Couple lose £68k in scam but after period of ‘pure hopelessness’ dig deep to transform 500-year-old thatched farmhouse
Sometimes deciding to view a run-down house because it has ignited your curiosity can be a dangerous decision; you might totally fall in love with it and want it, even if it is not even habitable when you buy it.
Some people claim to want to do a renovation project because finding a house that can be rescued and remodelled not only adds value but means that, within listed building restrictions, if appropriate, you can create the home of your dreams.
But there are some renovation projects that are so major that only the brave or the experienced decide to proceed with the stress, budget rollercoaster and months and months of mud, dust and grime that a full-on, back to bricks, top to toe restoration produces. And if the property is listed, that’s a whole extra layer of stress.
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Nestled within Vale of Glamorgan countryside near Rhoose is Upper Porthkerry Farm, a historic thatch property that was granted Grade II listed status in 2004 for being ‘a 17th century farmhouse which, despite alterations, has retained its character and its thatched roof’. But the listing also commented that ‘this house is very difficult to describe accurately because of the heavy garden growth’.
But Claire Croft and Clive Watkins couldn’t stop themselves from being nosey about Upper Porthkerry farm when they spotted it for sale online, even though when they drove past it was shrouded in undergrowth and greenery that had expanded even more since the 2004 listing visit by Cadw.
Claire said: “We agreed to just do a drive-by but fell in love with the tumbledown, bramble-ridden cottage. It was entirely derelict and the garden had grown up to the walls of the house and we had to beat a path to the garden wall that looks out over the viaduct and the channel. Inside, we got a bit lost with the quirky rooms and the two staircases but we instantly fell in love with it.”
Clive could remember very clearly how the house made him instantly feel, he knew it was ‘the one’. He said: “When I first walked through the door, even though it was old, unloved and tired, I could feel how welcoming it was and the warmth the house has, it has always felt like a loving, comfortable warm home.
“I could see the amount of work needed, inside needed total renovation, outside was so overgrown we couldn’t really get past the back of the house, the kitchen was just an old cupboard, sink and oil burner stove with a danger sign on it! But we saw the potential of this Welsh beauty – for 500 years this house has been part of the community as a farm and as a place for training horses and we knew we could inject the love back into it and bring it alive.”
Of course, taking on a wreck has an impact on the whole family, so the couple chatted to their young children and the wise youngsters struck up a deal with their parents; they were happy to move and be part of this restoration adventure as long as they could have a puppy and a swimming pool.
Claire said: “We shook on the deal and decided to enter our new life and put an offer in. The puppy was bought immediately and the pool was put in before we even had a kitchen!”
When the keys were handed over and the story of this huge renovation project began, it was winter and the classic scenario of living in an onsite caravan was the first chapter. Impressively the caravan was only their home for about six weeks while they updated two bedrooms as their base within the farmhouse.
Claire said: “We were scared but elated and set to work immediately. I think the electricians and plumbers were there as we got the keys ready to go in and completely strip the existing electrics and plumbing out and put in new.”
This was a good start to the transformation, but every renovation project has challenges. Claire and Clive’s main bump in the renovation road was a damaging one. The couple lost £68,000 in an alleged scam.
“We found ourselves with no goods and running all our electric on one extension lead, plus no heating and an immersion heater that took hours to heat water for a bath or shower.”
“We tried to get the money back but it had gone, and on calling the companies who were to supply everything they hadn’t been paid, so we weren’t getting anything from them. After a few weeks of just pure hopelessness we realised that we had to dig deep into our emotions and work out a new plan.”
This huge hurdle blew the timescale out of the water and with the majority of the budget gone, literally, the majority of the work was now going to be down to them with Claire saying, “I think Clive has handled nearly every brick and stone in the house”.
But this couple are fighters and nothing was going to stop them from transforming this wreck into a dream home, even if it was going to eventually take them eight years.
The new plan saw Clive decreasing his business work to focus on the house and take on the role as primary child carer, whilst wife Claire focused on her role working from home and in London. It also meant having to renovate one room at a time once the structural jobs were done.
But before dreaming about eventual colour tones and soft furnishings, there was some back breaking work to be done. Clive said: “We first had to dig up the downstairs concrete floors and the piles and piles of rubble. We added a damp course, insulation and re-poured the downstairs concrete.
“All electrics were torn out and replaced, all heating was torn out and replaced with a large heating/water boiler. Ceilings were torn out as we knew the original beams were hidden behind. Then a new kitchen, bathrooms and all pipework replaced from the street and through the house.”
Of course, when you carefully pull apart a centuries old house it’s likely you’re going to discover some hidden spaces and secret items and one of the most exciting at Upper Porthkerry Farm was a hidden, wall mounted safe. Clive said: “I was so excited I spent a whole day trying to break into it sure that there would be something of value in it, as I opened the mangled door it was empty!
“Also, we have a big stone in the wall of our hallway, it is a national monument and can’t be removed, but to the side there is a hole just big enough to partly get your hand in, you can’t feel anything but I always wonder why the hole is there and is something buried inside?”
Taking down walls, removing bricks, and bringing down ceilings revealed some period gems that delighted the couple and have understandably become the main features of the dream home around which the stunning interiors have been created. Claire said: “We found features that were hidden, like the beams in the big lounge ceiling. These are beams from a shipwreck and they were hidden with plasterboard and coated in tar, we later worked on them and recovered them.
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“We also found a huge inglenook fireplace which was hidden by a red brick façade. We have uncovered many original features and lovingly brought them back whilst retaining 21st century living.”
And the home that the couple have created is outstanding, each room could easily be the cover of a high-end glossy interiors magazine.
The magical experience of touring the transformed property begins in the front garden, through the front gate, up the central path through the lawns to the cute thatch bonnet porch, flanked by slate and bay tree planting, which is a galaxy away from the mangle of undergrowth eight years ago that needed to be fought off with a digger.
Through the heritage green front door, with delightful period door furniture, and into a light and characterful hall that offers you access to a choice of two reception rooms at the front. To the right is an elegant drawing room, with the period fireplace the dominant and beautiful main feature and the timeless furniture arranged to ensure this is a sociable space.
Opposite the drawing room is the lounge, arguably the stand out space for original features. Go through the robust, ancient wooden door and into this mesmerising space and you’ll find the shipwreck beams above and the substantial inglenook fireplace that even includes a little stone bench inside to warm your toes by the large log burner.
To the rear of the home and behind the drawing room is the dining room, a most pleasant, welcoming space with glass doors to the garden and a brick fireplace nestled into the wall that add to the unique character that each room displays. The room happily seats eight people and some armchairs and can expand to welcome more if the extended family or friends drop round for dinner.
At the opposite side of the rear section of the house is the kitchen and it’s a very special space as it was hand-crafted by Clive. It contains all the integrated appliances you might expect from a luxury dream home and some you probably won’t, like two dishwashers.
A family room, boot room and shower room complete the ground floor accommodation before heading upstairs to be delighted by the five beautiful bedrooms. The triple aspect master has an ensuite that any posh hotel would be more than happy to copy in layout and interior design.
There’s a roll-top bath placed centrally not only to command attention but also to allow the occupant in the bubbles to have the best view out of the window, plus there’s a sink unit that oozes style and character.
More lush interiors can be found in bedroom two’s ensuite, with the double gold mirrors, feature wallpaper and mirror tiles all visual treats to discover. Using the same wallpaper in the bedroom and the ensuite is a thoughtful and successful way to visually link the two spaces.
The family bathroom has not missed out on luxury either, with the navy wall panelling, bath and sink unit making a bold and beautiful statement, all lit by a fancy, central chandelier.
Bedroom three is currently being used as a home office, while bedroom five has its own ensuite shower room. Throughout the house the elegant and sophisticated interiors with touches of glamour, add the extra layer of luxury to the historic bones of this special house.
And yet every space is welcoming and comfortable, with an atmosphere that invites you in and easily persuades you to stay; the warm ambience that Clive loved so much when he first entered the house has not been lost, it’s been enhanced.
But this couple like to do renovations that bring some surprises to the final outcome, and Upper Porthkerry Farm is no different. Claire said: “Friends and family are always delighted and surprised by the secret rooms in the house that we’ve hidden cleverly. One of which is the master ensuite, which is entered through a renovated French wardrobe. It’s such a fantastic surprise and is steeped in The Chronicles of Narnia vibes!”
There are more surprises outside too with the addition of an annexe, and because it’s Claire and Clive, it’s not your standard garden addition. This annexe is a modern homage to a traditional Welsh cottage with the open bedroom a first floor crog loft mezzanine.
And that is not the end of the tour because the garden, as well as the pool, has an extra stricture – a cabin that might be a work from home space? No, happy days, it’s a cabin the family call The Clubhouse that includes a bar and a sociable seating area as well as doors spilling out onto a patio where you will find a hot tub.
After working so hard to create this dream home and enjoying living in it too, it’s time for the family to move on. The couple are leaving it ‘move-in ready’ but with potential for the new owner to add to the site too, with planning in place to add a glass box extension to take full advantage of the stunning countryside views.
Claire said: “It’s been a great family adventure but also I can see the advantage of moving into something that is already done! We have worked on the house for over 8 years; we have ploughed heart, soul and lots of cash into it. But Clive always says we are just the custodians of this house – we have brought it back to life for others to love and cherish and add their memories too.”
Upper Porthkerry Farm is on the market with a guide price of £1.25m with estate agents Mr and Mrs Clarke, call the Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan branch on 07432 206134 to find out more. And to make sure you never miss the best dream homes in Wales, renovation stories and interiors, join the Amazing Welsh Homes newsletter, sent to your inbox twice a week.