough for one person — or 2 people who don’t mind getting cosy. Last year my parents in law decided to sell up as they had other projects on the go and the time was right for them. We couldn’t bear to see this wonderful place sold out of the family. Even though we couldn’t live there as it was we decided to sell our cottage in Lyme Regis and take the massive gamble of buying The Summerhouse in the hope we could get planning permission and listed building consent to extend it.
It was like physically standing on a cliff edge about to jump. We really didn’t know what would happen.
The Summerhouse was part of an estate, owned by a Victorian tea merchant
In May 2013 we put in a very sympathetic set of drawings with an application for an extension and alterations to the building. Our plans had to be very considered as we didn’t want to scare anyone off with something super modern, too big or out of character.
We decided to make our extension subterranean which meant excavating into the hillside behind the existing building and covering it over with a green roof. This way we hoped the planners would see that the works would have minimal impact on the character of the existing listed building, and given its current position, (it backs into the hillside) it made the most sense.
We knew we certainly wouldn’t get permission to go up, so back was the only way forward. We worked hard to come up with a scheme which left the south facing facade intact and in its original state. This elevation was worth preserving and maintaining and together with our planning consultant felt it was the most suitable compromise.
We always envisaged a rocky ride through the planning stages of this project but I was unprepared for how consuming the process can be. It really played out to be a roller coaster of frustration, apprehension and emotion. We had as many objections as we did letters of support but it was deemed controversial and as a result went to committee to decide the outcome.
This particular part of the proceedings was unusually difficult and nail bitingly tense. I would not wish to go through this trial again. I’m pleased to say that the pragmatic and open minded committee members saw the benefits and potential in our plans for the property and a majority vote was cast in favor of approval.
The site has idyllic views out to sea
That was in September of last year. My wife, Alice and I, have spent the time to date carrying out as much preparation as we can fit in around our work and children before we start the building works. It took a while to discharge the various conditions that came connected with a grant of permission. We had to satisfy a variety of stipulations put in place by our local conservation officer.
My real challenge though has been developing the concept of the approved plans into real, tangible structural drawings that would maximize the internal space and give us a house that was as thermally efficient as our budget would allow. I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the preparations. Its been fascinating and I’ve learnt a huge amount, just through my research and enquiries.