For the past twelve years, the first thing I do every morning is turn on my computer and open Rightmove.co.uk, with its UK property listings.
I’m looking for a cottage. One in, or near, the village in the Peak District of England where my parents were born, and where they lived until they left for America two weeks after their wedding.
They had me three years later, returned to Cambridge, England, then went back to America. This made me a dual UK/US citizen, which is fantastic. It also made me someone who is torn between two countries, both of which I love, and both of which I can’t imagine not living in.
I have my life, house, three kids, and friends in Massachusetts, on the East Coast of the US. But I also have my life, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends in England, not to mention wonderful memories of two great-grandmothers, four grandparents, and many great-aunts and -uncles as well as hundreds of years of family history. With my youngest child about to enter high school, my two oldest in college, and twelve years of searching, it’s time to find my cottage in England.
Buying a cottage not easy to do from 3,000 miles away.
So the mattress delivery guys are finally here, on their 17th and last delivery of the day. I’ve been watching them on the internet for the past five hours as they traipse around the countryside making their deliveries, and finally it’s my turn.
They manhandle the mattress out of the lorry and up to my front door. They say, Where do you want it? I gesture towards the stairs and say, Upstairs. The bedroom to the right.
Not going to make it, the guy in charge says.
This sort of attitude didn’t make the British the Rulers of the Waves. Please try, I say.
They give it a half-hearted try. But it’s indisputable: there are two feet of mattress more than can fit up the stairs.
Not going to make it, the main guy says again, then starts snapping photos. These, I realize, are to prove to his boss that indeed, the mattress won’t fit.
Sign here please, he says, putting a piece of paper in front of me.
Can you give it another try? I say desperately. I need this mattress up if I ever want to actually sleep on a mattress in a bedroom in my cottage, and these two men are my best and only chance.
Maybe if you bend it? I suggest.
We can’t bend it, they say.
It’s okay with me if you bend it, I say. How else am I going to get the bloody thing up?
It’s a liability issue, they say.
In my experience, it’s always a liability issue. All of life sometimes feels like a liability issue. But maybe there’s another way.
I gesture that if they move the mattress 90 degrees, push up one end by about 30 degrees, shove it a foot horizontally, then raise it exactly vertically, it could work.
They try. All goes well through the first manoeuvre, then they stop. It’s now six inches too big. A vast improvement over two feet, but not enough. It’s not going anywhere in the upward direction. The only way is down (TOWID). They wordlessly yank it back out of the stairwell and there’s nothing else I can do or suggest.
But other people around this country, with its abundance of small cottages and narrow staircases, must be able to have their mattresses on the floor with the bedrooms, I reason.
Do your other customers have this problem? I ask.
He didn’t even pause: Yes.
All of them.
What do they do? Hoist the mattress on a crane? Cut a hole in their wall? Teleport it upstairs? Or do they permanently sleep on the ground floor?
His answer: No. They bend the mattress.
But these guys—professional mattress deliverymen–are refusing to do the only thing that will work, something that thousands—nay, millions—of Brits have done to get a good night’s sleep on their mattress in their bedroom.
Nevertheless, they persisted in refusing to bend the mattress.
So now I have a bloody great big mattress taking up half my sitting room. And no possibility of getting it moved in the near, or even distant, future.
The painter will just have to paint round it. And I’ll be sleeping in my sitting room.
A huge pile of dirt, rubble and other detritus cascaded into the sitting room from what appeared to be an old fireplace that was hidden behind the plasterboard.
Rich, Jack, and Ian worked to clear out the mess, filling a wheelbarrow many times over with dirt.
Eventually, bricks were discovered at the bottom of the pile. These bricks were most likely used to help close off this fireplace when the wallboard and the gas fire were installed.
What, you might ask, is an inglenook fireplace?
An inglenook is a huge, oversized fireplace that’s recessed into the wall, with enough room, in some cases, for people to sit behind or beside it.
“Inglenook” is a combination of the word “ingle,” which means “fireplace” in Old English (from Old Scots or Irish Gaelic aingeal, “angel” or euphemistically “fire”), and the word “nook,” which refers to the recess in the wall.
Inglenooks are not uncommon in very old houses. In my grandparents’ farmhouse, now owned by my cousin David and his wife, David recently opened up a wall where our grandparents had installed a gas fire, and found this handsome inglenook in the part of the farmhouse that dates from the 1600s.
Inglenook fireplace at my cousin’s farm.
John Ford, of Inglenook Restorations, writes, “The Inglenook (literally meaning chimney corner) fireplace generally came into being in the mid-late 16th century. The exceptions were for very wealthy properties such as castles, monasteries and the like. Many of these had Inglenook Fireplaces up to a century before. The open fireplace was the only means of heating, cooking and damp control within a house right up until the 19th Century.”
My builder, Rich, also thought that the inglenook in my cottage dated from the 1600s, and said that because it was so big, it would have been used to roast entire animals. The back of this inglenook was rounded, and the lintel (the stone beam at the top) was around five feet long. Rich pointed out that the left-hand side had been shortened, almost certainly to put in a door, now a window, leading to the road outside.
The builders spent hours and hours clearing away the mess.
They must have filled at least 20 wheelbarrows full of rubble, soil, and roots. They found a lot of bricks from 1938 made by the Butterley Company, a prominent Derbyshire brick manufacturer, which had been used to close up some of the space:
More interestingly, they found bricks that had been hand-made centuries earlier.
As Rich and his crew continued to clean the inglenook, they pulled a liner out of the chimney that had been used for the gas exhausts. They also found a second narrow pillar to the right of the inglenook.
There is clearly much more work to be done to get this inglenook looking nice!
When I arrived on February 20 to view my cottage for the first time (I bought it sight unseen–at least by me), I almost broke into tears.
What I saw in the property sales brochure was nothing like real life.
Property sales brochure:
The photo in the property sales brochure shows a room that can definitely be described as “needs-work,” but with original-looking beams, sunlight flooding through the windows, walls that look OK, and a useful gas fire. Rip up the carpet, paint the walls, and I’m in!
The cottage hadn’t been lived in since last August. It had gone through an entire damp English winter without heat.
The carpet against the back wall was mildewed.
The north wall of the room was crumbling from the intense damp. Chunks of plaster fell wetly to the floor.
The room was intensely wet and desperately needed heat.
I went to the gas fire and started trying to get a spark to light the coils. Nothing. I tried pushing the lighter knob hard, softly, quickly, slowly, but nothing worked. The tick-tick-tick never resulted in a flame.
I went upstairs. It immediately became clear that there had never, in the almost 300 years of the cottage’s existence, been heat on that floor except for that provided by three tiny fireplaces that hadn’t been used for decades.
I could see my breath. It was 38 degrees outside, and almost certainly the same inside.
I put my hand on the walls. My hand came away dripping with water.
I’d needed the cottage I bought to be a fixer-upper so that I could afford it, but this was so much worse than I had anticipated. I slunk back to my cousin Julie’s chalet in the raw January darkness, glad that there was a wood stove that could supply heat and that the walls weren’t running with damp.
Reality hit me: I have made a terrible mistake in buying this cottage.
The auction for the cottage is scheduled for 12 p.m. today at a pub about five miles from the cottage. I’ve set an alarm for 5 a.m. Eastern (U.S.) Standard Time so I will be thoroughly awake for the auction, which will be at 7 a.m. my time.
I have spoken with G., and prepped him on what I’m willing to pay. I know it will be more than the L150-200,000 that was listed in the brochure, but I can’t go much higher. With the other 43 individuals and property developers who viewed the Open House, my bidding on the cottage will be an exercise in futility. But as the lottery slogan goes, You gotta be in it to win it!
I have many relatives who live nearby and would be capable of bidding on my behalf, but I have asked G. to do the honors. I’ve seen him in action at the Bakewell cattle market, bidding on bullocks, and I like his understated bidding technique not to mention his expertise at auctions.
This is G.’s hand when he isn’t bidding:
This is G’s hand when he is bidding:
There’s a difference of probably three inches in height between a bid and a not-a-bid. If you blink, you’d miss it. Which is what G. wants. You don’t want your competition to know exactly who’s bidding.
Five minutes before the start of the auction for the cottage, I phone S. She hands the phone to G., we talk briefly, then he hands the phone back to her so he can concentrate on the bidding. I am breathing shallowly with excitement, and with the sad knowledge that I will soon be outbid.
The bidding starts at L150,000, and then I hear some muffled words indicating that more bids are being made. At this rate, they will quickly go beyond what I can afford. I hear more words, but nothing I can understand.
“There are about five other bidders,” S. says to me.
I wait, my heart in my throat. I really want this cottage!
More time passes, and then G. get on the phone.
He says, “It’s gone.”
Shit, I think. Shit shit shit shit shit! Of course it’s gone. It’s one of the last great properties in the village, an old farmhouse from the 1700s with lots of land and a barn.
It will have been sold to a property developer, and he will raze this historic cottage and put up executive boxes. I feel extremely sad, and furious that I was unable to cobble together the necessary money in order to own this cottage and save it from destruction.
I so wish it were different, but as G. has just told me, It’s gone.
Several seconds of silence, and then he says, “To you!”
When you’re 3,000 miles away from the object of your desire, in my case a farmhouse and barn in England dating from the 1700s, it’s imperative to have boots on the ground, especially for the “Open House.” I am extremely lucky to have three pairs of very good and competent boots within a mile of the cottage: one aunt and two cousins.
My aunt, who over the past 12 years has checked out probably 20 or so of my hottest leads, told me everything she knows about the cottage I’d fallen in love with. She knew the former owner, a lovely older woman who had been a member of her church choir and had recently passed away. This woman had run the dairy farm with her father, and spent her later years living in several rooms on the ground floor.
My cousin, G., a savvy and successful farmer, and S., his wife, a farmer and manager of a beautifully appointed B&B, are also planning to attend the Open House on my behalf.
G. tells me that when he was a young boy, he used to go to this cottage after school to wait for his mother to pick him up. At that time it was a working dairy farm, but thirty or so years ago the family sold almost all of the farmland to a developer who built a housing estate of moderately priced houses.
G. and S. spent the previous week on holiday in Tenerife, and are flying back today. They are due back home around 3 this afternoon, and I’m praying they can make the 3:15 appointment, which was the only one left. When I phoned the property company to make the appointment, I learned that appointments have been staggered throughout the day in 15-minute increments, so clearly there’s a lot of interest.
From my home in New England, I call my aunt. She tells me that a lot of people had signed up for the Open House, with 44 separate bookings consisting of both individuals and property developers. The property developers plan to tear down the cottage and barn, and in their place build 4 new houses. To me, tearing down a 300-year-old cottage is a travesty, but there’s nothing I can do unless I have the winning bid at the auction, buy the cottage, and restore it. I rapidly calculate the value of the property to a developer: if he buys the cottage and land, and builds four cottages, and sells each one for L350,000, he is looking at a net gain of L700,000 to L800,000. My heart sinks; with this amount of money to be made by the developers, there is no way I can prevail.
My aunt, who was accompanied by my uncle, tells me that they think the cottage could be made very nice with the expenditure of sufficient money, though my uncle laughs and says it needs a lot of work, emphasis on “lot.”
I then speak to G. and S. They got to the appointment on time, and believe that the cottage has a great deal of potential. However, they warn me, it’s extremely damp, and there’s a certain type of damp you can never get out of Derbyshire hill cottages no matter how hard you try, so I should be forewarned.
The property was listed in the sales brochure at L150,000 to 200,000, which made me hopeful. However, G. explained that property companies like Rightmove advertise extremely low price for cottages going to auction in the hope that frenzied buyers will bid up the price. Based on my twelve years of following Peak District property, I believe that the property is worth at least L350,000; G.’s guess is L325,000.
Whatever the price, it will be way out of my range. The cottage will undoubedly go to someone else, almost certainly one of the property developers.
I thank G. and S. for rushing back from their holiday and going straight to the Open House. Despite the other 43 groups of people viewing the property, despite the plethora of developers, I ask G. and S. to attend the auction which will be in several weeks and to bid on my behalf. I’m not ready to give up on this property yet, although after the surge of interest at the Open House I now know that I have almost no chance of being able to buy it.
For the past twelve years I’ve been looking for a cottage in or near my parents’ village in the Peak District of Derbyshire, England. This morning at my home in New England, in America, I have just received this listing on Rightmove.co.uk, one of the UK’s top online property website.
My heart starts to race as soon as I see this first photograph of the outside of the cottage showing what’s called a “character cottage” (meaning with some history and original features). But the question is, Will the rest of the property live up to it?
The next photo is clearly the sitting room. The beams look original, but you don’t know for sure, though the low ceiling is typical of older cottages. Otherwise, the room could use some substantial fixer-upping, but still, the “bones” appear to be good.
The kitchen (below) also has beams–nice!–but there are only a few counters, a kitchen sink, and what appears to be a washing machine. There’s no evidence of an oven, stove, fridge, dishwasher, or microwave. Putting in a new kitchen will be a major additional cost that I must factor in.
This photo appears to be of a room leading from the kitchen. There’s a ledge on the right, which could either be what it appears to be–a ledge–or perhaps something more interesting, such as a mantle for a small fireplace hidden behind a wall. The sunlight is coming through the window nicely, but the carpet looks worn, and it’s suspiciously dark over to the left. The reason for the discoloration could be an indication of a major problem that could cost tens of thousands of pounds to fix, and make the cost of this cottage skyrocket.
This is the bathroom on the ground floor, and appears to be what is called in England “a wet room,” which basically means that it also serves as a shower area. I stayed in a B&B with a room like this, and didn’t like it because when you took a shower, water got all over the floor. Because the floor never dried properly, you were always getting your feet wet.
This is the master bedroom, and it’s dingy in the extreme. It appears to have at least two layers of vinyl on the floor (or else wide wooden boards–it’s impossible to tell from this photo), no base molding (called skirting boards here), but it does have a little fireplace.
The upstairs bathroom is again rather odd, and appears very cramped. The white triangle on the floor is actually the base of a shower, but there are no glass doors or curtains around it. The window over the sink appears to not be to the outside, but perhaps to a corridor. Like the kitchen, this will be a major job of renovation.
This is the second of the three bedrooms on the second floor (which in the UK is referred to as the first floor). There’s another small fireplace, but this is a room that will clearly need more renovating.
And then three photographs that indicate a rather nice amount of lawn perhaps suitable for the garden I would love to have.
So far, the cottage looks promising, but I’m not completely sold on it because the renovations will cost a great deal of money and time.
And then I see it. What clinches it for me.
Oh my God, this cottage has a barn! So this property is not just a cottage, it’s a farmhouse with a barn!
And I, the American/British granddaughter of an English dairy farmer who farmed just three miles from here, have just found the cottage I’ve been dreaming about!
Right after I graduated from college in America, I moved back to England to work as a lowly typist in a publishing company based in Oxford. I was making only 56 pounds a week for a 40-hour week.
My compensation came to a little more than a pound an hour, but at least it was slightly more than I made during my previous summer, operating a saw in a pool table factory, and it was in my chosen field of publishing.
My lowly typist salary was nowhere near enough to buy a cottage, although cottages in the Peak District at that time were extraordinarily inexpensive. You could buy one for 10,000 pounds.
Later, which means after graduate school, again in America, and 15 years working in book publishing in New York, I had money. But then three kids came along, and the money dwindled, but still, I had enough for a cottage if I sold up and moved my family across the Pond.
So I had to decide which kind of cottage I should look for. A “character cottage,” which would be the most expensive; something built more recently; or what is called a “new-build”? A detached cottage (again, the most expensive), a semi-detached, or a terraced cottage (least expensive)? 1, 2, 3, or 4 bedrooms? In immaculate condition, in acceptable condition, or a total fixer-upper?
Hoping for the best, on Rightmove.co.uk I tracked all the 3-4 bedroom, detached, character cottages with enough land for a good vegetable and flower garden within 5 miles of my parents’ village.
And here’s the rub: they were no longer going for L10,000, or even L50,000, or even L200,000, but for a minimum of L450,000. (“L” here stands in for “pound sign” because my computer doesn’t have the pound sign.)
There was the lovely 4-BR character cottage with an expansive view over the valley for L450,000. I went back three times, but had to face the sad truth: out of my price range.
There was the captivating old pub, now a house, with 4 or more bedrooms and enormous character, but pushing L400,000.
My mother nixed it as having too many stairs for her to easily navigate, but cost was the real issue.
I looked briefly at a 2-bedroom Edwardian row house which I could afford, but knew it was unrealistic; my family wouldn’t fit.
There was a lovely character row house that was around L350,000, but it was down a steep track and would be difficult to reach in the winter.
And there was my favorite: a character cottage with tons of land. It had a farm outbuilding, which I could use as a writing studio, a huge lawn to front and side, and probably at least 1/4 an acre for my gardening. It also had planning permission for a house to be built in the lower area by the road. It needed work but hey, I’ve done quite a few house renovations, and when it was finished, everyone in my family would fit. So I made a low-ball offer. Emphasis on low-ball. Quick rejection. The house remained on the market for a year with no activity, so I revived my offer, and again, a no.
I looked seriously at another cottage that was next to a pub, and when I told one of my cousins about it, she said that it had belonged to our mutual great-grandparents, and that as a child she had the task of collecting the rent!
I didn’t pursue this cottage, due to the very real possibility of loud, drunken revelers during the weekends.
Throughout these twelve years of looking, I had the on-ground help of my Dad’s sister, who lived nearby and knew the inside story on many of the properties. “It was owned by an old man who died, and his daughters want to sell,” she told me about one. “There’s possible radioactive waste in the nearby quarry; best to stay away.” “There’s no height; I banged my head as I went up the stairs.”
I checked out many of the properties during my summer visits, and my aunt checked out anything I was really keen on when I was in America–a good tag-team.
But reality was starting to hit me: with two kids now in college, I could kiss goodbye a character cottage with 3-4 bedrooms, and any chance for a decent garden.
In fact, this was all I could realistically afford:
Reality–and despair–hit me. I wouldn’t be getting my long-dreamed-about cottage in the Peak District.