Labour of love

The restoration of Ratsbury Barn required patience, stamina, dogged determination and deep pockets. But rescuing the old building was an enriching experience for Mike Kirk. Dan Roberts finds out why
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The Independent Online

When Mike and Jane Kirk transplanted themselves and their three children from north London to a sprawling Kentish property in 1996, they faced a formidable task in restoring it. The four-bedroom house was in a sorry state, as was the crumbling oast house, various outbuildings and 8.5 acres of land. Mike describes the property as "like Miss Haversham's house in Great Expectations, very overgrown and rundown".

When Mike and Jane Kirk transplanted themselves and their three children from north London to a sprawling Kentish property in 1996, they faced a formidable task in restoring it. The four-bedroom house was in a sorry state, as was the crumbling oast house, various outbuildings and 8.5 acres of land. Mike describes the property as "like Miss Haversham's house in Great Expectations, very overgrown and rundown".

But it had enormous potential and, after a year of daily toil, the family fully renovated the house, planted a traditional Victorian cottage garden and opened a nursery selling unusual plants. Such a mammoth project would have been sufficient for most people, but Mike Kirk is not like most people. Having completed it, in the summer of 1997 Mike was visiting the gardens at Great Dixter with friends when he had one of those flashbulb-above-head moments: "I was sheltering from the rain and looked around me. I loved the juxtaposition of plants, gardens and buildings, including a barn. I suddenly thought 'How do you get hold of a barn?'"

This was no idle thought. Having grown up on a 30-acre smallholding in Norfolk, Mike had fond memories of rural life and a lifelong passion for old buildings.

He spoke to the Wealdon Museum, who recommended talking to the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England). They told Mike that there were a couple of old barns being affected by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The first was a model farm just outside Ashford which, being brick and slate, was too difficult to move. The second was at Brockton, near Charing, and Mike fell for it immediately: "The farm was all overgrown, the house was squatted and the barn looked in a very sad condition. But I thought it had fantastic potential, so I decided to try and move it."

Unlike the brick-and-slate construction, the Brockton barn was a 17th-century timber-framed structure, which is ideal for repair and relocation. Mike contacted Union Railways, who were building the rail link and had to relocate the barn. An entourage from Union Railways and Ashford borough council visited the Kirks' property at Ratsbury, near Tenterden, and were enthused. Mike takes up the story: "We then had to price up what it would take to relocate a barn. How do you do that? I work for a housing association in London, and I'm responsible for development, but we don't exactly have many timber-framed barns or thatched buildings on our books."

Union Railways recommended timber-restoration specialist Anthony Hicks, which proved a stroke of luck for Mike and the soon-to-be doomed barn. With 30 years' experience of saving and restoring timber buildings, Anthony was just the man for what would become a gruelling project.

The first hurdle was repairing the considerable damage: "The prevailing wind meant that the south end of the building was shot. It had water penetration, the oak had gone, the base - which is called the ground plate - was rotten and the beams in the entrance and around the canopy had rotted." Mike soon realised that his first estimate of £40,000 was far too low - in fact, it ended up costing over £100,000 more. "At that point my wife said: 'You're never going to do it now.' Of course, that was a red rag to a bull," says Mike. "So we carried on," having agreed a figure with Union Railways, who were providing a "dowry" to complete the work. Mike applied for planning consent and assumed all would be plain sailing. In fact, he embarked on an energy-sapping battle with Kent's planners that nearly killed the project stone dead.

"Some planners didn't want to give consent, partly because it's an area of outstanding natural beauty, but they couldn't think of a reason not to," he says.

Finally, in October 1999 the consent came through and work began. The first job was to strip and burn the thatch, which nearly went horribly wrong. "I remember driving over towards Brockton and seeing this great pall of smoke rising right next to the M20, and thinking: 'If there's a pile-up I'm responsible." Thankfully, there was no pile-up. The supremely efficient Anthony Hicks was on hand, and he takes up the story: "Phase one was to photograph, record and tag all the timbers, which took a couple of months. We then dismantled it bit by bit and took it to the yard, where we restored the timbers."

Meanwhile, Mike prepared the foundations with 27 loads of ready-mixed concrete, working every weekend to prepare the site for the massive oak timbers and tons of roof tiles and ragstone, the traditional Kentish limestone on which the barn was built. Under extreme pressure from Union Railways to complete the job on time - Mike was told he would have to foot the entire bill if not - the work continued apace throughout 1999 and early 2000.

Once they were up and running, Anthony Hicks found the construction to be fairly simple: "It sounds very blasé but that sort of project is fairly straightforward for us. The older buildings, which are made with heavier timbers, are easier to repair than the later, flimsier ones, because it's easier to splice timbers into them. In fact, if we work on a 16th or 17th-century building like this, we expect to retain 30 per cent more timbers than we would on a newer one."

It was key for both men and Union Railways that the construction followed traditional methods wherever possible. So all of the joints on these massive oak beams are pegged and hand-finished - not a bolt or screw in sight. They also managed to save most of the original timbers, replacing those beyond repair with Kentish green oak. Mike watched with increasing satisfaction as the timber skeleton took shape, then had to choose a thatch. "In June 2000 we were ready to thatch the roof. We had to choose between long-straw thatching and reed," Mike says. "Thatchers prefer reed, which is easier than long straw and lasts longer. So we went with that for the main roof, and it should last for about 70 years. The top is long straw, which will need replacing every 15 years."

Finally, with its proud new roof, Ratsbury Barn was completed in July 2000 - and a celebratory barn dance was held, complete with Morris dancers and a traditional ceremony to drive away evil spirits. The barn now forms the backdrop to the Kirks' nursery, houses a tea room and will, planners willing, be used to host civil weddings and receptions. Mike is currently battling with the local fire officer, who insists on a £10,000 sprinkler system being fitted before couples can wed there. So, was the back-breaking, officialdom-fighting, financially draining project really worth it?

Anthony Hicks has no doubts: "It's lovely to see the finished building, and to think it will be there for another 500 years. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction." Mike concurs: "It sounds a bit sentimental, but just holding the timbers is very satisfying - as is saving this lovely 17th-century building."

If you have a major restoration project in mind, the tale of Ratsbury Barn is a cautionary and celebratory one. If you've got the stamina, time, deep pockets and determination, rescuing a beautiful old building can be a deeply enriching experience.

Ratsbury Barn: 01580 762066, www.ratsbury.com

Anthony Hicks Assoc.: 01797 366895

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