From city living to a country farmhouse

An idyllic retreat need not be a fantasy – as one couple found out

Almost all of us will at one time or another have engaged in a game of fantasy house swap, but Ben and Sarah Lambert have played the game for real – swapping a very average west London home for a five-bedroom Grade II-listed farmhouse complete with three barns, a piggery, stables, a tractor shed, walled kitchen garden, a 250-year-old apple press and four lovely acres of Devon.

Today, Upcott Farm, with its Georgian good looks, lavender-scented gardens, fresh scones cooling in an immaculate kitchen, and dreamy white and eau-de-nil colour scheme looks like a good alternative to a three-bedroom house in Fulham. But the seven-year journey to revive the semi-derelict property, the experience of uprooting themselves from friends and family and – more recently – setting up their own business to help subsidise the move, has been, to put it mildly, an exhausting one.

To hear them describe it, Ben and Sarah's radical decision to move more than 200 miles to the village of Braunton, close to the north Devon coast, was incredibly spur of the moment.

The couple, both 37, were in the area for a wedding when Sarah spotted an advertisement for the farm in an estate agent's window. They decided to drop by and bumped into the farmer who was selling the abandoned property. He showed them round and they were smitten as soon as they pushed open the door to the kitchen garden, then chin-deep in weeds, already imagining growing their own vegetables for their young family.

The fact that the house was 10 minutes' drive from the sea and close to Ben's family sealed the deal.

"It took us about 30 seconds to say we wanted it," says Ben, chief financial controller at Phonographic Performance, a music licensing organisation.

The couple swiftly put their three-bedroom house on the market, sold it for £575,000 and, to the shock of all their friends, moved to Devon in the autumn, having bought the farm which they had seen in June for £600,000.

The couple already had one child, Daisy, now eight, and Sarah was soon expecting Milly, now five.

Their new house was in a sad state, so the family initially camped in one room while Sarah, a garden designer, set to work on the grounds and they applied for planning consent to renovate the property.

"We had been led to believe that getting planning permission on a listed building would be really difficult, but actually it was fine," says Sarah. "I think it was because what we wanted to do was really sympathetic. We wanted to use traditional materials such as lime render and slate roof tiles, and we did not want to alter the layout."

The couple were granted permission in April 2006 and spent the next three years doing the work piecemeal.

It cost, in total, about £300,000, while restoring the outbuildings cost another £300,000.

They have just about broken even on the project since the house is now valued at £1.2m.

"Not that that was why we did it," says Ben. "There are easier ways to make money. What we really wanted was a long-term home."

In order to fund the work, it was essential that Ben kept his London job.

He was able to persuade his employers to let him work from home on Fridays.

During the week he leaves Devon painfully early and goes to London, staying with his in-laws in west London during the week and travelling home every Thursday night.

He finds the travelling perfectly manageable. By buying tickets three months in advance, the epic commute only costs £40 return, and he works during the 3.5-hour journey. In fact, 10 fathers at the girls' small village school also work in London at least some of the time.

But what of Sarah, left at home with two young children, supervising a long-running building project and, more recently, a holiday business?

"It works," she says, carefully. "When the children were very small there were times that felt impossible, but you get through it. Though I would not recommend it to everyone.

"When I was pregnant with Milly we were living in one room, and being eight months pregnant and sleeping on a mattress on the floor was not my idea of fun.

"But now the work is done and the girls are older, it feels like a breeze."

To avoid too much isolation, Sarah made a point of joining mother and toddler groups, attending coffee mornings, and signing up for dance classes to meet people.

"I think it is easier than in London because people here really do make an effort to meet up, probably because we are all quite remote," she says.

Once the house was completed, the couple turned their attention to their outbuildings. The piggery has been transformed into a cute, self-contained office for Ben, while the apple press has been restored to full working order. Each year, the couple hold an apple-pressing party for friends and family; last year 200 people attended.

The stables and one of the barns are used for log storage (the house is heated by wood burner so they need thousands of logs), and they got planning permission to convert two other barns into holiday lets.

They are decorated in similar style to the house – white walls, polished concrete floors and a mix of new country-style and antiques shop furniture painted in white or soft grey. The main house has traditional beams but the barns have pretty pitched clapboard ceilings with a series of skylights.

The calf shed sleeps up to four people and is let from £600 a week (holidaylettings.co.uk/210361), while the lamb shed sleeps six, from £800 a week (holidaylettings.co.uk/210362).

"It has been amazing and incredible," says Sarah, who manages the lettings with the assistance of two local women who help out on changeover days. "We have been fully booked all summer and we have some good winter bookings."

Ben estimates, based on 50 per cent occupancy, that annual turnover from the barns will be about £50,000.

For more information on Upcott Farm, visit upcottfarm.com

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