‘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.
‘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