Doing up a Period Property

Over the last couple of years I’ve ‘had the Rightmove alerts on’, idly wondering about a move from a townhouse in Cirencester to the proper sticks. It’s not a sensible move: it would mean way more ferrying about in cars and not drinking (sighhh) and distance from neighbours that have become close friends. For me the call of the wild is all about falling in love with a rambling, scruffy old house – the sort I grew up in – where the children can run feral and I can get off on the history and atmosphere while phoning the plumber.

What has surprised and depressed me is that this sort of house seems barely to exist now, at least not here in the Cotswolds where there is perhaps too much money sloshing around than is good for us. What HAS appeared on my Rightmove search is a disappointing parade of period properties, often originally designed as quite modest cottages or small farm houses, that have been gutted, extended and generally pimped until they are completely unrecognisable as old buildings from the inside. Walls are squared off and re-skimmed; beams are ‘shaved’ to look new; ceilings are ablaze with downlights; windows, doors, staircases, skirtings and mouldings are replaced with ‘period-esque’ equivalents; kitchens are stuffed with granite and gadgetry; bathrooms are hotel bathrooms and glass boxes abound.

For me, depressing. But why? No-one’s getting hurt, the original architects are long dead and immune to offence, and many of these structural changes have genuine environmental advantages and make old spaces better suited to modern domestic life. It’s a cliché, but it comes down to the old owner versus custodian mentality. Few of us are self-effacing enough to be entirely custodian focused, but I would suggest that a generation of house price craziness has made us way too owner-minded: houses aren’t places to appreciate and get to know, they are investments and they owe us; they are ours and they must bend to our will.

Unfortunately the house as gravy train or one-person vanity project almost always loses its personality and individuality – things that are impossible, really, to put back and that estate agents agree are actually very valuable assets. Wobbly walls, wonky stairs and old plasterwork are, to me, things of real beauty, full of texture and intrigue in their imperfection, and hinting at tantalising histories that we can never know. It seems bizarre that so many of us want our houses to look old on the outside, but like modern show homes inside. Of course we need to modernise and be practical, and to put our stamp on a place, but perhaps the lucky few who find an unmodernised property should approach any doing up as a respectful collaboration between occupant and all past occupants, whatever the age and style of the building – before the whole idea of a historic interior is itself consigned to the past.

 Words by Jess Yarrow

22nd January 2017