It is perhaps unfair to those who conquer mountains, rescue innocents and take on great roles to say that it takes guts to convert a ruin, but each achievement has a context and so in its own little world the conversion of our barn can be one. According to the dictionary having guts is defined in terms of courage, willpower or daring, and to this, in our case, would be added impulse because that is just what we acted upon when on reaching the end of a well worn farm track we saw, for the first time, barely visible through its cloak of neglect our barn.
Many people berate the lack of old properties coming onto the market and the problems of putting together a financial package to purchase them. For some reasons these were never issues for us, as naivety and a sense that the barn was always meant to be ours created a mental clearway in our souls that led us through all these preliminaries without a single fault. A powerful gut reaction or an instant irrevocable decision blinkers you to reality and it was so with us when we saw the barn.
Today, when society feeds upon money and contacts, finding our barn would be called dam lucky but I prefer the more romantic notion of fate; that we were simply following a path that was meant to be. How else could we have suddenly decided to take a drive on a bleak day between Christmas and New Year to a hopelessly overpriced village to house hunt when we had not even seriously discussed the idea of moving? Like many others we had dreamed of escaping to our cottage in the country, and we had always looked in hope on our holidays, but spiralling house prices had meant it had remained just that a dream.
As we were driving we saw a For Sale board well weathered and true to form on an angle which pointed down a track away from the road; a feature that had always been a requirement of our dream. The track travelled between the driveway of a large house and some derelict farm buildings, and so for a short while the object of our search was out of sight, but then in an instant it was there, not what we had expected but exactly what we knew we now wanted.
It was a mellow red brick and blackened timber threshing barn. The overgrown yard led through a gate more dead than alive into a mass of undergrowth, saplings and rubbish. A tree was growing as if by magic from the side wall, and a vast oak tree dominated even the huge corrugated lean to where the rusted remains of a winding mechanism stood. Inside mutant cobwebs flourished, dusty straw stood in corners and everywhere you looked there were piles of long discarded sacking and bailing twine. But such debris could not hide the majesty of the beams soaring above us and the sheer quality of the building. The barn had three large bays with the hand smoothed threshing boards still in place in the central one, a second area with a mouse gnawed hayloft with floorboards caramelised with centuries of corn, and finally two wagon arches whose height stamped on to them their pre- tractor credentials. Outside there was half an acre of jungle crawling not with wild animals but crowded with mounds of farmyard debris and unmentionable substances running from long discarded plastic drums. The barn’s boundaries were fields full, as if in some strange chocolate box dream, with Highland Cattle.
It was a dream albeit a ruined one with its glories just visible and looking back at how romantic it looked you can understand why there are so few such properties available. So many cannot share the same dream of a piece of rural heaven without some basis for it. An older property has character created by experience and a timelessness that people grasp at, and such a subsequent high demand on a finite resource pushes up the desirability and so price of any suitable property. Fortunately, when we found the barn it was the mid nineties when a window of opportunity had opened for buyers with prices stagnating or falling. As the barn had been on the market for eighteen months our well below the asking price offer was accepted, which cancelled out the drop we had had to make in the price of the house we were having great difficulty selling.
To afford to buy and convert our barn we needed to literally do all the work ourselves, and we submitted our figures to the bank accordingly. The figures were simply material costs, as we placed no monetary value on our labour and thus were unrealistically low but suited our budget. Amazingly, and to their unending credit, the bank accepted our vision as capable of reality and granted a mortgage with no staged payments just subject to the results of a structural survey.
Our purchase of the barn did start to unravel at one point when the bank decided it could not personally provide the necessary insurance cover we needed. The wagon arches had never had need of gates, and the large threshing doors even if locked had many potential entry points in their centuries old wood. The naked openings in the barn were unashamed and felt no need of glass, and if you attempted the hazardous granary steps you found that there was no door barring your way to the hayloft. But all the bank saw was an unsecured building in a dilapidated state which constituted a high risk, and as the negative responses piled up from other insurance companies we realised it was not an isolated view. Fortunately, the insurance was finally found at a price and we wondered cynically if the bank had been looking for an escape route. The sale finally went ahead; it had taken four months.
Just how much guts you discover you have for the project is tested to the full when you truly do undertake it yourselves. When the contracts were signed we entered a one- way street where we were the only drivers. The barn would be converted in true frontier style as our homestead grew out of the ruins by our hands alone. This approach tested the will power as it inevitably extended the timescale of the project; six months living with my parents, nineteen months in a caravan and a year in a semi-converted ruin with huge potential.
The roof alone took four months to complete as we personally removed and cleaned each tile before replacing them on a freshly battened and first time felted roof. We started in June and worked late into the summer evenings finding light enough to work beyond ten each night. Unable to grasp the magnitude of the task we had set ourselves we narrowed our vision seeing each individual job as an achievement and suddenly they began to complete the bigger picture. Even now I can chant back the mantra of statistics: over a mile of battens, twenty-two rolls of felt and two hundred and fifty square metres of roof.
But as the saying goes you only get back from life in proportion to what you put in, and the truth of this was manifested in our roof. The barn had been re-roofed several times throughout its long life and the patches of different tiles stretching back to the eighteenth century were clearly discernible. Removing and replacing each one by hand enabled us to produce a roof that is a beautiful mosaic of tile history that glows in the late summer evenings, appears to defy the frosts of winter and has an affinity with the colourful autumnal hues.
Most people who undertake the renovation or conversion of a property do so by living on site in a caravan and we were no exception. Our home was a static unit bought second hand from a site in Barmouth, delivered on an articulated lorry and as it was too big for our drive pulled by hand into place. Looking back with rose tinted spectacles it was a glorious time when a minimum of space and possessions released us from the tedium of housework, and when with the first hint of sunshine doors would fly open and we would move into our extension of barn and garden. When winter had yet to truly bite the caravan was wonderfully cosy, although as the season progressed walls ran with condensation and we would sit of an evening shrouded in sleeping bags to keep out the draughts. The washing machine which was plumbed into the caravan would shake so violently when it spun that we all vibrating wildly had to cling onto various items to ensure their survival.
To live with such a long- term project requires a whole new way of thinking the seeds of which must be there but just need nurturing. Every second of every day needed to count as many of the things we had always done without a thought became glaringly superfluous. In contrast and despite the workload little pleasures and special treats or occasions were really appreciated. We had to learn the language of the building world and cold call various suppliers to hammer out a good deal. Sadly, as a woman I was still on occasions invisible when on my own in a builder’s merchants, and even incorrectly assumed to be married once to a stranger who just happened to be standing next to me to the embarrassment of all concerned.
Perhaps it is sometimes a good thing in our steady world to live at the edge for a while by taking on a challenge. We chose mainly because of financial restrictions to take on the design, planning and building regulations ourselves. It was not always easy as the Council naturally prefers a professional contact, but despite some clashes, confusion and some frustrated anger on both sides we have our building certificate. At the end of the day the Council realised that the barn was not a job for us but our long- term home so we were not going to deliberately compromise on standards and safety. Sometimes not understanding or being unaware of how things worked with the planning and building procedures was not a bad thing as red tape was unconsciously ignored and naivety broke down professional reserve. Even the building inspector as a parent started to worry almost as much as my Mother about getting us in before we were too far in to our second winter in the caravan. Professional people are necessities of life, but we do tend to underestimate ourselves and forget that humans are multi-skilled creatures and can easily transcend our mono-skilled society.
We moved into our barn for Christmas as the caravan finally gave way to nineteen months of wear and tear. Impossible to move and unfit to sell the caravan was burnt. Its £600 cost had meant a theoretical outlay of thirty pounds a month for the duration of the project although we did recoup £70 of scrap metal from the burnt remains.
The condition of the caravan had forced a move into a barn that was far from complete. The plasterboard partitions still had to have their skim of plaster and rugs were spread out on concrete floors. Draughts whistled through yet to be filled crevices and cracks, and a butler sink stood on two brick pillars in splendid isolation in the kitchen. That we were in remained a reality almost too hard to grasp, and it was made more so by the arrival of furniture whose appearance had faded so much in our minds after two years in storage.
After this first Christmas came another whole year of work on the barn that we now had to live around rather than adjacent too. We gave three years of our lives to the barn conversion and continue to give. In that time, we lived in a manner that should have been near on impossible with a young family in tow and achieved something that we would have once dismissed as a mere daydream but now makes many more mountains seem a lot easier to climb. Often holding on by our fingertips over an abyss of financial difficulty and paying bills with the breath of a magistrates’ order still hot upon them meant we hung off the edge many times but each time we came back again. Walking this continual tightrope made us strangely optimistic about the certainty of a way out or bolt hole, and if the financial problems had become too great we knew we could put the project on hold for a while until they passed. But the work money and worry have paid dividends far beyond the initial investment; we have a large home and the space we craved.
The greatest testimony to the barn is how it represents the selfless efforts of family and friends who all rallied round to make our dream come true. Everything we need seems just a debit card away but dig deeper and you find it is not always the case. Friends sluggish after a week at work welcomed the extra labouring our low- cost approach required and were eager to take on large scale DIY without the responsibility, or to be a child again and drive a digger. The needs of our barn became communal and we often received unsolicited offers of help or materials. As a result, we have a magical barn with each inch packed full of stories, laughter and tributes.