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
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.’