Award winning mill conversion
With hard work and determination, Linda Cobbett transformed a derelict old mill and stables into an individual family home earning her project the title of Best Period Renovation in our Readers’ Awards 2010.
Former fashion designer Linda Cobbett took on a real challenge with this old building. Having been constructed in Victorian times by builders David Hugh and Timothy Evans as part of the village, this property served as a flour and textile mill, with woollen looms working upstairs with wheat grinders and stabling below. In recent decades, the mill was no longer used and provided locals with a handy place to discard their unwanted belongings – so that when Linda bought it, she had to clear out plenty of junk as well as piles of rubble. Her tireless and rigorous approach impressed us, as did the way she has sensitively approached the transformation of this unusual building into a home; Linda’s project was the winner of the title Best Period Renovation in our Readers’ Awards 2010.
A family project
In the spring of 2002, accompanied by her son Tam and daughter Alice, Linda set out to view the property that would become Hen Ystablau (meaning ‘the old stables’ or ‘mews’ in Welsh). ‘The building had been for sale for nearly two years when I purchased it,’ she explains. ‘Its massive size and the sheer scale of the project had daunted even seasoned builders: it was Grade II listed but had permission for conversion into six houses. But due to the grand Victorian facade, the building lent itself to being simply divided instead – allowing all the original character to remain while creating two much more spacious homes.
‘The work involved all the clearing and making the building safe, as well as the restoration,’ recalls Linda. ‘The middle section of the roof was being held up by a tower consisting of pieces of iron, rotten floor joists, an old wardrobe and a pile of sticks. And nestled among several washing machines was an engineless Sherpa van situated in what is now the kitchen – the initial challenge with this was finding a tractor small enough to fit into the house to pull it out. There was also around 200 tonnes of rubble in what is now the sitting room; Tam learned to drive a mini-digger and took great pleasure in removing it all.’
As if all that weren’t enough, the interior walls were running with water from leaking roofs, gutters and valleys, which had ensured nettles, moss and fungi had the perfect place to grow; these unwanted visitors had to be removed by hand by a specialist. Once the entire building was empty and no longer dangerous, Linda decided to restore the houses one at a time, and started with this one first.
‘Rather than commissioning a building firm,’ she says, ‘I employed various independent tradesmen as and when they were needed, which I felt allowed our home build to progress in a more fluid manner.’
Renovating this way also meant that Linda was able to give inexperienced but eager craftspeople plenty of opportunity to learn and develop their skills on site. ‘Several achieved some very impressive “firsts”,’ she says. ‘Among them were some splendid examples of stone walls by Jamie Bransden, then still a teenager and now training to be a stonemason; and the wall cupboards in the kitchen were made from some of the original window casements by Guy Rave who had previously only built decking and pergolas.’ Other people also found hidden talents, she continues: ‘Ben Sherlock, currently studying astrophysics at Oxford, showed a natural gift for building stud walls, and together with my son Tam, created all of the room spaces upstairs.’
As well as encouraging new talent, Linda was determined to renovate sensitively using traditional methods and natural products to protect the original structure. ‘My love of the character of the building, as well as its listed status, made me keen to retain all the working and architectural features of the mill.’
For instance, the large main drive shaft once used for the looms in the Victorian mill remains in situ along the length of the building, while one drive wheel is ever present in the dining room. Other restored details include large metal windows, ‘A’ frame beams exposed where practicable, stripped wooden floorboards, and rough stonework.
Having secured and restored the shell, Linda was then able to start her favourite part of the renovation process: furnishing and decorating. Dealing with an industrial building, she had no pattern to follow, so she simply evolved her own style, believing this would best suit her new home. And she has succeeded in transforming it into a house with style by filling it with pieces that have also lived another life.
‘Over time, I collected vast quantities of architectural salvage,’ she says. ‘For many years, I drove a flatbed lorry and was a frequent visitor to farm sales, machinery auctions and even the odd stately home clearance. One of my favourite finds is the “U” shaped kitchen “island”, which was formerly a counter in a sweet shop.’ The long dining table, meanwhile, used to be a cutting table in another woollen mill.
However, some pieces would have been impossible to find, such as chandeliers large enough to suit and light up the double-height sitting room, so Linda commissioned a local craftsman – John Lambert – to make a pair to fit the space.
‘It was really important to me that I create a home with an authentically Welsh character,’ she adds. ‘I tried to express that feeling through my choice of paint colours, too, so the ranges by Farrow & Ball, Earthborn and St Astier worked just as I wanted.’ While Linda has given the stonework an authentic whitewash with lime, she has introduced soft greens, blues and rusty reds on woodwork. Her soft furnishings are rich and comforting, too, while still expressing an elegance: thick embroidered curtains, colourful quilts and soft blankets all help keep the house cosy throughout the year.