Me and My Home: Maine residence

Paula Rylatt tells Gwenda Brophy how a derelict house in the country took her back to the USA
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The Independent Online

Paula Rylatt, a glass artist lives with her husband Ian, a potter, in a restored carter's premises in Long Bennington, Nottinghamshire

Paula Rylatt, a glass artist lives with her husband Ian, a potter, in a restored carter's premises in Long Bennington, Nottinghamshire

When I discovered this place I felt I had found a little piece of Maine USA, where I used to live, unlikely as that sounds in a little English village halfway between Grantham and Newark. As an American I am used to space and this plot is about three-quarters of an acre.

The house is 250 years old. It used to be a carter's place - and was derelict. It was an 18th-century version of a haulage firm, but the owner was obviously quite entrepreneurial because on market day he would put seats into the carts and run a taxi service taking villagers to the market in Grantham, as I discovered from historical records.

The original shape of the building was an L-shape but we have added a bit to that so it is now a T. When it came to deciding the direction the renovation would take it was a matter of finding a balance between retaining the character while still making it a comfortable, practical home - for example you don't want to live in a cow byre, which one of the bedrooms used to be, but you don't want to obliterate the past, either.

I drew on a memory bank of good ideas I'd seen throughout my life. I also spent time in the different spaces of the building, imagining living in them and letting the ideas grow and develop. I think that is really important in successful design. You see too many buildings ruined by ideas being imposed on them.

I employed two local builders to work with me but acted as my own contractor so that I could control the speed and shape of the conversion. There is a huge floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the sitting room that looks like it's been there forever, but actually my husband built it. We tried not to waste anything, so many of the original flagstones on the floor were used in the fireplace as well as to make window sills. The sitting room is where the carts used to be kept so it's a good size and scale. The kitchen was the old stables and the bathroom the old forge. You can still see the forge in the corner of the bathroom. The sad thing is that if a developer had come in he would have just ripped everything like that out. Even though the place is not listed we have treated it as if it was and we have tried to honour the building, its history and its character.

Naturally you hit problems but new ideas came up as a result. For example, properties like these tend not to have many windows so you need to bring light in, and they can also look rather plain from the outside. The solution confronted both issues. Where the building had been extended to form the "T" the roof line was a little lower than the bit of the roof either side of it - all part of the requirements of obtaining planning permission. But as a result that long stretch of roofline seemed to lack something. In the end I designed and helped a local carpenter build a large lantern light that now stands at the epicentre of the T. It is made of copper and lead to mellow with age. From a practical point of view it means an enormous shaft of light floods into the bathroom below it. It's also very much a touch of New England. Anyway I didn't want to follow the same solutions you see everywhere else, like those round roof lights which I always think look like big eyeballs stuck on the top of houses

It was often more sensible to build things ourselves. I made all the units in the kitchen, very open in a rich pine - farmhousey and very contemporary at the same time. It took a few days, but back in Maine I built a wood cabin. English people seem surprised when you tell them things like that but in the States that isn't so exceptional.

In the main bedroom, the problem was of being overlooked when the trees shed their leaves. I'm not a net curtain person. So, as I work with glass I designed a triple glass screen with the theme of trees like the willow, spruce, chestnut, ash and rowan near the house. It is made using an unusual technique called "frit", where the glass is heated to a high temperature with a blow torch then cold water is thrown on it which makes it take on a lacy, leafy effect. In fact, I think of the whole house as a giant piece of art work that I have been lucky enough to be able to create and enjoy. But now we are leaving. Just like buildings, villages can also have ideas imposed on them. This one is filling up with expensive but look-alike houses - like too many rural villages it is becoming a big estate with "look at my money" features and sterile, designed gardens that support no wildlife. We are moving to create something new in Wales - the big country. That should be enough space - even for someone used to Maine.

For details on the work of Ian or Paula Rylatt, call 01974 251409 or e-mail iprylatt@nascr.net

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