Period Drama - Real Homes

Polly Bagnall and Philip Dobree found an ideal south-east London refuge in these dilapidated cottages in Dulwich


The wide streets of Dulwich, south-east London, are so tranquil that you can hear the whisper of falling leaves above the polite hum of yummy mummies’ 4x4s crunching on expensive gravel. It’s an eerily deserted part of London, a perfectly manicured ghost town with boutiques to browse, and cafes where you can sip cappuccinos and watch the occasional pram-pusher go by. There’s also a lot of smart sludge-coloured paintwork, courtesy of Farrow & Ball.

theselfbuilder_period-drama2Polly Bagnall and Philip Dobree were attracted to the ‘village’ of Dulwich by just such soothing Stepford-like qualities, especially as they felt they had experienced rather too much urban grit in nearby Brixton. ‘Three burglaries and a stabbing persuaded us to jump ship and escape to somewhere less stressful,’ says Philip. ‘We had been thinking about moving out to the country, but it wasn’t practical for me to commute to Soho – Dulwich was a good compromise.’

theselfbuilder_period-drama3The couple had already successfully converted two flats back into a house and were looking for another project. Approaching the major local landowner, the Dulwich Estate, they discovered Pond Cottages – three joined but separate dwellings set in an idyllic position opposite Dulwich College.

Although the buildings were listed, they had been allowed to slip into a shocking state of disrepair. Built in 1720 as one house, numbers two and three had subsequently been divided into two separate but similarly ill-conceived homes full of pokey rooms and subjected to hideous Seventies extensions. Developers were interested, but only for the land, and private buyers were not exactly queuing up to acquire the job lot of three uninhabitable hovels. But despite the lack of interest, the Estate was asking a cool £1 million for the cottages.

‘It wasn’t practical for me to commute to Soho – Dulwich was a good compromise’Undeterred by the sheer amount of work and cash needed, Polly and Philip gradually devised a plan to conserve the original Georgian facade, restore internal period detail and build a large, daringly modern extension on the back. ‘We made a cheekily low offer of £670,000 and in the end the Estate accepted – they knew they didn’t have much hope theselfbuilder_period-drama4of any other serious buyers,’ says Polly. Their next smart move was to sell cottage number one to one of their Brixton neighbours for £325,000. This handy arrangement meant that they could share a contractor and retain use of the side access provided by number one. ‘We were really lucky to gain a tried and trusted collaborator too,’ adds Philip.

Although the proposed transformation was unconventional in many ways, planning consent was quickly granted – Southwark’s conservation department had considered Pond Cottages to be ‘buildings at risk’ because they had stood empty for 10 years. ‘The only sticking point concerned the preservation of the Victorian staircase in number two,’ says Philip, ‘but this was eventually dropped because we agreed in return not to extend the original upper floor.’
theselfbuilder_period-drama5Surprisingly, conformity is only skin deep – the perfectly spruced-up exterior of Pond Cottage hides a strikingly unconventional look inside. Beyond the front door, the central hallway is flanked by two square reception rooms; with the restored original panelling, windows and skirting boards, these are perhaps the most traditional parts of the house. The family uses one as a drawing room and the other as a playroom for the children.

Continue along the hallway and there’s a lobby lined with a fitted bookcase, which is just the first hint of a change in design direction. Turn right and the Georgian details have been replaced by a sleek, state-of-the-art kitchen with glossy white cabinets, modish turquoise lava work surfaces and a plum-coloured slate floor.

theselfbuilder_period-drama6A couple of steps down from the kitchen, the last section of the original building merges with the huge extension, which runs the entire 32-foot width of the house. ‘It was really important to us that we had a room that would merge inside and out, but that we would be able to use all year round too,’ says Philip. This contemporary space is fitted with vast sliding glass doors, which reveal a lavishly appointed landscaped garden, complete with built-in seating areas and mature trees. To one side there’s a studio with its own entrance, which Polly uses for her twin careers as artist and therapist. ‘Clients don’t have to trail through the house,’ she says. 

Attention to detail has been key. ‘We compromised with our last house and were never really happy with what we did,’ Polly explains.  Philip’s only problem was that ‘the choice for everything was seemingly infinite: the internet made it so easy to see different options that we didn’t know when to stop!’ Eventually, they both agreed on the extension’s copper roof, the glass doors and kitchen worktop and fitted these into the finished design.

theselfbuilder_period-drama7The advantage of bringing two distinctly different architectural styles together is that the cottage now has the cosiness of the Georgian rooms as well as the relaxed, open-plan style of the contemporary spaces. Polly is more likely to spend time in the drawing room as she has ‘fallen in love with the old stuff’, while Philip is drawn to the modernity of the extension. A den on the same level but on the opposite side to the kitchen has been fitted with an L-shaped bench, which provides both seating and storage space. Warmed by a wood-burning stove, this makes the ideal place for the children to watch DVDs, but also accommodates a tiny office squeezed neatly into an alcove.

theselfbuilder_period-drama8A feeling of continuity has been achieved by employing a consistent colour scheme of subtle pastel paint shades combined with natural woods and stones. Rich textiles, inherited antiques and Polly’s flower paintings add depth and texture to the simply furnished space and provide a link between old and new sections. ‘The house feels cosy and harmonious now,’ says Polly. ‘We’re so settled that it’s hard to imagine uprooting again. Who needs the countryside after all?’

Useful Contacts

Structural engineer: Morton Partnership
Landscaping: Bevan Mason 020 7733 5408
Garden Studio:
Flooring: Rock Unique
Big Hardwoods:

Words: Hilary Robertson Images: Edina Van Der Wyck

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