Becky Sheaves discovers how a crumbling seaman’s mission in Fowey became a lovely seaside family haven
Seven years ago, interior designer Linda Morey Smith and her husband, the artist Patrick Burrows, bought a four-storey former seamen's mission in Fowey, South East Cornwall. The plan was to create a seaside retreat for themselves and their sons, Felix, now 16, and Max, 14.
Linda certainly knows a thing or two about refurbishments. She is world-renowned for transforming tired old buildings into smart new spaces, from one-off residential properties to commercial interiors for top companies. Her client list includes Moët et Chandon, Red Bull, Virgin and Asos.
But Linda had no idea that this would become one of the most challenging refurbishment jobs she had ever tackled. It was not long, however, before the reality of renovating a crumbling, water-damaged property, all too literally, sank in.
Happily, as these pictures show, it all worked out in the end. The project became a passion and with a crash course in marine architecture, plus an awful lot of hard work, the once-crumbling building has been transformed into a sea-safe family haven.
"We bought the house for the views," said Linda. "It was built in 1894, on the old harbour wall by the Fowey estuary, and ships still sail by past the window. It is a very unusual place and we saw such potential.
"We knew it would be a challenge but we were not expecting it to be such a big project. We anticipated being on site for six months. But it ended up being two years. And that was after the year it took to get planning, which always takes longer if you are in a conservation area.
"When we started to take back the walls we found they had just been layered and layered with plaster over the years as various people had obviously tried to cover up damp. That damp was an issue because the building was rendered in, which takes in water but doesn't let it out. As a result pretty much the entire internal structure was rotten."
Linda and Patrick took immediate and drastic action and decided to gut the whole property right down to the external walls.
"I remember standing there with Patrick at the bottom of the house in a six-foot hole we had dug to start the internal reconstruction," said Linda. "We looked up from there all the way to the sky – there were no floors, no internal walls, no stairs, and no roof. Then the tide came in and filled the hole with seawater and little crabs. I knew we had our work cut out."
The couple had to brush up on marine architecture to address complications they had never foreseen. The whole base of the house had to be built up using waterproof membranes and a drainage system was built in. As a result, the seawater now penetrates the outside walls but is prevented from seeping through into the building's internal structure and so drips down the inside of the external walls before it is flushed out under the building. "It's basically a floating house," said Linda.
And it was not only the inside of the house that needed special treatment. The new cantilevered balcony had to be constructed using strengthened glass to protect it from being battered by the sea.
The property's exceptional location – the reason it was chosen in the first place – posed problems for the logistics of the build itself, too. "Everything takes a bit longer in a location like this," says Linda. "We had to have some of the larger materials like steel and windows transported down the estuary on barges rather than try to manoeuvre them through Fowey's winding streets.
" I did have moments of thinking 'I don't want to do this any more,' but as soon as we saw all the boats and the beautiful location I remembered why we had taken it on."
After over two years of building work, Linda was finally able to start working on the interior design aspect of the project. The house is still made up of four floors. On the ground floor is a sitting room, bedroom and office, then there is a first-floor dining room and kitchen with a terrace complete with pizza oven. The second floor has a double bedroom, bathroom and single bedroom with an en suite, and finally, there is an open-plan master bedroom and bathroom over the entire top floor of the property.
The style is contemporary but natural and, above all, comfortable. The timber floors, glass and white walls create a calm atmosphere, although the family has made room for a few quirks, too.
"We have created a snug television room at the base of the property," says Linda. "It has leather panel doors and it is like a cosy enclosure but one wall has a thick glass window so you can curl up watching a great film and catch sight of the boats gliding by."
As for sustainability credentials — the new drainage system and internal walls mean the property is extremely well-insulated. The floors are made with reclaimed pine and the roof is made of reclaimed slate.
So why sell such a beautiful property? "Well, our lives have changed a lot since we began this project," Linda explains. "Back then, we were living and working in London and the children were at primary school. Now, we have moved to Bath and commute to London for work. So the extra journeying down to Cornwall is becoming less and less attractive. When we were trapped in a townhouse in London, we longed to be in Fowey. But now we live in the countryside near Bath we are finding we don't make the journey so often now.
"I don't like to think of this house standing empty so much, so we've decided to part with it, although it will be a huge wrench. We'd like to see this house used and loved, as it really is such a wonderful place to be."
1, Custom Hill House, Fowey, Cornwall, offers
over £1.5 million
Property: A chic contemporary waterside home in a prime location on the Cornish coast.
Location: Fowey, South East Cornwall
Accommodation: Four bedrooms, four bathrooms, over four floors
Outside: Terraces and balconies overlooking the water, two private parking spaces, a landing stage and running mooring
Agents: Knight Frank, Exeter, 01392 423111, www.knightfrank.co.uk