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Parts of Wooldale Hall were close to collapse before Duncan Davidson stepped in to save it.
RESTORING MEASURED ELEGANCE
All photography © Linda Whitwam
Wooldale Hall presents a picture of measured elegance to the Pennine hills of West Yorkshire. Its handsome 18th century facade could not however conceal the wreck that lay behind when Duncan Davidson paid his first visit. Inadequate roof bracing had caused walls to belly alarmingly, part of the roof had collapsed and weeds sprouted from the chimney.
Inside, plasterwork had crumbled under mould while unplugged leaks had rotted window casings and floors. Small wonder the previous occupant restricted himself to living in the one room that didn’t let in water. Such a litany of defects in a Grade II listed building would be enough to make most potential buyers drive off at high speed. But not this one. Duncan had taken early retirement in 2008 from a senior role in textile management and was seeking ‘a challenging project.’ He found one.
Unlike some amateur property restorers, whose optimism exceeds their common sense, he had gained some idea of what to expect through experience of industrial construction projects and by building two homes.
SOME OF THE WALLS WERE 18 INCHES OUT OF TRUE AND FOLIAGE WAS GROWING OUT OF THE WALLS.
An advert for Wooldale Hall had caught his eye once before but the price was unrealistic. When he learned it had been reduced, he paid a visit and, despite the dilapidation, or possibly because of it, he fell in love. “It was beautiful. I thought ‘what a fabulous place’. I knew it would be a mammoth task but I could see it had potential.” An optimistic estate agent told him to expect to spend about £170,000 on repairs. “I thought ‘that’s a joke’. I knew it would take a lot more but it seemed a wonderful project to take on.
“Lynne, my wife, was horrified at first but I told her it would be all right.” That may rank as the biggest understatement in the history of this Holme Valley village with its two churches, pub, former weavers’ cottages and a road called West End that leads to nowhere. To walk around the house with Duncan is to hear an absorbing tale of three centuries.
Its history begins with the rear of the property, which dates from 1650 or earlier, takes in the Georgian addition at the front and continues with the subtleties of the 2010 restoration. Resisting the impulse to reach for a sledge hammer, Duncan’s first act was to find an architect who specialised in the restoration of listed buildings. The search led to Stuart Beaumont of the Huddersfield practice, ONE17 Architects & Interior Designers. After a full survey and tendering, the contract for restoration was awarded to William Anelay of York whose team began work in 2009. “The place was in a terrible state,” says Stuart. “Some of the walls were 18 inches out of true and foliage was growing out of the roof.” Builders removed the slates to create a maze of scaffolding inside and out to stabilise the building. Courses of failing walls were marked, dismantled and rebuilt.
Stones beyond repair were remade by on-site masons. Rotten structural timbers were identified and replaced, like for like, and steelwork added to overcome the deficiency of the roof’s original design. Specialist joiners crafted the facade’s elegant windows in period style, fitting them with cylinder glass made on old machines in Eastern Europe to impart the vitality and character missing from modern glazing. Internal walls were restored in traditional lath and plaster and carpenters salvaged sufficient original floorboards for two rooms. Douglas fir was used in making windows and doors as the Davidsons research indicated that oak was inauthentic. Box locks and handles on the doors - bronze for the rear part of the house were sourced from a range produced by a company in the Midlands.
Work moved swiftly and Wooldale Hall was ready for the Davidsons and their youngest daughter to occupy in December 2010. To sit today in the kitchen, a welcoming, settled space warmed by an Aga and replete with painted cabinets, contemporary hob and hand-made table, it is difficult to believe that most of the restoration was completed less than four years ago. While work was in progress, Duncan and Lynne turned their thoughts to internal decoration.
Furniture, lots of it, had to be bought, bathrooms fitted, fabrics chosen, colour schemes agreed. The calm restraint of the interior owes much to the choice of colour. Rather than select a scheme to reflect how the house might have been decorated at a particular point in its history, they decided to regard it as a blank canvas.
OUR OBJECTIVE WHEN WE BOUGHT THE HOUSE WAS THAT ITS PRESENTATION SHOULD BE AS IF IT HAD BEEN CONTINUOUSLY OCCUPIED SINCE IT WAS BUILT, THAT IT HAD BEEN WELL LOOKED AFTER AND MAINTAINED, THAT MODERN FACILITIES WERE INSTALLED AS THEY BECAME AVAILABLE, AND THAT FURNITURE AND FURNISHINGS WERE UPGRADED OVER TIME WHILE KEEPING THE BEST OF THE OLD PIECES.
So the kitchen doors are finished in dark green and the walls in Linnet White, a Dulux heritage shade. “At first I wanted to use limewash but people with experience of it said it was hard to live with, so we used an emulsion with high porosity.” For the front rooms, our research showed that the earliest Georgian colour schemes employed pale stone and natural colours and that they would use the same colours throughout. Again we settled for Dulux Heritage colours with York White on the woodwork, Candle Cream walls and a white ceiling. These colours provide a good backdrop for the furniture and the artwork.” One suspects that while the restoration of the fabric was an enjoyable discipline, furnishing it has been a private pleasure.
For all the research that went into the bones of the building, an equal amount went into the art and furniture. Here’s a longcase clock, and here’s another. Walking through the house the eye alights on polished bureaux, antique tables, chairs, drawers, cabinets, dressers, mirrors, old clocks. And where would a 18th century bedroom be without a 18th century four-poster bed?
“I started collecting furniture before the project was completed and I’ve since acquired more pieces. I would not have felt comfortable with putting modern pieces in this house. I spotted this table, for example, on an antiques website,” says Duncan.
In spite of the number and quality of period pieces, this looks and feels like a home rather than a museum or a period set, a result of Duncan’s philosophy from the outset. “Our objective when we bought the house was that its presentation should be as if it had been continuously occupied since it was built, that it had been well looked after and maintained, that modern facilities were installed as they became available, and that furniture and furnishings were upgraded over time while keeping the best of the old pieces.”
The architect’s plans, the clients’ dreams and the craftsmen’s art come together in a uniquely satisfying way in this sturdy home. Even the contemporary canopy, erected to create an outdoor space by the kitchen door, co-exists happily with the 17th century jamb stones.
Any large project brings frustrations, and this one was no exception. They arose sometimes over locating materials, sometimes over the interpretation by the authorities of the arcane regulations that govern alterations to a listed building. With this grand project complete, the time has come to move on.
Wooldale Hall is on the market as Duncan embarks on his next project, a new and smaller house in the Holme Valley. He is already in discussion over the plans with Stuart Beaumont. Was it all worthwhile? “Oh yes,” he says. We got this place to where we wanted it to be. We’ll be sad to leave.”