Vintage victorious

Penny Jackson says that buying a derelict 500-year-old house to restore will need great reserves of love and money - but it's worth it

Just about everyone responds to a house that is a good 500 years old. Most lap up its atmosphere and while briefly harbouring the romantic notion of living somewhere historic, will gratefully return to their rather newer homes. But then there is that group of people who are not only instantly lovestruck but remain true to the object of their affection through thick and thin.

Just about everyone responds to a house that is a good 500 years old. Most lap up its atmosphere and while briefly harbouring the romantic notion of living somewhere historic, will gratefully return to their rather newer homes. But then there is that group of people who are not only instantly lovestruck but remain true to the object of their affection through thick and thin.

It has to be said that where an old building has been injected with every modern comfort as well as faithfully restored, that process of falling in love is eased considerably. However, more often than not buying a home that has celebrated its personal half millennium is not so much a move but a project.

Take Cobblers Cottage, in the pretty conservation village of East Hagbourne in Oxfordshire. It dates from the 16th century and has the full complement of ancient timbers, windows and fireplaces yet with the stylish and comfortable interior usually found in glossy magazines.

But this was not achieved overnight. When Lisa and Jeremy Ancock first considered buying it almost 10 years ago, it appeared to be a foolhardy venture that came with a strong health warning from the professionals. Like many such houses of its period, it clearly required years of hard and costly work. "The survey was dreadful, far worse than we had imagined and the surveyor advised us not to buy it," recalls Lisa. "The roof was rotten, the drains needed replacing, it was damp and had woodworm. We had asked him to be honest but we hadn't quite expected that."

Far from putting them off, they negotiated a substantial reduction in the house price (the house was a repossession) and prepared to move with their 10-year-old twins from London to Oxfordshire. Possibly their wisest move was to seek the opinion of a master builder who specialised in old buildings. "We were extremely alarmed at all the woodworm but he took one look at it and said that it went no deeper than one inch and that the wood was solid inside. He took on the job and having someone with his knowledge on our side made all the difference."

As a Grade II-listed house, any changes had to be approved by the conservation officer. "He was fairly strict and stopped us from cutting through a section of wood to make a new staircase. We moved it to where he suggested and in fact he was quite right - it has turned out brilliantly."

It helped that Lisa, a make-up artist who has worked on films such as Shakespeare in Love and Iris , and Jeremy, a publisher, proved to be a strong team. "We had our own areas of responsibility and virtually never disagreed," she says. Which is probably just as well, for after renting for a while the family moved into the house and all had to share the one habitable room.

Gradually Cobblers Cottage began to take shape. Its higgledy-piggledy exterior and randomly placed windows - two of them distinctive oriel windows - disguise a well-ordered but intriguing interior. The drawing room with its magnificent inglenook fireplace is almost 30ft long, making the most of the fact that the building was originally two separate cottages. "It is surprisingly light inside because there are so many windows. The only extra window we were allowed to put in was a specially approved skylight hidden in the roof valley."

But the most exciting moment, Lisa remembers, was after the sandblasters had been in. "Everything had been painted over the years and when we saw all the original timbers and stone it was fantastic."

She does not make light of the challenge, even now that the house is finished and for sale. "We bought it as a home and that made all the difference. It was an emotional response and it felt right. Even in its original state it was a very seductive house."

Not many buyers would have persisted with their purchase after being told by a surveyor that he wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. Had the Ancocks been dependent on a mortgage, the story might well have been different.

The owners of a weatherboard house in Essex who were looking to remortgage it found themselves dealing with a valuer who was out of his depth. After poking around outside for a while and discovering there were no foundations he announced, in a horrified tone, that he couldn't possibly put a figure on it.

Adrian Cleary, associate of John D Wood & Co in Farnham, is familiar with this sort of story. "One of the probems, especially for mortgage purposes, is that you can't just tick the boxes with a house that shows 300 years of different architectural styles. The key is that it has stood the test of time and might well have foundations of no more than nine inches or so. It is important that buyers say they are interested in an old house otherwise it will just be another address on a list." Cleary, who is himself restoring a 14th-century house that he found hidden under an 18th-century façade, says that without expert advice people may make serious mistakes or be put off from buying altogether. "There are always those who know immediately that a very old house is not for them, but once people understand how and why it was built in a certain way they might feel less anxious."

Although the classic errors of using modern materials on old buildings, preventing them from breathing or even moving, are more widely known, there are still houses receiving inappropriate and often expensive remedies. "Dampness could be caused by something as simple as a raised flowerbed," explains Cleary. "The internet is a very good source of information and there is a surprising number of specialist industries springing up. Ironically, proper craftsmen are on lower rates than modern builders."

Certainly the skill of those working on the Ancock's house was crucial to their project. "There was nothing our builder didn't know. And you do feel a huge responsibility to the house - more like a custodian than an owner."

In their plans to move to France , they have not ruled out the prospect of a new construction challenge. But at least the purchasers of Cobblers Cottage won't be getting such a nasty shock from their surveyor: every alteration has been discussed, approved and signed off. And best of all, the methods used to prolong the life of the house have barely changed in 500 years.

Cobblers Cottage is being sold by John D Wood at a guide price in excess of £675,000; tel: 01865 311522

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