ROCK OF AGES
Once a fortified retreat, a Tudor bastle in Northumberland has been thoughtfully renovated to create an atmospheric, original home
Once a fortified retreat, a historic property in Northumberland has been transformed into an original home
Many surviving bastles are known and flagged up, while others wear their history more lightly. When Julie Oswald and Colin Caygill first went to view one of these ancient domestic fortifications that came up for sale seven years ago, it had been so tamed by time that it was easy to overlook its heritage. Yet the signs were all there: its position with clear views over the hills towards Scotland, a wall of stone to protect the inhabitants and their animals, a high window for a lookout and, inside on the original gable, the outline of a single, heavy door to fasten tight against approaching threat. “We saw the big boulder plinth outside and distinctive shape,” recalls Julie, who recognised its provenance – and its potential as a country escape within easy reach of their home near Newcastle.
Reinforced 16th- and 17th-century farmhouses, bastles once formed a protective network across Northumberland and into Scotland. The name is derived from the French term for a defensive town – ‘bastille’ – and during the border skirmishes bastles were on the frontline of the action. At the first sight of Border Reiver trouble, farmers would drive their stock inside them on the ground floor and bolt the door fast, then the family would climb up into the house above, pull up their ladder and bar the trap door behind them.
Happily, more peaceful times in the intervening centuries have seen a gentrified hamlet of honey-coloured stone houses and cottages grow up around the late 16th-century Tudor bastle that now belongs to Julie, an interior designer, and events organiser Colin. It sits at the heart of a country parish near Hexham, and is thought to have been the village school for a time – backed up by a cache of tiny red clay marbles unearthed at the doorway – but for years it was a tied cottage and, judging by the chill indoors and evidence of sustained attempts at damp-proofing and modernising, rather a bleak one.
Their plan was to go for a pared-back look in order to enjoy the building’s essential ruggedness, while still finding a way to soften
and balance it with a little comfort and warmth. They began by stripping the 1980s concrete and render, the black beams and hollow core doors – uncovering a splendid inglenook along the way – and ended up taking out walls, stairs, window frames, woodworm-riddled floorboards and ceilings. “We bought an old Land Rover Defender,” Julie says. “It became our skip on wheels, going endlessly backwards and forwards to the tip.”
Colin returned from one such trip to a revelation – piercing shafts of sunlight from the attic window, beaming down through two storeys to set the kitchen door aglow. “I knew we had to retain it and make a feature of it,” he enthuses. “That’s why the hall and stairs are exposed, cathedral-like, to the top level. We also put a glass panel between the bathroom and the hall, so the evening light shines down – if the hallway door happens to be open, the rays reach the kitchen door and illuminate the whole house.”
At that point they were seriously tempted to give the entire first floor over to one decadently huge bedroom and bathroom, but flexibility won out and the stud walls went back in, although the division was shifted slightly to make two more equal-sized bedrooms. However, the bathroom – simply fitted with a white suite and limestone tiles within its stone shell – is wonderfully elevated, and sits on the level of the lookout perch.
Liking the effect created by the exposed rock, but wary of overdoing this rather austere look, Julie and Colin experimented to find a balance between raw stone and colour. In some places it was an easy choice – chipping off the more tenacious patches of cement proved tedious and the simpler option was to paint or skim with lime plaster, a skill they taught themselves.
Against this pale backdrop, Julie opted for robust colours: indigo-blue rescue sofas and chairs and vibrant madder reds and other rich shades in the vintage Turkish carpet bring warmth to the living room, while the charcoal slate floor and wall tiles make the kitchen feel both grounded and contemporary.
The essence of it all is earthy – rather to the surprise of Julie who, at the outset, had a less rustic, more Georgian finish in mind. “I thought it would be softer, because there’s a lot of texture here with the walls and the beams,” she says. “But the building itself seemed to steer me this way.” Upstairs, the mix of aged stone, brick, lime and seasoned oak-beamed ceilings creates a classic cottage feel, enhanced by simple checks and textured linens.
In keeping with the relaxed mood, furniture is a combination of vintage and antique, including sturdy 18th- and 19th-century coffers and a bible box, family cast-offs, second-hand finds and chalk-painted pieces. “I acquired it all by gathering, begging and borrowing – I wanted to make it look as though everything had been here for a while so it feels as though it’s evolved organically,” Julie explains. “But, at the same time, we’ve also got our modern elements – underfloor heating, a Bose sound system and a power shower. It’s not the Dark Ages!”
Julie’s love of vintage textiles was the inspiration for her design business, The Cloth Shed, yet here fabrics are used with restraint – a smattering of natural linens and ticking, with touches of tweed and the odd statement cushion to sharpen up the scheme. There’s a subtle artistry to the way they set off her cherished collections of similarly understated Irish spongeware and pewter.
The time spent working on the bastle, and the arrival of their Labrador Ottie, confirmed what the couple had long suspected: a full-scale move to the country was essential. This year they found a farm nearby with enough barn space for both their businesses and left the city behind. “We still love coming here but we don’t feel the same need to escape the city now, so we’ve decided to
rent the bastle out when the family isn’t using it,” Julie explains. “After so much work, it’s great to know it is being enjoyed.”
Their final task has been to establish a decked terrace set on a raised platform – a modern lookout spot for a leisurely breakfast or late-evening glass of wine. It faces the ravine, with the old joiner’s workshop in the foreground, part of a job-lot with the bastle and a project for the future. For now, though, the couple are happy to take stock, reflect on the changes and enjoy the close connection to the distinctive home they’ve created with such care. “We have a great affection for the place,” Julie says. “After all our efforts, it feels as if we know every single stone.”
The Bastle, Beltingham, Bardon Mill, Hexham (01434 672495; thebastle.co.uk) sleeps four and is available to rent. For more information, visit the website or email Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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OPPOSITE Pale, calming tones establish a restful mood in the guest bedroom, where simple checks create a homespun feel
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FROM ABOVE RIGHT Upstairs, the combination of exposed brick and timber is softened by elegant painted furniture and pretty bed linen, including a floral-stitched vintage quilt; the ceiling was opened up to the roof’s apex to increase the sense of space in the bathroom and the original high lookout window unblocked, filling the room with light; cream-painted pine shutters, made by Colin, reflect light into a bedroom, where the original worm-riddled ceiling and floor were replaced with salvaged planks