For the first blissful week in well over a year, our house is silent. There are no power saws screaming, no nail guns firing, no Radio One booming, in fact there are no builders at all indoors. We are left for the moment with a solitary workman outside, quietly marking out flowerbeds in the trackless wasteland that we jokingly call our garden. Any minute, I shall probably have to throw out a lifeline and save him from drowning in the mire.
Until then, I am relishing the peace and meditating on what my wife and I have got right, or appallingly wrong, in the restoration of our house in the country. (We are not quite safe yet. In a month or two, regiments of builders will come stomping back into our lives like stormtroopers when we begin the conversion of an outbuilding, a cart shed-cum-dovecote.)
Our worst blunder so far? I reckon it was listening to the tweedy estate agent with the silver tongue who sold us the wreck of a manor house, swathed in flowering roses, on that fateful late-summer’s day in 2003. ‘Give yourselves, oh, about six to eight months to do the place up,’ he told us, straight-faced. It has taken exactly 26 months from completing the purchase to having a habitable house.
It hurts to admit it, but had my wife and I foreseen the time and effort the project would involve, we would not have touched the place if it had been given to us tied in a red ribbon. Yet now we love it with a passion?in fact, so much that we will shortly be making it our permanent home.
The greatest triumph? No question, it was hiring the right builders, project manager and architect. My best advice to anyone contemplating a restoration project is not only to choose professionals who are affordable and come with a list of glowing references and all that, but above all, to pick people you really like. You are going to spend an awful lot of time together, and building sites are gruelling places where you are constantly aware of the money spewing from your pockets to pay for the work. If you can at least look forward to some cheery company on the job, you will thank yourself.
And we got that part right. Until the restoration was more or less complete, I was wary of jinxing the project by naming our team, but now I can pay tribute to the inexhaustible heroes who have finally conquered our Everest: Bob Knight and Matthew Peck at Knight Building Con-tractors of Great Bedwyn in Wilsthire (01672 870033) and our project manager, Colin Gillah of Mursell & Co at Thatcham in Berkshire (01635 872000).
When I asked an old friend to be our consulting architect, both he and I knew the golden rule: never do business with a mate. But our friendship has survived the project intact, and his architectural additions?respectful yet imaginative?to our Grade II-listed house have made the whole structure more beautiful and practical than my wife and I ever dared hope. He practices from Evershot in Dorset (01935 83543). Stuart Martin is the man.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on February 9, 2006.
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