Restoring a Victorian Villa Homebuilding & Renovating

Restoring a Victorian Villa Homebuilding & Renovating

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When timber merchant Washington Spence built a house for himself on the banks of the River Ure in Ripon, there was no expense spared. The tower’s triple window overlooked the town’s cathedral and the river tumbling through the valley below; stone steps leading to the carved stone portico reflected his sense of grandeur; and his appreciation of wood – the source of his great wealth – was evident in the oak floors, extra-deep skirting and ornate doors in almost every room.

One hundred and thirty years later, Phil Bradby looked up from the spot where Washington Spence had probably stood to admire his handiwork and felt a huge affinity for the man whose inspirational home had changed the local landscape. “It was unlike anything I’d seen before,” recalls Phil. “Here was this Italianate Victorian villa which had been standing for more than a century, and was still in fabulous shape. All its original character and all the main features were still in tact. I couldn’t resist it. I’ve seen many different types of property over the years, but never anything like this.” But the house was by no means perfect.

For three years it had stood empty and had suffered badly from rising damp. The windows were boarded over, the roof was leaking, beautiful cornices were crumbling and the entire property was sagging under the weight of neglect. It was also virtually invisible from the roadside. “The trees were so thick and dense in the garden that it looked like a small forest,” says Phil. “The house was so well hidden behind them that some locals didn’t even realise there was a house there. Unfortunately, there was a four-ton horse chestnut rootball which had to come out. It was so dense it blew the valves on a three-ton digger and I had to hire a telescopic forklift to pull it out of the ground.”

But that was small fry compared to the mammoth job of restoring the building to its former glory. Fortunately Phil, director of the award-winning company Mango Homes, wasn’t fazed. “I’ve renovated more than 70 properties in my career,” he says. “Many were virtually rebuilt. Ashley House was different. On the whole it was structurally sound and most of the original features were still in tact. My job was to repair and upgrade it.” Phil lived in Manchester while the house was being renovated, but he made regular visits to Ripon to oversee the work and visualise the development of the interior from a cold, empty shell into the elegant family home that it is now.

The fact that it hadn’t been touched for about 40 years worked in my favour,” explains Phil. “There was no wallpaper to strip off – that would have been a horrible job because the rooms are so high – and I wasn’t having to undo someone else’s ideas before I could develop my own.”

Although Phil wanted to retain all the character of the house, he didn’t want to live in a time warp. “I like modern, open plan living, particularly in the kitchen area,” he says. “I think it’s important to respect the style and age of a building and to restore original features, but you can still introduce modern ideas into the setting.”

To achieve this, he redesigned half of the ground floor, turning the original kitchen into a utility and removing a servants’ staircase to create a larger space for the present kitchen. “The staircase came out of the corner of an inner hallway and wasn’t particularly useful,” says Phil. “It made more sense to turn that room into the kitchen, including the space taken up by the staircase, then knock out the wall into the dining room to create one large room.”

More light was brought into the space through a double door opening onto a gravel patio. “Opening up the rooms brought light in from the front to the back of the house,” says Phil. “It’s made a huge difference to the overall look of the place without losing any sense of its history or grandeur.”

The roof timbers on the utility – part of an extension which was built in the last 50 years – were rotten so the roof was removed and rebuilt using fresh timber and a mixture of new and reclaimed slates. The utility walls were also dry-lined.

With the revised layout in place and the roof repaired, Phil had new electrics and plumbing installed, along with a damp-proof course which required re-plastering of the lower wall sections. “Everything up to a metre in height was hacked off and injected with a gel system which has a Zurichbacked guarantee,” says Phil.

As many cables and pipes as possible were chased under the floorboards, which had to be lifted and replaced without causing any damage. “These were 150-year-old floorboards, so we didn’t want anything to happen to them,” says Phil. “It was painstaking to do, a real labour of love, but it was worth it.”

A beautiful fire surround in one of the bedrooms was taken out and reinstalled in the sitting room. Washington Spence’s timber floors were sanded and polished to enhance more than a century of natural wear and damaged cornicing was replaced by specialists. To protect the original tiled floor in the main entrance hall, Phil covered the lot with sheets to prevent anything falling onto the floor and cracking the tiles.

“My priority was to protect the features that were already there,” says Phil. “Some of the stained glass in the windows was damaged and had to be matched up by a specialist firm from London, and I had to have skirting specially made by a joiner where they couldn’t be salvaged. But the fabric of the building was in tact. It was like working in a time capsule.”

A handmade solid oak kitchen and new bathrooms were fitted, then the whole house was decorated in neutral Farrow & Ball shades to complement the property’s inherent elegance and tranquillity.

Restoring a Victorian Villa Homebuilding & Renovating

“One of the first things I noticed when I walked through the door was how calm and quiet the house is,” said Phil. “The sense of love and care that went into the build is still evident all these years later.”

Phil takes nothing about the house for granted: “I was delighted to discover that the hall tiles were still in fabulous condition along with the stained glass window, granite fireplaces and superb plasterwork — it even had two of the original Victorian toilets, complete with wooden seats,” he says. “I’m constantly amazed by the fact that so many original features have been preserved. It’s an extraordinary house.”

Furnishing the villa posed more of a challenge than the renovation. The rooms have high ceilings and imposing proportions, so small furniture would have looked completely out of place. “Rather than fill the rooms I decided to keep everything simple and just use a few large pieces of furniture, along with huge ornate mirrors, to create impact,” Phil says.

The final touch was to terrace the sloping gardens and create a gravel courtyard to the side of the house, overlooking the river.

“It’s been a true labour of love,” says Phil. “As soon as I saw the house I knew I’d found something quite special. In my job I see a lot of period properties which have been damaged or dismantled over the years so that very few of the original features remain in place. This is a real gem. There’s nowhere else like it in the area.”

For a while Phil thought he might have found the perfect place to live, but not for long. “I throw everything I have into a house while I’m renovating it,” he says, “but for me the real pleasure is taking a neglected property and giving it a new lease of life. Once it’s finished I’m looking for the next challenge,” And this is no exception.With mixed feelings, Phil has decided to sell Ashley House and search for another property to bring back to life.

“If someone hadn’t come along and restored Ashley House, one of Ripon’s finest properties might have gone to rack and ruin,” says Phil. “As it is, it should survive for another 150 years at least.” If he could see it now, Washington Spence would be delighted.

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