‘It’s the lure of a di­a­mond in the rough’

Re­cently di­vorced and fac­ing mid­dle age, one woman took on a huge chal­lenge: re­viv­ing a derelict farm­house.

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page - By Fred Red­wood

‘There was no tele­vi­sion, just a lamp I could read by. I wore a ski jacket in bed to keep warm’

Most peo­ple try to fend off mid­dle age when they see it creep­ing up on them. They change jobs, run marathons, buy a Har­ley-David­son, or try mind­ful­ness, yoga or re­li­gion.

But not many go as far as Libby Ged­des. Re­cently di­vorced and aged 44, Ged­des, a se­rial “doer-up­per” of old prop­er­ties, took this as the op­por­tu­nity to un­der­take her most am­bi­tious ren­o­va­tion to date: the trans­for­ma­tion of two dis­gust­ingly run-down farm cot­tages into a swish five-bed­room coun­try house. The project also in­volved get­ting 111 acres of ne­glected farm­land slap bang in the mid­dle of Ex­moor back up and run­ning along or­ganic guide­lines. All this, with four teenage chil­dren in tow, and with a bru­tal win­ter on the way.

“Yes, it does sound crazy when you put it like that,” she says 10 years later, speak­ing in the warm com­fort of her farm­house kitchen. “But all I know about is do­ing up old houses. To me, this was nor­mal. It’s the thrill of find­ing a di­a­mond in the rough.”

Ged­des puts her ob­ses­sion with restor­ing old houses down to her father Gor­don, 90, who read her the story of Noddy and Big Ears do­ing up an old steam train as a child. “I heard it thou­sands of times and I loved it,” she says. “My fate was set.” She waited un­til she was mar­ried be­fore undertaking her long list of restora­tion jobs. She started with a house in Up­per Far­ring­don, Hamp­shire, that needed only su­per­fi­cial at­ten­tion, be­fore mov­ing on to a cot­tage in Devon that needed com­plete ren­o­va­tion, then a cot­tage in St Mawes, Corn­wall, which had to be com­pletely gut­ted and re­stored. Her last job prior to the farm­house was her most suc­cess­ful: she bought a bat­tered and ne­glected old rec­tory be­tween Truro and St Mawes for £295,000, spent a mere £256,550 on ma­te­ri­als and labour, site man­aged the work her­self, and sold the fin­ished prop­erty for £2mil­lion within 11 days of it be­ing on the mar­ket.

Yet at first, her Ex­moor farm, which she bought for £900,000, looked like a step too far. It was wall-to-wall squalor: the sin­gle house had been roughly split in half by two gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­ily who didn’t get on. Apart from be­ing a hotch-potch of tiny rooms, there was no cen­tral heat­ing, win­dows were bro­ken, and if they weren’t the frames were rot­ten. Ev­ery­where smelt of mould, the stair­case was rot­ten, there were earth floors and any­one us­ing the enamel bath risked scrap­ing their skin on “cal­ci­fied de­posits”, the ori­gins of which it was best not to think about. Ged­des spent a month clean­ing the place be­fore she would even con­sider mov­ing in with her chil­dren, Max, then 18, Hunter, 17, In­dia, 13, and Rol­ley, 11. “My abid­ing me­mory is of mum up a lad­der soap­ing the ci­garette tar off the ceil­ing,” says In­dia, now 23 and in in­vest­ment man­age­ment. “This brown trea­cle was pour­ing down her arm.”

Worse was in store. The win­ter of 2009 was one of the cold­est on record. School for the young­sters – all of whom were non-board­ers at Blun­dells in Tiver­ton – was can­celled. Tem­per­a­tures plum­meted to 14F (-10C). On the night of Feb 1 alone, 22in of snow fell. The fam­ily were trapped by snow drifts; the wa­ter pipes burst four times; the Ray­burn ran out of oil: it was so cold they all wore long johns un­der vests, sev­eral jumpers, gilets, ski jack­ets, gloves and scarves. And still they were cold. “I re­mem­ber us all sleep­ing in mum’s bed­room,” says In­dia. “There was no tele­vi­sion, just a lamp I could read by. I ac­tu­ally wore my ski jacket in bed to keep warm.”

The sib­lings swap mem­o­ries of that win­ter like old sol­diers with wartime tales. “Get­ting food and sup­plies took us seven hours,” re­calls Hunter, now

27, who is at Brunel Univer­sity. “The track to the farm was ab­so­lutely blocked with snow so we left the car on the main road, put all our gro­ceries and stuff in kayaks, and towed them like sledges for the last mile to the house.”

“It was re­ally ba­sic sur­vival,” adds Max, 28, who works in hos­pi­tal­ity. “I re­mem­ber heat­ing beans and cook­ing fish on a log stove, all while I still had my coat on.” Liv­ing on a build­ing site came with its dangers, too. “I rolled over in my sleep one night,” re­calls Hunter. “And a large chunk of the wall fell on me.”

Yet none of them re­gret the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Of course, there were ar­gu­ments but a lot of it was fun too,” says Rol­ley, 21, who is at univer­sity in Ed­in­burgh. “In the long term it has made us closer as a fam­ily.”

The work on the house took six years to com­plete. Ged­des hired builders to de­mol­ish in­ter­nal walls and re­con­fig­ure the down­stairs area. They took out the ex­tra stair­case that had di­vided the prop­erty in two, put in oil-fired cen­tral heat­ing, added a new roof, in­stalled new win­dows, re­placed a rot­ting stair­case with a new one, laid slate and wooden floors and in­stalled an Aga.

Now there is a co­her­ent logic to the lay­out. From the en­trance hall there is a light, low-ceilinged draw­ing room on the right, lead­ing through to the clas­sic coun­try kitchen. Turn left from the en­trance and you find a small sit­ting room which could be made into a li­brary or a mu­sic room, lead­ing through to the study and boot room. The din­ing room, kitchen and laun­dry are around the back of the build­ing and there are five be­d­rooms and two bath­rooms up­stairs.

Yet the house it­self was only part of this project. Ged­des, who now leases the land to a lo­cal farmer, re­ceives stew­ard­ship grants from Nat­u­ral Eng­land for not in­ten­sively farm­ing the land.

She has done much to im­prove it as a nat­u­ral habi­tat, at­tract­ing rare but­ter­flies and ground nest­ing birds, in­clud­ing snipe, to an area of moor­land. Deer roam in the blue­bell woods and there are ot­ters in the river.

Hav­ing com­pleted her grand project Ged­des would en­cour­age oth­ers with teenage chil­dren to do the same. “I think it has been char­ac­ter-build­ing,” she says. “The kids now have a can-do at­ti­tude to life, they love the out­doors and they have learnt to look on a wrecked house in a dif­fer­ent way – as a source of end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

The farm is now on the mar­ket with Strutt & Parker for of­fers over £1.6mil­lion, and should at­tract a good deal of in­ter­est from Lon­don and the South East. De­spite seem­ing to be in the wilds, it is also only half an hour from Tiver­ton from where the fast train gets into Padding­ton in two hours. For that rea­son, sprin­kled among her coun­try folk neigh­bours are sev­eral bankers and city types, in­clud­ing Richard Car­ing, who owns the chic clubs and res­tau­rants The Ivy, Le Caprice and Annabel’s.

As for the fu­ture, Ged­des is look­ing for an­other, smaller house, some­where in the West Coun­try, now that the chil­dren are al­most of an age to fly the nest. She has one stip­u­la­tion: “It must be a doer-up­per,” she says. “Do­ing up houses is what I do. It’s that lure of the di­a­mond in the rough again.”

‘I rolled over in my sleep one night and a large chunk of wall fell on me’

ON THE MAR­KET Libby Ged­des’ house is on the mar­ket for £1.6m with Strutt & Parker, cover

RE­TURN TO SPLEN­DOUR Libby Ged­des with her dog Ot­ter, main; in­side the re­stored farm­house and out­side, where the farm­land has been re­vived COUN­TRY KITCHEN Ad­di­tions to the house, left, in­clude an Aga in the huge kitchen

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