Escape To The Country
Di Overton and Harvey Roll left their city townhouse behind to turn their weekend cottage in Northumberland into a full-time home with idiosyncratic vintage style
Di Overton and Harvey Roll were living in Newcastle when they first came across their Northumberland cottage, and although having a weekend retreat was his dream rather than hers, Di was keen to be involved too.
“As we pulled up outside,” she remembers, “I said, “This is tiny! Shall we even bother looking?” But the owner was standing waiting; we couldn’t just turn around. So we went in, climbed upstairs, saw the bedroom and the views, looked at each other, and that was it. We both said, “Yes!”.’
Reinvention is what Di does best. Her current role is a designer taking vintage pieces and creating something new – but her past career includes time as a knitwear designer, ad agency partner, and founder of a shopping website. Unsurprisingly, the couple’s cottage, too, has been imaginatively re-worked for each stage of their ownership, from its early days as the family’s weekend bolthole to, and most significantly, its latest phase as their full-time home.
When they bought it, the cottage had been a holiday let, fully booked and popular, given its attractive location tucked into a hillside with country views, yet lacking in character. “The fireplace had a fantastic electric fire in it – it looked medieval – and the bathroom was avocado and only had a shower,” says Di.
Their first task was to make the small space a cosy escape for themselves and their now grown-up children. Over time they improved the interior with a new kitchen, bathroom, and full redecoration. It was only in 2006, when they decided to sell their large townhouse and move to Northumberland, that they decided to extend.
With the help of a planner friend, they drew up a design to almost double their original floorspace, creating a large open plan kitchen and living area, and above it, moving the bathroom from the back of the original cottage, to the side, and adding a large master bedroom.
Our friend told us to apply for 18ft and expect to receive 14ft,” says Di. ‘He told us they always knocked four feet off. But this time they didn’t.”
Before the builders could get to work an archaeologist had to visit the site. “On the first dig they unearthed the floor of a byre next to it,” says Di, which comes from the Old English word for cow shed. “It must have been taken down and used to build the dry stone wall around the cottage. We only found one builder who would actually use those stones to rebuild, but that was important to us. The rest kept saying they’d get new stone, and we knew that would have looked like an extension. Really we have put back on what used to be there. It doesn’t look like it’s new. It looks like it’s been there forever.”
Living in the cottage while the work was carried out was difficult; without room to work outside, the joiner had to use the living area as his workshop. “We had fantastic builders, but it was a nightmare,” Di admits. “Most of our stuff had to go into storage and it was like living in a stone caravan.”
Once complete, however, and with the luxury of space, they were free to section off a generous kitchen-dining area, leaving plenty of room for a sitting room and study space for each of them. “It is one of the biggest rooms in the valley, but then,” Harvey jokes, “most people have more than one room.”
Upstairs, the changes have been equally significant. “What has been done is really clever,” says Di. “I kept thinking we would hit our heads on a low ceiling, but the plans managed to create a passageway in the middle where there is enough head height for us, and make room for a laundry too.”
Where possible, they have used salvaged materials. Stained glass from a Parisian apartment building stairwell has been built into the bathroom wall; kitchen cabinets made for a photo shoot have been re-fitted and painted. “I am not an eco warrior by any stretch of the imagination,” says Di, “but I do hate to see things being thrown away.”
Aged and worn items work well with the cottage’s relaxed interior style. “I looked for reclaimed flooring,” says Di, “but it was a ludicrous price for boards so thick that they would reduce the head height here, so we just put normal floorboards in and bashed them with chains. When the builders were working here, I was saying, ‘scrape things over them…’ They couldn’t believe it.”
Work continued as they added a new chimney ready for a woodburner, and addressed the serious issue of damp. Despite its stout walls, the cottage was scarcely weatherproof. “It’s the first stop between Newfoundland and here, so the weather hits us with force,” Di points out. “The cottage is so old that it was built without any gap in the wall, and there seemed to be so many pathways for water to enter. We were getting torrents coming through.”
Dealing with the damp is a long term prospect. “I asked them to rough render the wall,” she says. “Any water trapped in the walls will eventually come out and calcify, and I can just paint over it. It will take years to dry out completely.”
The biggest challenge has been to introduce more light. Di is philosophical: “It’s a cottage and cottages are dark. You can’t get round it: you have got low ceilings and windows that are set back into really thick walls.”
Painting the walls in a subtle cream and window returns in bright white both help, but Di clearly found some of their darker furniture difficult to place, including the carved oak dining table left to them by Harvey’s parents. She admits she hesitated, then, “One day I said to Harvey, ‘Would you mind if I painted your heirloom?’ and he said: ‘No’. It took me two weeks to get the bottle up to do it. I used to look at that end of the room and always think: ‘Oh no, it’s so dark!’ Then finally I painted it.”
Gradually, she says, she has learned to trust her instincts. “At first we had our bed in the middle of the bedroom, and I kept saying, “I want it in the corner to create more space.” Everybody said it wouldn’t work, but one day we did it, and it does. It works really well.”
Vintage fabrics, offbeat finds from French brocantes and favourite antiques all come into the decorating mix. The wit and flair Di brings to her design is evident in quirky details, from the silver birch supporting the breakfast bar to bookshelves made from a chest of drawers.
Elegant as the interior is, it is the surrounding countryside Di and Harvey love best. “We look out of the two windows at the front and every day the view is different,” says Di. “It’s like having two ever changing oil paintings on your wall. The colours change with the seasons, and the landscape is not rugged here, it’s pretty.
“We have no regrets about moving here, none at all. In fact when we go down to the city we can’t wait to get back because it’s just so hectic. We would have to have a really good reason to leave.”
DI SHARES HER DECORATING TIPS
It’s a misconception that small spaces need small pieces of furniture. A large statement piece can cheat the eye and huge mirrors can magically open up spaces and reflect light, if placed opposite a window. If you have a dark room with a lighter room next door, as we did in our bathroom, place an opaque window on the shared wall to bring light in from one room to the other. Furniture can still be placed in front of the window, which again tricks the eye. A mix of old and new, shabby and pristine, or large and small, creates an eclectic and interesting home. The main comment from visitors to our cottage is that there is always something to look at. Be brave and experiment – it will be well worth it.
Photos: Brent Darby/Narratives
Styling & Writing: Hazel Dolan/Narratives © narratives.co.uk