A Labour Of Love
Louisa and Chris Nicholls bid at auction for a 16th century abandoned cottage, which they restored and injected with new life, realising a long shared dream.
Louisa Nicholls does not use the word ‘wreck’ lightly when she describes the cottage she and her husband Charlie bought eleven years ago. “It was rotting from the roof to the floorboards. In some places you could put your fingers through gaps above the windows. It had been so neglected nobody else wanted it. We were the only bidders. Even the property developers were put off by its run down state and to make matters worse, it was listed.”
When they first drove up the drive late one night Louisa says it looked so spooky she refused to get out of the car. It was definitely not love at first sight. But on the allotted viewing date, their hearts skipped a beat and as Louisa admits, “we did a U turn and being the impetuous couple that we are, we decided we had to have it, especially as only that morning we had agreed we could not spend another day living in our modern box.”
Set in a remote and beautiful spot surrounded by meadows on the edge of a natural pond shaded over by a huge old willow tree, it had charm, character and a lot of potential, and as Louisa remembers, “the facade was irresistibly pretty. Charlie being a property developer, had all the necessary skills to take on what to a non professional could have seemed an impossible task.”
Their first port of call was to a builder who specialised in period properties. After three months, with his proposals in hand, they approached the planning office for the restoration of listed buildings. Louisa recalls a nail biting six month wait at the end of which “the planners proved to be totally on our side. They agreed we needed to take the roof off, and take it all back to bare bones. In addition they gave us permission to remove an ugly extension built in the 70s. We used its footprint for a new kitchen dining room with guest annexe above. The new extension was encased in natural oak weathered clapboard, making it look instantly old. Finally we dug out the floors and installed under floor heating.”
Using her keen creative eye and practical hands on approach, Louisa spent the next year tracking down most of her pieces at car boot sales, junk shops and vintage shops both on line and on the high street, painting them herself in light Scandinavian colours. “We sand blasted the black beams but because low beamed ceilings can still look dark and heavy, I found some ready painted French antiques to buy. Along with the bits I painted, they cancelled the claustrophobic effects of the low ceilings.”
Louisa’s nifty money saving ideas left a generous budget for fabrics and pretty sofas. “As an interior designer, fabrics for me are so important. In fact they are my passion,” she smiles and points to a huge pile of fabric samples tucked into the corner of her study. “Every now and then I rummage through the pile for a remnant to reupholster a chair which Spike our cat has eaten a chunk out of or I make up another cushion to ring the changes.”
Finding quirky bits and things you like, “takes a life time of collecting so I keep collecting,” says Louisa. “I hate to throw pretty things away just because I am running out of space.”
Living in a house which is already intrinsically eccentric, Louisa claims, gave her license to incorporate some crazy theatrical touches, which she celebrates in what she describes as “her little vignettes. The Roman busts which hopefully look like marble are just plastic painted to look otherwise.” She smiles. The giant size spoon and fork hanging on the wall of the dining room stimulates lots of dinner party conversations, and ever since Louisa spotted them on an American website, they went to the top of her must-have list. Eventually tracked down in Florida, Charlie and Louisa wrapped them in bubble wrap and persuaded the airline to allow them on board. “I am sure if we had a knife as well, they would have been confiscated.”
Louisa’s final analysis has an eternal ring of truth voiced by many owners of old properties. “This house is an on going project and I am not sure when or if we shall ever finish it. We have become super tolerant of its foibles. Everything creaks including the floorboards, there are no straight walls and every doorframe is too low, but in our eyes, all that just adds to its charm. We love it, creaks and all.”
AT HOME WITH…
Louisa is a designer and Charlie Nicholls a property developer. They live with Phoebe their seven-year-old daughter and a cat called Spike. They moved in eleven years ago. What do they think makes a house a home? “The open re crackling in the grate on a cold winters day whilst we are huddled on the sofa listening to the rain beating against the window panes.”
A sixteenth century grade two listed cottage with an ugly 1970s extension – re- placed three years ago by a new, but made- to-look-old, clapper board extension. What the family love most about this house: “The creaking floor boards which remind us of its 400 year history; it has always been a family home and has a very cosy, welcoming safe feel. We always wanted to live in an old house.”
Hall, lobby, sitting rooms for winter and summer, study, kitchen/dining room, four bedrooms and one bathroom and two en suite shower rooms.
Photos: Robert Sanderson/Narratives Styling & Writing: Maggie Colvin/Narratives © narratives.co.uk