From cottage to manor - home of the month
PUBLISHED: 07:55 14 January 2014 | UPDATED: 07:55 14 January 2014
A former Victorian gardener's cottage in Harmer Green has been transformed into a lordly space by a couple passionate about renovation, writes Pat Bramley
‘With the greatest respect,’ said the removal man as he carried Charles and Laura Apps’ furniture into the Victorian cottage that was about to become their home, ‘this house is in the worst mess I’ve ever moved anyone into.’
‘It was in a state,’ Charles (pictured in the garden with Binky the family’s cocker spaniel) laughs, remembering how the chap from the removal firm thought they were bonkers – a young couple with two small children, taking up residence in a house that looked like a building site with Christmas only days away.
Chas – he isn’t Charles to family and friends – discovered Cherrybell Cottage at Harmer Green near Welwyn on December 23 in 1995, a year before they moved in. The sales director of a communications company had taken the day off, not to go on a last minute present-buying spree, but to look for a house.
‘We had sold our previous house in Knebworth, which we had renovated, and we were looking for another that needed doing up. We were concentrating our search in this area because we’ve always liked it.
‘I walked into Bryan Bishop’s office in Welwyn, explained to Martin (the son of the founder, who now runs the agency) what I was after and he said “This is your lucky day.” He showed me the details of the cottage and said if I had come in half an hour earlier it wouldn’t have been available. He added, “Go and see it and if you don’t like it I’ll eat my hat”.’
There was heavy snow at the time, Chas says. ‘It wasn’t the best time to view a house but I went through the gate, saw the cottage and immediately fell in love with it. Fortunately for us, the people who had agreed to buy it had just pulled out and it was back on the market. I still get the same feeling today when I come home. I still feel that love for it.’
Cherrybell Cottage was built in the late 1800s as a one-up one-down for the head gardener at the manor house in Harmer Green. Over the years it had been altered and extended but it had belonged to the same family for half a century when the Apps bought its.
Laura says, ‘The garden was immaculate but the cottage hadn’t been updated since the ’50s. It had been lived in by an old lady whose husband had died. You couldn’t move into it as it was.’
It was spring before the sale went through and it wasn’t until July that they were able to start building work because of the wait to get planning consent. Meanwhile the family were living with Laura’s mother.
The transformation of Cherrybell Cottage was always going to be a hands-on project for the new owners, partly to save money and partly because they enjoy getting stuck in. With the experience of having restored their previous home, they were fully aware of the scale of the project ahead of them.
Chas says: ‘We did up the last house knowing we were going to sell it and put the money into the next one. This house took longer but it was much more ambitious. We knew we were going to stay here.’ Laura adds that things were quite different with this project. ‘We didn’t have two young children when we were renovating the last house. We both had jobs in London. We came home and worked on it in the evenings and every weekend. You can’t do that when you have children.’
The couple employed an architect to draw up the plans. ‘We knew what we wanted and he told us what was possible,’ Laura explains.
Laura is a course co-ordinator at a local college, so has great organisational skills – a valuable asset when doing up a house. ‘We do much more than just project managing,’ she says, laughing. ‘I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. ‘During the building stage, Chas was a labourer, fetching and carrying for the builders. He also knows about electrics. I got on with rubbing down doors and woodwork, stripping off layers and layers of paint, and taking off old wallpaper.’
Today the cottage is more like a country home for the lord of the manor than the head gardener. The open plan kitchen they created when they moved in has under floor heating, granite worktops, integrated appliances and a central island unit. The kitchen has become even more central to the home since the oak-framed dining area was built a couple of years ago by specialists Prime Oak. When the weather is warm, this part of the living area can be opened up to the garden via French doors and bi-fold doors.
The latest extension has added a further impressive feature. The focal point of the 24-foot drawing room is a handsome inglenook fireplace built with hand-made bricks. It has recessed windows either side of the chimney breast, a flagstone hearth and a bressumer beam bought from a reclamation yard. There’s another fireplace with a wood burning stove in the sitting room. What was previously the dining room has become a study lined with hand-built furniture.
The new hall created by remodelling the interior has a sweeping staircase rising up to a galleried landing leading to four bedrooms and two bathrooms including the master suite. It’s a far cry from how it was all those Christmases ago. ‘We were desperate to move in,’ Laura remembers. ‘It was primitive but we didn’t care. My youngest daughter was four – I had to bath her in the sink in the utility room. We put up a Christmas tree but we couldn’t have our Christmas lunch here. We went back to mum.’
Today they have the place to themselves, as eldest daughter Harriet, 24, lives in London and Sophie, 21, is in her last year at university.
It is not only the home they have lavished attention on, but also the grand three-quarter-acre garden, which has been landscaped to remove a gradient.
After creating space for the family, Chas and Laura have now decided to downsize. ‘With the girls not at home permanently, we don’t need so much space,’ Laura explains.
Is history repeating itself? Are they looking for another house to do up? ‘Maybe – we’d both be up for it if we find a house that appeals to us. Whatever we find, we’ll always want to put our own mark on it.’
Cherrybell Cottage is for sale through Bryan Bishop and Partners in Welwyn for £1.495m.