Taking on one major renovation project is ambitious enough – but what happens when you take on four simultaneously, including a historic mill? John Chasey and Eleanor are reaping the benefits of embracing the challenge
TEXT EWEN MACDONALD IMAGES EWEN MACDONALD & GLOWETH
Alsia Mill in west Cornwall was little more than a collection of derelict farm buildings when John Chasey and Eleanor Donegan bought it in 2013. But they could immediately see the potential of this little farm in Sennen, which sits two miles from Land’s End and overlooks the famous Whitesand Bay.
“It was the same price as a two-bedroom flat in St Ives,” says Eleanor, clearly pleased with their decision to buy it. The couple were drawn to the mill from the beginning. “As soon as we drove down the drive, we could see it was head and shoulders above anything else.
“We realised we could do it bit by bit. It’s not overwhelming as long as you tackle it piecemeal,” she adds. The same is true of the garden – which takes in four acres of mostly untouched former farmland. Around the buildings there are garden ‘rooms’ – spaces created for dining and playing.
“The estate was part of a working farm until the 1970s, when it became a family home,” says John.”
Although the property is collectively known as Alsia Mill, the mill itself is a separate building from the main farmhouse, and is the oldest and most derelict building on the site. “The mill was operational until 1966 as a grist
(grain) mill, but dates from circa 1300 AD, “making it a candidate for the oldest ‘overshot’ mill in existence,” says John, based on the archaeological survey they had carried out. It is of course a listed building, and has been derelict since the 1970s when the farm closed. Work is yet to begin on its refurbishment, although some of the original features of the mill have been salvaged, and will be enhancing the design.
This history is proudly included in information for visitors including those who let out a converted barn – much of that info gleaned from an old neighbour’s stories. In the garden by the leat that fed the mill is the remains of what would once have been the main road to Sennen. Fortunately, we arrived by the new main road, crossing a small stream.
John takes up the story: ‘When we purchased the property, most of the outbuildings had been derelict for years, and much of the original farm land had been sold off, leaving four acres either side of the stream in a small valley with a granite ford.” A number of bridges cross the stream – not least a striking one for vehicles to cross to get to the main properties.
A QUICK WIN
With four buildings to choose from, the couple went for the easiest one to convert first, offering the quickest ‘win.’ The previous owners had converted one of the barns on the property to a two-bedroom holiday let. However, says John, “It was pretty run down, so we decided to totally renovate it – making it more spacious by removing one of the two bedrooms and adding a new bathroom.” Work began in October 2016 and was completed by Easter 2017, in time for the tourist season.
It has been restored to a luxury standard and is an asset that’s helping to bring in much- needed funds to pay for the ongoing work. The old cart house that sits next to it has been left unchanged, acting as a covered car port.
Soon they began the much bigger task of renovating the farmhouse – which will become their home and where we focus our story. This granite building would be totally gutted and rebuilt over the next few years – including extending the property in a similar style – both upwards and on the ground floor. As an extra challenge, with the barn conversion being occupied by holidaymakers during the season, it also meant that work had to happen around that.
One of the biggest projects was removing the cement used to (badly) repoint the exterior. “All of this was chipped out by hand and repointed with lime mortar. But it proved a turning point in the work, as the fresh facade set the tone for a contemporary building. “It totally transformed the look of the house, making it much brighter and cleaner,” says John.
There were disappointments along the way – not least some of the elements they weren’t able to include in the final house. “We carried out an extensive investigation into using a water source heat pump, potentially using the watercourse of the stream but due to its relatively shallow depth and the water clarity, the pipes would be visible which was not an aesthetically viable option,” says John. “Likewise we investigated solar slates for the farmhouse that could generate power while still keeping a traditional look but the cost/performance ratio was pretty poor.”
“We installed high capacity radiators and underfloor heating as part of the renovation, to future-proof a switch to a ground source heat pump at a later date.”
The end result is a large farmhouse with six bedrooms. The interior is white washed and retains the feel of a farmhouse – not least a huge kitchen which forms the hub of the home, as a farmhouse kitchen should.
There is an open plan living space – a snug for children to play in (or for enjoying gaming or watching TV), and a utility room hiding unsightly but necessary elements of a modern home. There’s also an open plan kitchen/diner with doors opening up onto a sheltered terrace, perfect for breakfast al fresco.
They say when you budget for major renovations or a new building, you should add in 10% for unforeseen events – and the Alsia farmhouse was no different. “During the works, we discovered most of the first floor was rotten and so the entire farmhouse had to be gutted leaving the granite exterior walls and roof remaining (which had been replaced in the 1980s).”
But it wasn’t all bad news. “Granite was traditionally quarried from the hillside on the property, so we did not have to go far for stone during the repairs,” he adds.
PROJECT MANAGING AT A DISTANCE
Overseeing the renovations from the couple’s then home in Winchester had its challenges. “We visited one weekend when the loft bathroom stud walls were being installed,” he remembers. “The roof angle had been incorrectly calculated resulting in much less usable floor space and the bath that was planned simply wasn’t going to fit. Some on-the- fly redesign saved walls having to be rebuilt.”
“The unexpected challenge was the state of the excavation on the ground floor,” agrees Jon Reed, contracts manager from building firm Gloweth. “When we reduced the levels we found large boulders, and we had to bring large machinery to remove those so we could install damp proofing and insulation.”
“On a period building of this age and nature you can get all kinds of unexpected findings as you carry out the works, but our weekly meetings onsite really helped the project to go as well as possible.”
The couple currently spend most of their time living in a converted flat above the garage, allowing the farmhouse to earn its keep as a holiday let. Eleanour mentions that plumbing was added at the last minute, perfectly illustrating how renovations can mean privations.
Much of the renovation focused on the kitchen – which is John and Eleanor’s favourite part of the house. The kitchen had previously been at the back of the house and “was very dark and damp,” says John. “We moved the kitchen to the front of the property with an open plan dining area. It has transformed the kitchen and in the morning the space is bright with the morning sunshine and is the centre of activity for all the family throughout the day.”
Despite its modernity, a key feature of the kitchen is the old range, sitting in a hearth. Eleanor has added a gas lamp – a family heirloom dating back a century. Above the kitchen island, a pair of rowing oars provide a strong visual feature.
Kitchen supplier George Robinson Kitchens visited the site early on during the build and helped the couple design – and build – a custom kitchen. “They had some great ideas on layout and function, and based on their feedback we actually tweaked some of the wall positions to give a better flow.”
EXTENDING THE FLOW
John describes their ambitions: “We wanted to have a much brighter, warmer and more welcoming house.” The open plan feel which ‘blooms’ out from the whitewashed entrance hall perfectly blends old and new, while a dramatic staircase leads up to the bedrooms.
To create a large lounge, they extended into the piggery that sat alongside; luckily planning permission for an extension had already been approved by the previous owner. The link between the buildings became the new double- height entrance hall, which provides access to the rest of the house.
“The layout previously did not quite flow as a family space, having dark and cramped ground floor spaces,” says John. “The intention was to remodel the original farmhouse to match the feel of the lounge and carry out a loft conversion at the same time to give additional bedrooms.”
The couple were able to do much of the layout themselves, working with the architects Scott & Co to tweak the plans and do the technical bits. “We planned the dimensions and layouts of all the rooms but then worked with to turn these ideas into technical drawings and specifications for the contractor.”
The first job inside was to extend the ground floor, making it a more open plan. The floor space was increased to create an ensuite bedroom and a master bedroom, and an additional bedroom in the attic. There were damp issues to solve, via improving the insulation to withstand what Cornwall can throw at you in the winter. Most of the first floor had to be replaced, while ensuring the roof structure stayed in place – a challenge for the builders.
The end result is a traditional Cornish granite farmhouse with a bright contemporary interior that still relates to its surroundings. The additions are seamless – the new living room feels part of the original house and reflects the cosiness you would expect from a farmhouse; even on a hot summer’s morning, it is tempting to curl up on the sofa in front of the wood burning stove.
As with so many people buying and building in Cornwall, the properties have to earn some of their keep before they can become permanent homes, but for John and Eleanor, the additional buildings on the site will continue to bring in revenue once they live in the farmhouse. John adds: “Due to the cost of the works, the design also supported running the house as a holiday let for a number of years to recoup the development costs, with the intention of us moving in full time in 10 years’ time.”
Being able to find money for the investment in the ongoing works was so important, that the couple discussed their plans with luxury holiday letting firm Boutique Retreats before work commenced to ensure the property would work for the rental market as before ultimately becoming a family home.
What is John’s top tip for anyone considering embarking on a similar adventure? “The best tip is to visit the works frequently and ensure the plans and reality actually match.”