Mid-life crisis brings some grave problems for city-living couple
Skeletons and a 60ft tree were just some of the obstacles Edward Waterson found when building a home in central York.
IT was when we uncovered the first skeleton that we realised we had inadvertently bought a Roman burial ground. That’s the sort of problem you come across when you decide to build a new house five minutes’ walk from York Minster.
Turning the clock back a couple of years, my wife Jill and I had decided it was time for a mid-life crisis. We sold our lovely Georgian house overlooking Castle Howard and rented an equally lovely Georgian house right in the centre of York. Within weeks we had both decided that city life was for us.
In the coming months we spent many hours exploring every street for the perfect house.
Thirty years of selling property for Carter Jonas convinced us that we had to live in a period home. One evening we took a left turn off Bootham and found ourselves in St Marys, a mid 19th century street with a touch of faded grandeur to it. “This is interesting,” said Jill.
“You wouldn’t want to live down here,” said I. Half way down the street was a derelict 1920s house, built on the site of a former tennis court. There were plans to replace it with a pair of family houses; by the time we went to bed that night we felt we knew where our future lay. It might not be period but it promised plenty of space, a good sized garden, off-street parking and a garage. We just couldn’t find that combination in an older property, so close to the city walls.
We agreed a deal with the builders, Westwood Homes (Yorkshire) Ltd and a few days later the Roses entered our lives. Daniel, Victoria and their three children were following a similar course to ours. They had sold up in the country and were keen to settle in central York. We knew them only slightly but agreed on a joint venture with the developers. Over the months we became close friends, united in the face of adversity as the building programme slipped further and further back.
The groundworks soon revealed two skeletons (a woman and an adolescent) and a man’s left leg. All were buried north south, indicating Roman burials, close to the northern route out of York. No doubt there are still a few others under the kitchen floor. The ones we found are still in store at the Yorkshire Museum awaiting analysis.
In the meantime, we paid a visit to the York Hand Made Brick Company near Easingwold, who created the St Marys blend for us. This had five different colours of brick, mimicking those used in the building of our neighbours 150 years before.
Our stone came from Leyburn, sand from Heslerton, windows from Malton and ironwork from Elvington. Apart from the Spanish roof slates, this was to be a thoroughly Yorkshire house.
We were really pleased to have a number of apprentices on site including Dominic Branch, a recent winner on the BBC Mastercrafts programme. He cut his teeth on our railings.
The developers’ plans were for a pair of villas in the style of the 1850s and the layout, over four floors, was just right.
Externally, some of the detail needed tweaking so we turned to Digby Harris at Francis Johnson & Partners, one of the country’s leading exponents of the classical style. His touch and attention to detail transformed the designs into something rather special and were wholeheartedly welcomed by Janine Riley, the conservation architect at York City Council.
We made a start in November 2008, hoping to be in by the end of the August 2009. In the event, we just made it for Easter 2010.
Embarking on such a joint venture is fraught with problems and although it had its moments, our relationship with the builders remained cordial. Both families were insistent on workmanship and materials of the highest quality and although this involved some additional expenditure we didn’t flinch. That’s something we have never regretted. One of the major issues was a 60ft monkey puzzle tree, close to the front of the houses and subject to a tree preservation order. We even cantilevered the front steps on a steel frame to avoid damaging its roots.
So would we do it again? Probably not, if we had known then what we know now. It was a pretty stressful experience.
On the other hand, we are very pleased with the result and there is no shortage of passing admirers, most of whom are convinced the houses are 150 years old.
Financially we took a gamble, went over budget and ended up with a bill for about £800,000. It should be worth all of that, given the strength of the central York market.
Now we’ve landed a York Design Award for 2011. I think we did the right thing.
York Handmade Brick Company in Alne, specialises in making bricks for period properties or for new-builds that want to look old. Tel: 01347 838885, www.yorkhandmade. co.uk
Francis Johnson and Partners, Bridlington. Chartered architects who specialise in the design of new buildings in classical and traditional styles as well as the repair and restoration of historic buildings. Tel: 01262 674 043, www.francisjohnson-architects. co.uk
OLD STYLE: Edward and Jill’s home in central York looks like a period property but it is new, which means it is energy efficient and easy to maintain.