We decided right from the start to recycle everything from the old house. Any bricks that could be salvaged were cleaned up and re-used in the build, while the remaining masonry was put through a crusher to make hardcore, which either went into the base of the house or to form the new drive. Anything we couldn’t use, we sold — for example, we put all the windows and doors up for sale on eBay and the buyer had to take them out on collection. All the old basins and sinks from the original house were re-used, as were some of the floorboards, while others were repurposed as windowsills. As the majority of the interiors are reclaimed, I spent a lot of time sourcing and collecting things from reclamation yards or private addresses with my trusty trailer. The kitchen and utility cupboards are all second-hand Plain English I found on eBay that had come out of a house in London. They were our best bargain, won for £2,300.
My favourite piece is the round window in the kitchen, which I found hiding in the back of a huge barn at a salvage yard. I also love the limestone fireplace in the kitchen, which I won for £50 on eBay.
Designing the interiors was an interesting process. I did the ground floor joinery detailing as a whole and tweaked it so that it was slightly different between the three Georgian, Victorian and Regency-styled parts of the house — the cornice, skirting and architraves all had slight variations. I then designed each room individually, working out which features we could bring in to enhance the character, for example nooks, alcoves and beams. Each bedroom has a false chimney breast made out of stud partitioning with lovely old cast iron or timber fireplaces collected from salvage yards.
Like any build, we encountered a few problems along the way, starting with the ground below the house, which was solid rock so took double the time to dig out. The joinery ate up far more budget than anticipated, but we were conscious that to make the house look authentic we couldn’t skimp on the joinery. For example, we couldn’t leave the window reveals as plain plaster — they needed timber panelling on either side and a generous architrave around. Skirtings had to be generous, too. The garden, meanwhile, also took up far more budget than we intended. The house was on a slope so we needed to build up the ground around it, otherwise it would have looked like a glacier cherry perched in the air. So truckloads of top soil had to be brought in. Luckily, we discovered that acres of ground were being cleared for warehousing sheds not far from us so we managed to strike a deal with the local developer to get the topsoil dumped here and just pay for delivery.
I sketched a master plan for the garden, one that we could do in stages, and we started work on it as soon as we moved in. We had to start from scratch as there wasn’t a garden originally, just fields with cows that came right up to the boundary of the house. So we moved off the cattle and took down all the old post and rail fences (keeping them for a later project). We found about 100 sheep skulls in the spinney at the bottom of the garden, which was pretty grim, but the kids loved hunting for them. Next, we planted miles of yew and hornbeam hedges to form a backbone to the garden. And we put in hundreds of trees that will one day form a windbreak to the beastly wind that bellows through.
It took about 14 months to build the house. As soon as it and the gardens were presentable and the builders had gone, we decided to open it up as a location for photographic shoots and filming, as well as an Airbnb. It works really well. When we rent the house out for Airbnb, it’s usually over specific dates we are away anyway – or we book some flights and go abroad to stay with my parents in our family home in Tuscany. If we are renting the house out for location shoots and the crew are staying over, then we give them the house and we move into the cottage.
You might have seen Ashbrook in Cath Kidston’s last Christmas campaign, which took place during lockdown last year.
A crew of 30 stayed over for five days – social distancing and lockdown nearly de-railed the booking, but luckily they managed to work it all out safely.
If any readers are thinking of opening up their homes for Airbnb, try and have three bedrooms available — your occupancy will soar as two families can stay, which is ideal for reunions and weekends away with friends. And make it dog friendly if you can. As a location venue, ring around all the agencies and just try and get on as many as possible to open up the opportunities.
I have lots of plans for the future at Ashbrook. I want to hold talks, workshops and residential retreats here, as well as host exhibitions, a Christmas market and pop-up restaurants. I have also set up an interior and garden design business, which keeps me super busy. I think there’s definitely a gap in the market for those who don’t want to employ a full-on landscape or interior designer, but need a master plan or visualisation to enable them to carry out the work themselves. This is my speciality. I work virtually over a zoom call from photographs, Google Earth imagery and architect’s plans. While the client and I discuss ideas, I share my screen and sketch as we go.
Little black book
- Burgess Reclamation, Souldern, Oxfordshire, for everything from flooring to fireplaces, burgessreclamation.co.uk
- The Victorian Emporium online store, for timber mouldings and door furniture, thevictorianemporium.com
- The Old Flight House, Weston-on-the-Green, Oxfordshire, for antiques, theoldflighthouse.co.uk
Embarking on a new build?
Get the best architect you can afford. Make sure she or he has a history of designing similar houses. Even if you can’t stretch to the architect doing the working drawings, see if you can afford to keep them on for consultations throughout.
Try and work out what the landscaping around the house will be like as, when the time comes for decisions, it is so easy just to make a knee-jerk decision that you may come to regret.
Buy old salvaged doors if you can to give the build much more character. And try to do it even before the footings have been dug so that you’re one step ahead when it comes to making the openings to fit.