A dramatic rescue


A cottage in the Cornish village which hosted Poldark saw its own share of drama when it was rescued from the point of collapse by Mark Semmens


In 2018, a tiny cottage in a Cornish village made famous by the Poldark TV series was well-known locally for all the wrong reasons. Derelict for two decades, the cottage was roofless, windowless and the first-floor bedroom – complete with bed – had ended up in the ground-floor living room. Reminders of the home’s former occupants were poignant; personal belongings ravaged by time and water ingress spoke only of decay and neglect, where once there was a family.

“We had been trying to buy it for 20 years,” says Mark Semmens, who runs a fuel supply company with his father, Stephen, in the county. “My parents live very close by and cared for the former owners Mr and Mrs Farrar before they passed away.” The cottage was subsequently neglected by the elderly couple’s son, who lived elsewhere, and Mark was were repairing it at his own expense before they even bought it, “to stop debris from hitting my parents’ home.” He remembers a night of 95 mph winds, which saw the roof of the old lean-to lifting. “My dad and I were there with some friends, trying to hold it down with sandbags and rope. Then, the main roof blew off – we were lucky we heard it going and got out of the way in time to not be hurt.”

After the Farrar’s son also passed, family tracing company Heir Hunters found distant relatives, and the property came to market. With the chimney having collapsed, the lean-to kitchen detached from the main structure, and ivy everywhere, it was a challenging renovation prospect, but “we weren’t daunted,” says Mark. 

However, Mark and his father had an advantage, come the auction: “People came to view it, but they had no clue what was inside, as there was no access. We knew what would be involved.” Yet despite being familiar with the cottage, the day Mark and Stephen got the keys, they had a surprise.

“We couldn’t get through the front door,” recalls Mark. “We eventually broke through and realised the front wall had collapsed on the inside, so we boarded it up again.”

Fixing this structural failure was the first phase of a five-year project to rescue the cottage. As the property was unsafe and at risk of collapse, Mark applied for planning permission to take down the front wall and roof, and rebuild them.

Yet there the cottage had another surprise waiting for Mark. When the application for phase one went to the local planning office, the cottage was treated as a listed property, despite not being on the register, but being in a conservation area. 

“And, around 2002, the council wrote a conservation report on the village and named this cottage as a ‘property of significance’.” This meant that, although Mark was not required to apply for listed permission, the conditions attached to his permission were strict and, of course, expensive.

With planning granted, Mark hired his cousin’s building firm to take on this painstaking task.

“We had to number the blocks in the front wall and put them back in the same order,” says Mark.

Once the building was secured, Mark turned his attention to a full restoration. After looking at several local architectural firms, Mark had chosen James Moran and Dan Sheriff at Lilly Lewarne to work on the project from the start.

“James was brilliant, he knows the area and the planners,” says Mark. “We didn’t have time to project manage and working with them was great.” The second round of planning permission focused on removing the lean-to ground floor kitchen extension and replacing it with a two-storey extension to create a new kitchen and two ensuite bathrooms upstairs, as well as adding a new timber porch, incorporating the outbuilding as a ‘snug’, and generally restoring the fabric of the building.

“My brief to James was ‘it has to be wow’,” says Mark. “And it is. The front of the cottage looks like it did when it was built,” – estimated to be some time in the 1700s. “It looks bigger from the outside than it is, as the granite walls are three feet thick, so we went open-plan inside and took off the back wall, extending out as far as we could go; about nine feet.”

The additional requirements from the special conservation status included cladding the upper storey of the rear extension in the same Cornish ‘Delabole’ slate as the roof, “which together cost us tens of thousands” says Mark. There are also three rooflights on the property, as Mark was not permitted to add windows upstairs at the back, due to overlooking issues. The only rooflights permitted were conservation-approved, marine-grade stainless steel framed units. This is because the cottage is in a coastal village, where charming sea views are offset by a fine layer of salt from wind-driven spray after a winter storm.

“The whole property has been specified to deal with the elements, using marine grade fittings, so they should – in theory – last,” says Mark.

This second phase of the works turned the building from a derelict wreck to the pretty cottage Mark always knew lay beneath the neglect. Mark’s builder, Darren, took out what was left of the first floor to make it safe and also took down the back wall. When this was rebuilt for stability, it was thinner and the extension added, with the stairs moved to this part of the building from their previous position in the middle of the cottage, opposite the front door.

Although the new windows are conservation-grade PVCu with the appearance of timber, the remaining new joinery was made bespoke by local craftsman Robert Clackworthy. This includes the new front porch, which ramps up the cuteness factor of the cottage considerably. Robert also made the front door and the fascias. Inside, the interior doors are off-the-shelf in solid oak and the bespoke stairs have solid oak treads.

Although the cottage is a solid stone-built property, granite is notorious for damp problems. The pointing is all lime mortar, which allows the building to breathe, but it still needs to be weatherproofed. Darren used a form of tanking called a cavity drain membrane, which is often referred to as having an ‘egg crate structure’. This is fixed to the interior stone face, with the bottom of the membrane extending past the new floor construction.

This allows moisture to “track down the cavity and drain at the base of the wall to free-draining ground,” explains Dan Sheriff of architecture practice Lilly Lewarne. “These types of membranes are often specified for projects such as barn conversions, and there are a wide range of manufacturers and suppliers to choose from.”   

Mark then had a new timber frame slotted inside the walls, which is insulated and sealed with plastic sheeting and plasterboard. The build system in the extension is the same, as the exterior is clad in either granite or hung slate.

The new roof has a steel frame, which is supported on both the existing external walls using concrete pad stones, and a centralised vertical steel column, which extends down to the first-floor level and is supported by a series of horizontally spanning steels, which connect into the existing external wall construction. 

“The central steel column is concealed within a partition at the first floor, and due to the nature of the steel design, the need to have any steelwork breaking up the ground floor accommodation was avoided,” says Dan.

This deeply rural village has no mains gas, but Mark didn’t want to blight the pretty front garden with an oil or LPG tank. Mark also ruled out the fashionable option of an air source heat pump, as the only possible location for the exterior unit was underneath a neighbour’s window and “heat pumps don’t do well in this area, as they rot out,” he says. The solution was an electric boiler, coupled with underfloor heating on both floors, as they didn’t want to lose space to radiators. Mark installed a super-thick engineered floor upstairs to accommodate the underfloor heating pipes.

The old cottage never had a bathroom – the previous owners used a tin bath in front of the fire – and Mark was pleased to fit two ensuite bedrooms upstairs in the newly extended cottage, although both are shower rooms, not bathrooms. Quality and longevity were Mark’s priorities throughout the cottage’s internal fit-out, including in the shower rooms, where all fittings are sourced from Duravit.

Downstairs in the kitchen, the same approach meant Mark selected a countertop from Minerva, which makes solid work surfaces. These manufactured surfaces look and feel like stone, but are robust, don’t require specialist installation, and offer plenty of flexibility with seamless joints.

“We also chose a resin-based grout , as we didn’t want it looking scruffy within a short time,” says Mark.

The cosiness factor of this little cottage cannot be overstated, and has been further enhanced by the new wood-burning stove. While not necessary in a practical sense, the fire creates that indefinable sense of ‘hygge’ that makes a Cornish cottage, especially in winter, so desirable. There are nice details throughout the cottage, such as the vaulted ceilings upstairs, which give a sense of space. James at Lily Lewarne also designed curved walls – upstairs, these are a clever solution that allow sufficient space to meet Building Regulations on the landing, while also creating visual interest.

When it came to the finishes and furnishings, Mark worked with Cornish Gems Interior Design and has only praise for their work.

“Tara did an amazing job. She listened to us and came up with great ideas.”

Mark’s biggest challenge was the impact of Covid on global supply chains.

“It didn’t impact us at first,” admits Mark. “But what we didn’t realise was that costs would end up double those we had originally anticipated.” This explosion in costs has altered Mark’s plans for the cottage and it is now a holiday cottage for the immediate future. Yet Mark, who has a young family, sees it as a prospective home for one of his children, or even his niece.

“The cottage won’t ever leave our family now,” he says.

The cottage was completed in autumn 2023 and Mark says he is happy “to see the lights on.” Yet, for him, the real satisfaction has been in rescuing a beautiful traditional property with which his family has such a close connection.

“We’ve spent 20 years watching this place fall to pieces in front of us,” says Mark. However, all that is now a thing of the past, and Farrar Cottage has a new rosy future at the heart of the Semmens family, with the fabric secured for the next 200 years.

“It looks amazing,” Mark proudly sums up. “As I come down the lane and turn the corner, it really does have that ‘wow’ factor.”

For more information on the cottage, visit www.cornishgems.farrarcottage