His­tory mak­ers

When Julie and Mike La Rooy bought a 14th-cen­tury house with a con­nec­tion to Win­ston Churchill, they didn’t ex­pect to make their own mark on his­tory - win­ning an award for their restora­tion

Period Living - - Contents - Words and as­sis­tant styling An­dréa Childs | Styling Pippa Blenk­in­sop | Pho­to­graphs Brent Darby

Julie and Mike La Rooy re­stored their 14th-cen­tury home

House­hunt­ing can throw up some un­ex­pected out­comes, as Julie La Rooy is the first to ad­mit: ‘I thought this house was amaz­ing when I first saw it but I as­sumed Mike wouldn’t go for it, think­ing it would be too much work. Then we came back to­gether and he loved it,’ she laughs. ‘It has been a huge project, though. I naively thought we could get it ren­o­vated in a few months, but it was three years be­fore we could move in.’ It’s not as if the cou­ple didn’t do their re­search. Be­fore they even made an of­fer, they en­listed a struc­tural en­gi­neer to do a sur­vey of the prop­erty. ‘He said it was in good con­di­tion for its age, which was true. The trou­ble was, the old­est part of the house is tim­ber framed and dates back to the 14th cen­tury, and the rest of the build­ing was built from stone in the 16th cen­tury. That’s a lot of years of wear and tear,’ says Julie. The house had also suf­fered from ne­glect, as the el­derly pre­vi­ous owner had been un­able to main­tain it prop­erly. To check they would be per­mit­ted to make the ren­o­va­tions and up­dates needed to make this his­toric house hab­it­able and homely again, the cou­ple em­ployed build­ing ar­chae­ol­o­gists to cre­ate an ar­chi­tec­tural time­line of the build­ing, and also asked a con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer to take a look pre­pur­chase. ‘It be­came a listed prop­erty in the 1950s but didn’t have any plan­ning per­mis­sions in place. We didn’t want to find out we needed ret­ro­spec­tive plan­ning or that we wouldn’t be al­lowed to make the changes we wanted,’ says Julie. Re­as­sured there wouldn’t be any prob­lems, they took the plunge.

De­spite their re­search, an ar­chi­tect rec­om­mended by the ar­chae­ol­o­gists, and a team of skilled builders, the build­ing did throw up some sur­prises. ‘There was as­bestos in the base­ment. The sit­ting room floor was rot­ten, so we could have plunged into the cel­lar below at any mo­ment. And when we un­cov­ered the orig­i­nal beams in the din­ing room, which had been hid­den by lath and plas­ter, we found they were barely sup­port­ing the floor above,’ ex­plains Julie. On top of this, there were the re­pairs they had pre­pared for – restor­ing the orig­i­nal black and white ex­ter­nal walls, re­pair­ing the roof and re­build­ing one of the huge chim­neys. ‘We also de­cided to level the din­ing room floor and in­stall un­der­floor heat­ing, which meant the builders lift­ing the orig­i­nal bricks, num­ber­ing each one and stor­ing them in in­di­vid­ual plas­tic bags so they could be put back in pre­cisely the same place.’

For­tu­nately, the lay­out of the house re­mained much the same. The ma­jor change was to take out the nar­row Vic­to­rian steps to the at­tic and re­place them with an el­e­gant stair­case. The loft is now a self-con­tained suite for daugh­ter Elise, with a bed­room, sit­ting room and shower room. They also turned one bed­room into a fam­ily bath­room and re­pur­posed an­other bed­room to be­come a bath­room and dress­ing room in the mas­ter suite. ‘Our ar­chi­tect sug­gested tak­ing out the boxed-in stairs be­tween the din­ing room and kitchen to cre­ate an open-plan lay­out, but I like the sense of sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the two spa­ces,’ says Julie. ‘We sim­ply moved the door to the stairs into the din­ing room, which gave us ex­tra wall space in the kitchen.’

De­ci­sions about the dé­cor have been taken with the cou­ple’s typ­i­cal thought­ful­ness, fo­cus­ing on qual­ity rather than trends. The hand­made kitchen cab­i­nets, for ex­am­ple, were based on the ex­ist­ing Vic­to­rian pantry cup­board. The chim­ney breast was widened by 10cm – a week’s work for one man – to fit the stove. ‘We used nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als through­out be­cause we want the house to be sus­tain­able. We also wanted the work to last for a min­i­mum of 20 years and not to be­come quickly dated and tatty,’ ex­plains Mike. Stay­ing true to the build­ing’s his­tory was also key. ‘We’ve put our mark on it but we’ve kept the in­tegrity of the prop­erty. If any­one who knew the house 40 years ago walked in to­day, I would want them to recog­nise that it’s the same place and to feel at home.’

They’ve more than achieved their goal. This year, Mike and Julie’s painstak­ing restora­tion project was recog­nised by the Sus­sex Her­itage Trust. ‘It was lovely to re­ceive the award, but this has been about cre­at­ing our home,’ says Julie. ‘It’s been hugely sat­is­fy­ing and I’ve learnt so much but now I want to re­lax and en­joy the re­sults of all our hard work.’

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