Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Tales of a Dovecote

Kevin the carpenter has gone on holiday and it was looking as if our dovecote/cart-shed restoration was going to grind to a total halt while he was away. Then came an email from the builders, announcing that a substitute carpenter will be turning up the very next day called Emmanuelle. Don’t hurry back, Kevin.

The restoration is tantalisingly close to completion now, and this morning, Alan the moustachioed plumber (a former international super-bike racer) test fired the new boiler. ‘It will be toasty warm in here,’ he predicted with a grin as he pressed the ignition button. At that moment, it felt to me in a rush of sentimentality as if he was jump starting the building’s heart, and that a brand new life for it was about to begin.

I keep hugging myself with glee because the building has turned out so wonderfully. Yet before we began the works, it was little better than an East End slum after the Blitz: a junk heap of up-ended iron baths, rusty radiators, broken glass lampshades and muddy logs rising to the rotten rafters. On the exterior, the blackened feather boarding was so riddled with woodworm and mouse holes, it might have been strafed by a heavy machine gun.

And now? It is a perfect little gingerbread house with a biscuit-coloured clay-tiled roof and golden oak cladding. Its walls and floors are stuffed to bursting, too, with cosy foam insulation, and the ceilings are layered with a sort of foil-coated duvet. And this explains what happened when I went back to see how Alan and the boiler were getting on.

I opened the stable door and a furnace like blast hit me in the face. The boiler works all right, but I think we have slightly overdone the insulation. In fact, I can see us having to construct a plunge pool outside the front door and keep it full of ice so that panting and sweating overnight guests can dive into it as with Finns after a sauna.

The other nagging question is what to do with the restored dovecote itself, which towers brutally over the front entrance of the little building. So far, it has no holes to permit birds’ entry, but aside from that detail, my wife and I have slavishly obeyed the council’s imperial decree that the dovecote be preserved during the building’s conversion into extra bedrooms (even after we discovered this ‘historic dovecote’ was knocked together with chipboard and plywood by a previous owner barely 20 years ago). So do we really want birds living in it again?

Some unfortunate friends have warned me what it is like to live in a dovecote. They rented an 18th-century pigeonnier in Provence for their summer holidays this year, not realising until they got there that the top half of the loft was alive with pigeons. The family came back from France grey and gibbering.

‘Instead of cutting out holes in the new fascia to let the birds in, we could just paint some holes on the dovecote,’ suggested one of the builders this morning. ‘A bit naff, do you think? Well, we could paint on some pigeons for you, too.’ Fake pigeons for an ersatz dovecote eureka! It is the obvious answer. I only pray that one day the historic-buildings inspector who absurdly forced us to re-make the darn thing will come back to see the fun we have had.