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Fledgling self-builders Rob and Ruth set out to restore a protected ancient mill in a secluded valley and build a new contemporary home within its crumbling walls in the latest episode of Grand Designs on Channel 4.
The Cumbrian-born couple plan to sensitively preserve the 200-year-old stone building which sits next to a babbling river in a wooded dell in the Lake District.
Presenter Kevin McCloud is sceptical from the outset. “What do you do with a ruin? How you build for today while keeping the history and romantic appeal that keeps a ruin so beguiling? And for that matter, could you live in one?”
There’s plenty for the construction guru to be concerned about.
Rob, 31, and Ruth, 27, met at Manchester University before moving to work in London. The pair relocated back to Cumbria to take on the fanciful project, which architect Rob has been dreaming about for years. But the mill, which later became a pig sty, was recently reclassified as a ‘scheduled monument’ which means the smallest modification has to be approved by the Secretary of State.
Scraping together savings and a loan from the bank-of-dad, the couple bought the site for £110,000 and have £250,000 to spend on the build. They will also have to secure a mortgage and pay back the loan – which is Rob’s dad’s retirement fund.
The plans reveal two new buildings to rise out of the ruin. The smaller south building will be the office-cum-workshop, the larger more dominant stone shell will house the two-storey, 250sq m family home. Both will slot into the existing, archaic framework.
The new structures will be timber-clad with glazed, fibre glass, pitched roofs. The new house will have a large kitchen with huge seven metre-wide windows that overlook the green valley, and a snug on the ground floor. Four bedrooms will occupy the first floor with steps that lead up onto the covered roof terrace with seating, a dining area, plenty of space to grow vegetables and a pizza oven.
The project is fraught with difficulty and danger. With only 18 months in total to complete the project, just clearing rotting trees will take four weeks.
Rob and Ruth will need to spend £11,000 on a specialist tree surgeon who will fell the dead trees that tower above the fragile structure. The 80ft beech could easily fall and crush the stone building that the couple so desperately want to preserve.
The valley is inaccessible and therefore the team will not be able to use big machinery, such as cranes, that would usually be deployed in such a situation. Hydraulic winches will be used instead.
Before the pioneering (and totally inexperienced) preservationists can sure up the ruin and start laying foundations inside its walls, they will have to clear 150 tonnes of timber from the site. Even though it was the greenery that drew them to it in the first.
The couple will then come up against their next challenge. On tender-hooks, and before progressing further, they await Historic England’s decision on whether the ruined structure is safe enough to stabilise and build within. Alternatively, it may need to be demolished. Should the heritage organisation reach this decision then Rob and Ruth will see their beloved outer walls - the soul of their to-be valley home – flattened.
It would “destroy the spirit” of the place, says McCloud. Not only that but their already-stretched budget and timeline would have to allow for the complete and painstakingly precise recreation of the old mill walls, to the exact coin stone, around the new properties.
Sadly, this is exactly what happens. In the early throes of the project Historic England declare the ruin unsafe for restoration. It is demolished, leaving the valley – already cleared of vegetation – “as if a bomb has hit it,” in the words of a shocked McCloud.
With a trifling budget they have to rebuild it calling on Rob’s family as cheap labour. They stay well below budget but doing everything themselves means that at the end of their 18 month deadline, they are only just laying the floor.
Another unforeseen stumbling block and major set-back is the need for a giant steel to connect the bit of old gable wall left to the new house.
But as the timber sides of the building are slotted onto the site, the footprint of the new property begins to emerge. “It’s twice as big as I thought it would be,” says McCloud looking approvingly at the space where the huge kitchen windows will sit. “The windows will slide back and the whole house will reverberate to the sound of the water,” he says.
Finally, once the timber and steel house is up, the ruin is rebuilt piece-by-piece around it using every last stone from the original walls.
After three and a half years, McCloud visits the finished project. Despite his reservations, that “you cannot fake history”, Rob and Ruth (and family) have captured the spirit of the ancient mill while fashioning a new, “super-modern” home.
The expert stonework gives it gravitas while the lead capping connects new and old, while the house really does appear to slide out of stone. The building of multiple personalities is a new interpretation of what was there.
“To be clear this is not a restoration, it’s a new building. But it is a tribute and a retelling of an old tale in a new chapter,” McCloud concludes.
Grand Designs is on Channel 4 at 8pm on Wednesdays.