PROPERTY / The survival of the fittings: With bits from pubs and bobs from churches, a house can be transformed. Rosalind Russell on the salvage kings
Sunday 30 October 1994
In Thaxted, Essex, the Coach House - formerly the Vicarage Barn - was the rehearsal hall for the Thaxted Morris Men from 1911 to 1939. Restored and converted into a house in the early 1980s, it is for sale through Bruce Munro for pounds 90,000. Its late 18th-century fittings came from a demolished house in Harwich, supplied from a reserve collection of historic fixtures held by Essex County Council's conservation department. Another house, this time in Hampshire, has an oak newel post from a French nunnery at the end of its staircase handrail. Its Jacobean panelling was rescued from a Southampton pub; the stonework once graced a church in Shaftesbury.
Is nothing sacred? Well, yes. Andy and Jan Carroll's bathroom in Hampton, Middlesex. The panelling around their bath was converted from Gothic choir stalls; the windows are stained glass; the wall tiles are laid in a pattern copied from a Herefordshire church and the airing cupboard started life as a confessional.
Andy, a graphic designer for a television company, blames his obsession on William Burges, the Victorian designer of Cardiff Castle. A devotee of Pugin, Burges favoured medieval flourishes and Gothic grandeur. 'Since I saw the castle for the first time, years ago,' Andy says, 'I've carried a picture of it in the back of my mind.'
At first sight, the couple's Victorian terrace house on a busy street near the Thames may have appeared unpromising material - especially with its avocado green bathroom suite, khaki coloured nylon carpet and dark green painted walls. (The Halifax Building Society says a new bathroom is in the top five most popular home improvements among their customers. You can bet your last banana that most of them ripped out an avocado suite.) 'We actually lived with it for six years and it drove me nuts,' Andy says.
'We had started doing up the kitchen first, got fed up with modern fittings and went looking for architectural salvage. There were a lot of Gothic bits lying around. I'm not at all religious, but I do love all that stuff.'
With a plan in mind, Andy began to scour the antique salvage warehouses.
Most of them are stuffed with the innards of redundant churches. Some of them are redundant churches. His first find was 60 feet of choir stalls, being sold by a dealer in Bath. 'I bought them over the phone. They faxed me a picture and then sent colour photographs. They cost pounds 1,000, all pitched pine - and they stayed downstairs for months.
Next Andy obtained an old organ case from an architectural supplier in Bristol, run by Bob Mills. 'He specialises in the weird and wonderful,' Andy says. 'Not old taps, but the big stuff: expensive but very nice. I'd faxed him a sketch of three Gothic arches and he phoned and said he didn't have exactly what I wanted, but he had this organ. It was perfect. It exactly fitted the space. That cost pounds 800.' Fitted with mirrors, it now serves as a vanity unit.
Finding an airing cupboard to match all this Gothic glory was proving difficult. Bob Mills came to his rescue again. 'He said he had an old confessional box from a church in Southend,' Andy explains. 'It was enormous, but it was just what I wanted. It needed an awful lot doing to it and it cost pounds 1,800.'
By now determined to keep the materials as authentic as possible, Andy discounted the idea of using reproduction medieval wall tiles. From Bob Mills he obtained 13 yards of encaustic floor tiles from a church which was suffering from subsidence.
'They came covered in concrete and mud,' he says, 'and there were hundreds of them. I had no idea how to lay them. I took photos of some of them, and visited a lot of old churches. Every church built in the 1870s and 1880s must have had these tiles; there are some beautiful examples. I took photos of the floors so I could remember how to lay them. It took two weeks to clean them up with a hammer and an old knife.' The floor tiles are now on a wall, laid in the correct pattern. The other walls are dark blue with gold stars. 'The stars are made of resin and stand proud of the walls. I found one in an Indian jewellery shop in Berwick Street, but the guy said he couldn't get any more. I bought it for 50p, took it home, made a mould of it and turned out 200. I painted them in gold liquid leaf.'
The only thing that defeated Andy was a cast-iron rolltop bath. The delivery men took one look at the slimline, modern, open tread staircase and said 'No way]' - so it had to go back. A less ambitious (white) period style suite was installed instead.
The whole project cost pounds 13,000 and took eight months to complete. Now, with a seven-month-old son, Phillip, three lurchers and no garden, the Carrolls are ready to sell up and move. Their home is on the market with Gascoigne-Pees for pounds 145,000. They know they will never recoup what they spent on their Gothic bathroom.
'But we've had great fun living here,' they insist. 'Besides, it's difficult to sell houses in our street; there's no parking and no garden. So you just have to make yours better than the others. Now what we've got is an interesting little house on a main road with no garden, as opposed to an ugly little house on a main road with no garden.'
The Halifax building society cautions that personalising a home so distinctively can make it difficult to sell, advice echoed by estate agent Trevor Kent, a past president of the National Association of Estate Agents.
He recalls going to value a house in Shepherd's Bush, west London. The lady owner was an expert on grottoes. She'd not only written books about them, but had converted one of the rooms into a grotto, complete with plaster stalactites. It would appeal, noted the agent laconically, to a limited market.
Undeterred by the difficulties, the Carrolls are contemplating another challenge - possibly a Gothic lodge. They have also been looking at redundant churches, which at least have the benefit of having the pews, pulpit and carvings intact.
Penelope and Hugh Butterworth converted their old church - the smallest in Buckinghamshire - with meticulous care. Grade II listed, the Church of St Michael and All Angels was built in the 14th century and, renamed Old Church House, is now on the market with Cole Flatt & Partners for pounds 280,000.
The Butterworths' builder, anxious to match his materials to the local chalk and sandstone, used reclaimed bricks and slates taken from redundant buildings in the area. They were used to build a garage which exactly matches the style of the canal engine-house, with hipped slate roof and arched windows, on the opposite bank of the Grand Union Canal.
This property has a grisly Gothic tale associated with it. When the workmen operating the mechanical digger began excavating to lay the foundations for an extension, a number of previously undetected bodies were disturbed. 'They have all been reburied on the south side,' says Penelope, who trained in archaeology, 'but we still have two more bodies. One of them is in a shroud, the other in a chalk coffin - eight inches under the drawing-room floor, which was the main part of the church.'
SALVAGE DIRECTORY Robert Mills Ltd, Narroways Road, Eastville, Bristol BS2 9XB (from 7 November). Telephone 0117 9556542 before visiting. Can supply old pub interiors, Gothic church fittings, stained glass, large panelled rooms.
Bailey's Architectural Antiques, The Engine Shed, Ashburton Industrial Estate, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HE9 7BW (0989 563015).
London Architectural Salvage and Supply Company, Mark Street (off Paul Street), London EC2A 4ER (071-739 0448).
Walcot Reclamation, 108 Walcot Street, Bath, Avon BA1 5BG (0225 444404).
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