In the Cotswolds, History Dictates Design

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By Rosie Spinks / Published by Dwell
When Alistair and Leslie Winrow-Campbell bought Malvern House in the Gloucestershire village of Blockley, they were prepared for a renovation process which they imagined would be a “5 year slog.”

In actuality, it took four years to get the planning permission just to begin. Eighteen years later, with the house just recently completed, Mr. Campbell—who with his wife owns several franchises of a popular UK optometry chain—likes to say that "we’ve got a brand new house built in 1790."

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The Campbell’s story is not an uncommon one. That is because their sprawling four-story house is located in the the Cotswolds, a historic agricultural region in southwestern and west-central England. Designated as an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the 790 square mile region—whose name literally means "sheep enclosure on rolling hills"—is known for its large swaths of arable land and as a favorite country getaway for the likes of Hunter-boots-wearing Elizabeth Hurley and Kate Moss.

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Like many houses in the region, Malvern House is known as "listed," or in possession on significant heritage that requires preservation. This status is similar to the National Register of Historic Places in the US, but on quite a different scale. The Cotswolds’ two main counties—Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire—boast more than 25,000 structures bearing the distinction; the entire state of New York has just 5,479.

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You might hear Mr. Campbell describe Malvern House as his dream home, but that doesn’t mean he was able to renovate it exactly how he envisioned from the start. Due to the immense history in this region, the Cotswolds District Council—which operates under the auspices of the national organization English Heritage—must approve each and every alteration or addition done to a listed building, down to the type of roofing tile and the color of paint.

In effect, many home owners in this quaint part of the English countryside are not only tasked with restoring history, but also living within its constraints.

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Modernizing History

The Campbells did extensive research to map out a more comprehensive history of Malvern House, but they faced a sizeable challenge from the start. Prior to gaining its grade II listed status, the house had been renovated by a previous owner who had little regard for history. When the Campbells took ownership, the house—originally built by the wealthy owner of a silk mill with later incarnations as a girls’ school, a hotel, and a one-time resting spot for General Patton—had haphazardly been turned into a block of five generic flats.

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Thus, the renovation was a two-pronged challenge: undoing the fragmentation of the house in order to bring it closer to its historic state, while simultaneously creating a modern living space feasible for a 21st century family.

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"Some people love a house with a listed status and other people want nothing to do with it," Mrs. Campbell said. "But when you’ve got an old property, if people like us don’t come along and do something with it, it’s just going to be dilapidated."

With a rebuilt back wall, a new roof, a new chimney, several new walls, and a complete overhaul of wiring and plumbing, the house has all the modern conveniences one would expect, including a spa, summer house, and a terraced garden—but it is not without its quirks.

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A fireplace in every one of the 6 bedrooms—a necessity in the days before central heating—seemed like slight overkill. However, in keeping with the council’s stipulations, the couple had to cover over them as opposed to knock them out completely.

For the original windows in the front of the house, a double glazing treatment—de rigeur in the cold climate of the UK—was forbidden by the planning council, for the fear that a different reflection could "potentially change the character of the building."

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The evolution of time can be seen in the three types of wood present in the sectioned staircase, with has the original 18th century elm at the top, followed by oak from a later date, and a completely new section at the bottom.

On the ground-level exterior, an arched corner once accommodated large wagon wheels approaching the stables. The markings of what was once a passageway can be seen on the wall of Malvern Cottage next door—which once served as the housing for school teachers, then a brothel for use of hotel patrons and war generals.

In hindsight, Mr Campbell views the renovation process of such a historical house as a constant interplay between what once was, and what is feasible today.

"You have to replace everything with what it was originally wherever possible," Mr. Campbell said. "For example, the original Welsh blue slate roofing material is still one of the most hard wearing materials today. But lead pipes—not so much."

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A Weighty Feel

In the nearby village of Weston Sub Edge, Adam Maxted and Lisa Jones faced a different challenge when converting the 15th century barn adjacent to their main house. Built with Cotswold stone sourced from a 13th century monastery across the meadow, the structure once served as a primary dwelling for an agricultural family.

But when the couple started renovations to modernize, the two-story dilapidated barn didn’t have so much as a staircase.

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"Originally the family would have had the cattle downstairs in straw and the heat from the cattle and dung would have risen and heated the upstairs living area," Maxted explained. "To get up upstairs when we started, you had to climb on a cattle tethering point then climb up to floorboards to the top level."

For the feel of the barn—which the couple now lets out as a holiday rental—Jones wanted to maintain the weighty rustic character with a contemporary and clean finish. Wall hangings are sparse, as the beams serve as "decorations in and of themselves."

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Their biggest and most costly challenge was the original cobbled flooring which, while completely unusable, had to stay in place per the council’s instructions.

"We had to get an engineer in to figure out how to build flooring that could sit on top of the original cobble without ruining it," Jones said.

Other hurdles required by the planning council were sourcing roof tiles that were the same as the original material used; creating an inner shell to insulate the barn; finding the perfect, council approved shade of grey to match the original paint (the couple’s preference was Cotswold green, but that wasn’t allowed); and building a pump underneath the pebbled driveway to introduce modern plumbing to the centuries-old structure.

A second bedroom upstairs with an additional light-facing window were also vetoed, as the beams and plinths were noted to be too old and impressive to cut through.

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"It would have been more beautiful," Maxted said, "but for the council, that’s not the point."

The most impressive feature of the dwelling—the weighty barn door with its original latch—can sometimes be a struggle for guests to open. Occasional visits from a centuries-old tenant, wood lice, are inevitable despite treated timbers. However, the quirks serve as a reminder of what’s come before and that, the couple says, is an essential part of the barn’s character.

"When you renovate a conversion, you literally have to be able to put back how it was originally," Maxted said. "So absolutely, the process would have been a lot easier without the Cotswold District Council, but we were happy to go along because we need to keep our heritage and our history."