Home makeover: ‘I breathed new life into a neglected house’
Ali James and her husband, Gary, took on an unfinished renovation project and completed the work themselves, adding a vintage flourish with upcycled finds
When Ali James and her husband, Gary, moved into their Victorian cottage, it was a far cry from how it is today: walls were painted a dreary magnolia, orange carpet in every room, cracking render and poorly laid tiles.
‘The interior of the house was really quite dated, but we needed somewhere that was big enough for us and our six children. At the time, there was very little on the market, and the potential of this property was incredibly appealing,’ says Ali.
Despite the couple’s tight budget, they were able to transform the house – turning it from a tired cottage, with an unusual warren of tiny rooms, into a spacious family home.
‘Gary’s expertise in property maintenance has definitely helped: he built the decked area in the garden, re-laid wonky terracotta tiles in the kitchen and chipped off the flaking plaster in preparation for rendering. We’ve invested a great deal of time here: when I’m not at work, you’ll often find me, paintbrush in hand, upcycling furniture or updating a colour scheme,’ says Ali.
The project was not without its challenges. There was an unfinished extension, which was quite off-putting to lots of buyers: when Ali and Gary viewed the property, part of the house could only be accessed by climbing through the living room window. The cottage was originally heated by a temperamental stove and the family lived for several months with no central heating.
‘For a while, the only warmth was from the log burner in the snug, and our electric blankets,’ says Ali, who juggled the renovation alongside full time work and study. ‘We had one bathroom between eight of us, an outdoor toilet, and a number of rooms that didn’t even have sockets.’
However, undaunted by the extensive refurbishment, the couple set to work on reconfiguring the property – completing the unfinished bathroom, removing a wall in the kitchen, and taking down the stud wall in the lounge to return the room to its original proportions.
‘There’s now a real sense of space – Gary and I can now watch TV in one room while the children occupy themselves in another,’ says Ali. During the restoration, they also uncovered some beautiful period stonework – previously hidden beneath the render. ‘We couldn’t bear to cover it up so we decided to keep it exposed as a feature.’
With an eye for a bargain, Ali saved money by sourcing items second-hand or discounted in a sale: the Laura Ashley sofa in the snug was a £60 Facebook Marketplace find; the wallpaper in the lounge from an end-of-line bargain bin; furniture from the reduced corner at IKEA; and a second-hand chest of drawers from eBay. ‘I favour reusing rather than buying new: we tend to be quite eco-conscious in our choices,’ she says.
‘I’ll also wait until the sales for larger purchases – like our free-standing bath, which I happened to see in a showroom window, miles away from where we live.’
She has also added character with vintage finds: the kitchen splashback is fashioned from an old window; and shelves are adorned with glass jars, old clothbound book and retro tins. ‘I’ll scour the internet and charity shops for pretty bits and pieces. I love anything that’s a bit rusty and unloved.’
Although most days are currently spent beside the fire, the couple are looking forward to making use of the decked area they built last year, taking advantage of the garden’s sunniest spot. Ali tracked down a well-priced rattan sofa set, and Gary made the area feel more secluded with a pergola constructed from leftover decking boards and decorative screens.
‘This area was overgrown with shrubs and weeds – I’m so looking forward to having a place outdoors to sit with a book.’ When the budget permits, they hope to build a log cabin, and convert an outbuilding into an Airbnb, giving them additional income. ‘We don’t have a garage so it’s a bit of a dumping ground at the moment,’ says Ali.
The couple are delighted with the way the cottage looks now, and how well it works for their family of eight. ‘I love to breathe new life into a house: to make it lighter and brighter and more characterful,’ Ali smiles.
‘Sometimes, it’s hard to remember quite what it was like when we moved in, but we’re thrilled with how it is now – with enough space for us all to eat together around the kitchen table. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it is definitely worth it.’
Feature & styling Kathy Hurst. Photos Adam Carter.
Kathy Hurst is a freelance interiors journalist based in the Cotswolds. Follow her on Instagram @rocking_the_cotswolds