The original cottage burned down uninsured, but the owners didnt loose heart – they rebuilt their dream home
There are a fair few horseshoes hanging in Dairy Cottage, all resolutely pointing upwards. But after the catalogue of disasters they’ve survived, you can hardly blame owners Alex Reay and Cheryl Robson for doing everything they can to bring good luck into the house.
It all began when Cheryl’s record label folded and Alex was made redundant. ‘We’d had a really bad year, but with Christmas coming up and Biba on the way we were determined to stay positive,’ says Alex. But only days before Cheryl’s due date, she was watching television in bed when the power cut out. A series of loud pops followed and Alex rushed upstairs to see what was going on. The view that confronted him was terrifying – smoke was billowing into the house. The chimney had exploded, setting light to the thatched roof. Stopping only to grab the dog and Cheryl’s maternity bag, the couple fled next door, where all they could do was watch as the fire service’s best efforts failed to prevent their dream home being engulfed by a blazing inferno.
All that remained were parts of the four external walls of the house, a few timbers and the kitchen extension. Already punch-drunk from this flurry of bad luck, the couple hadn’t heard the worst of it. ‘Two days later the insurance company rang and told us our policy had lapsed,’ remembers Cheryl. ‘I couldn’t believe it. As well as feeling shocked I was just so embarrassed that something so stupid could have happened.’ With that knock-out blow, Cheryl went straight into labour.
With a newborn baby and a massive £400,000 of debt to deal with, were they mad to take on a building project? ‘We had no choice,’ says Alex. ‘It felt like the sharks were circling and we had everything to lose. Selling what we had wouldn’t have even begun to pay off the huge amount of debt, so re-building the house was our only hope. I just went on autopilot and coped.’ Cheryl lived alone in their London flat, holding down a time-consuming new job and caring for the new baby, while Alex took on the challenge of rebuilding their home. ‘We could either look at this as a half-burnt home, or a half-built home. We chose the latter,’ says Alex.
Alex completed the hard and heart-rending task of clearing the site nearly single-handedly, with the help of a few friends and his trusty Williams Eurolight Trailer – ‘my best recommendation for any self-builder’. But this was a walk in the park compared to his next job – to find someone who was willing to help them finance the rebuilding programme. As the TV crew filmed their first few months of work, Alex approached every lender he could think of with a business plan, only to receive refusal after refusal.
Finally, a miracle happened, and one bank agreed to finance them. Things were starting to look up. A silver lining in all of this was that the couple were able to redesign the cottage exactly as they wanted it. Gone were the small, poky rooms and low ceilings. Within the original footprint they planned for large, open rooms, and added a big double-height extension to the side of the house. ‘We wanted to put the soul back into the place,’ explains Alex. At the first-floor level, they decided a green oak frame would allow the large glazed expanses they wanted to make the rooms light and airy. They talked over the whole project together, refining the plans as they went.
Building began, with Alex and a core team working long hours to keep down costs. Though he’d always wanted to build his own house, Alex had almost no previous experience. ‘I relied on research and the wisdom of two people,’ he says. One was his friend Barkley, an experienced builder with technical drawing skills, and his second was quantity surveyor Kevin Quigley. ‘He taught me to approach the project as if I were a developer. He’s the reason we hit our budgets.’
For a long time, however, there was one aspect of the build that no one mentioned – the thatched roof. Alex knew that because they were in a ‘when the new roof went on, this huge sense of relief flooded over me’conservation area they would have to replace like for like. But he feared Cheryl might reject thatch after the fire. ‘For ages I was too scared to ask her,’ he remembers. ‘But when he did, I told him of course I wanted thatch,’ says Cheryl. ‘It’s the reason we bought the house in the first place.’ And they had the right man on hand to help. Their local thatcher, Simon, was one of the firefighters who had battled to save the cottage. He was just as quick to offer help to re-build the roof. Now the thatch is exquisite – thick, bushy Norfolk reed cut with curves and swirls inspired by the Biba logo.
The house was little more than watertight when Cheryl sold the London flat and moved in full-time. It wasn’t comfortable, but at least they were together again. ‘When the roof went on, this sense of relief flooded over me,’ says Alex. ‘I thought, you know what, we might just get away with this!’
A few months later and they were able to celebrate their first Christmas in the reborn Dairy Cottage. It’s a stunning combination of country cottage cosiness and clean, modern style. They’d never been able to use the old front door as the lintel was hobbit-height, but now visitors can walk through the front entrance into their spacious dining room filled with vintage furniture and modern accessories.
Open corridors at either end provide a link to the equally vast living room – both spaces stretch from the front to the back of the house. Behind the dining room, the curve-walled kitchen has been newly kitted out, its smooth Corian surfaces giving a contemporary edge to the charmingly wonky reclaimed wooden cupboards and drawers beneath. Off to the side of the original cottage, the extension houses a utility room and another spacious living area. Never mind Biba – there’s nearly enough room for Maisie the chocolate Labrador to get a good run without leaving the house.
It’s not until you reach the top of the stairs that the full impact of the house hits you. The green oak frame stretches metres above the expanses of wooden floor, with natural cracks in its pale-ale toned A-frame beams. The back wall of the house has huge glazed panels, providing views of the mellow Hampshire skies and the bird sanctuary behind the garden. The bedrooms are painted white and the bathrooms are tiled in a slate grey. These neutral shades speak quietly, allowing the bones of the house itself to express its airy beauty.
Furniture from Danish chain Ilva and bathroom fittings from Ideal Standard helped the couple stay under budget, and these are interspersed with key designer pieces picked up in sales or vintage shops for fractions of the original price. They’ve avoided anything remotely chintzy, favouring clean, simple, modern items that suit the stylish, low-key feel of the new cottage.
Finally, Alex, Cheryl and Biba can make the most of their dream home. And boy, do they deserve it. Two years of heartbreak, tears and toil has paid off. This Hampshire phoenix has risen from the ashes brighter and more beautiful than it was before.
Would you do it again?
‘We love this place, and the experience has made us a stronger family, too,’ says Alex. ‘So yes, we could bring ourselves to build another house if we needed to.’
‘Never give up has been our watchword throughout this entire experience,’ he adds. ‘You never fail until you stop
Project management and tiling: Alex Reay 07802 783 484
Design and build consultant: Barkley Johnson 01725 512 088
Quantity surveyor: Naismiths www.naismiths.co.uk
Green oak frame: Greenwood Direct www.greenwood-direct.co.uk
Master carpenter: Walrus Carpentry www.walruscarpentry.co.uk
Thatching: Simon Denney Master Thatchers www.thatchedhouses.com
Thatch fire protection consultant: Thatchsafe www.thatch-safe.co.uk
Plumbing design and installation: Elite Works www.eliteworks.co.uk
Hand-made kitchen: Stuart Littlefair 07867 797 866
Tiles: Pentagon Tiles www.pentagon-tiles.co.uk
Underfloor heating: John Guest Speedfit www.johnguest.com
Oak flooring: Floors to Go www.floors2go.co.uk
Bathroom fittings: Ideal Standard www.ideal-standard.co.uk
Words: Joanna Booth Images: Emma Lee