By Karen Darlow
Moving away from central London suddenly became a lot easier for Hayley and Alex Cobbett when they found a village so quiet that they can always hear the birds sing. Village life suits Hayley and Alex perfectly, too. It’s not surprising, though, as their pretty thatched cottage is in an idyllic Dorset hamlet, surrounded by fields and woodland and not far from the sea.
They haven’t always been country converts, however. Hayley and Alex moved here from central London, and before that Alex had lived in Glasgow. The decision to move to the country depended on them finding their ideal country home.
Hayley was happy to let Alex take the lead in their house search. ‘He grew up in Dorset, and his family are all nearby, so he knows the area well,’ she says. However, it was Hayley who first spotted the thatched cottage as she trawled estate agents’ websites looking for a project. ‘I can’t say I fell in love with it, but I could see its potential, and I trusted Alex on the location,’ she recalls.
With forest walks from the doorstep and beaches a short drive away, the location is perfect. The cottage is set back from a country road where rush hour means two tractors instead of one. It’s so quiet that you can hear the birds singing in the copse at the back of the house. Yet the couple’s first viewing did little to change Hayley’s feelings about the cottage’s interior. ‘It was dark and gloomy, with heavy furniture and thick carpets,’ she says. ‘It needed lightening up.’ Luckily, Hayley has an artistic eye and a good imagination and knew just what was needed to bring the house back to life.
‘In the first few years, I wanted everything changed,’ says Hayley. ‘I’d always had high ceilings and my main goal was to bring light in.’ Another issue that Hayley and Alex were keen to tackle was the cottage’s disjointed layout. Although the central section of the cottage dates from the 17th century, it has been added to in almost every century since, with the living room gable added in the 1980s. The result was a patchwork of rooms, with no overall sense of harmony. First, however, there was some serious maintenance work to do outside.
The back garden is higher than the cottage and a retaining wall had been built too close to the house, spoiling garden views and blocking its light. To alleviate damp problems and bring in more light, the couple had mountains of soil excavated at the back of the cottage and rebuilt the wall further from the house in local Purbeck stone. At the same time, the garden was landscaped and terraced with steps down to the back door. Next, all the front windows were replaced. ‘They were leaky, old, and not doing their job,’ says Hayley. The wooden replacements have made the home much more energy efficient.
A more recent garden project, completed in lockdown, was a secondhand summerhouse, which the couple upcycled, adding DIY garden furniture made from wooden pallets, with upholstered seat cushions.
With the muddy outside jobs finished, Hayley began to update the interiors. Carpets were ripped up, and heavy fitted cupboards were removed from the main living room. Dark faux beams had been added to the room in the 1980s in an attempt to match the rest of the house. ‘But they only made the room even darker,’ says Hayley, who painted every beam, including the mantel. She also limewashed the original beams in the cosy sitting room, in the oldest part of the house.
This house is taken from H&G's sister brand, Period Living magazine
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The cottage was starting to look brighter and cared for, but there was still something that didn’t quite work, as Hayley explains. ‘The kitchen was one of the Victorian additions to the house and although it was cozy it was too small,’ she says. ‘I wanted something that would do justice to the rest of the house.’
Hayley weighed up various kitchen ideas before coming up with her plan for a new kitchen-diner.
The result was an oak-frame, part-glazed extension to the kitchen, creating a bright and contemporary kitchen-diner with the high ceilings and clean lines that Hayley craved. The couple also altered the little room at the front of the house, opening it up to the kitchen and turning it from an unused dining room into a cozy sitting room. ‘The extension has made a huge difference and the whole house feels far more liveable, open and light,’ says Hayley.
It’s not just the extension that has given the old cottage a new lease of life. Hayley has worked through the house, decorating and transforming each room with her own take on classic country style and her beautiful handmade curtains and cushions. The finished look is inspiring - elegant, characterful and homely all at the same time.
When Hayley entered Period Living magazine's awards last year, she never expected that the once gloomy cottage would be the judges’ unanimous choice for overall winner and Home of the Year. It goes to show that with imagination, determination and a lot of hard work, houses can become something very special indeed.
I'm the homes editor of Period Living magazine and an experienced writer on interiors and gardens. I've also moved house quite a few times – totting up 10 homes in 12 years during a particularly nomadic time in my life. I like to think that makes me quite the homes expert, or at least very experienced and with a clear idea of what I like and don't like in a home.
I love visiting and writing about old houses for Homes & Gardens' sister magazine Period Living and working with photographers to capture all kinds of historic properties. It's inspiring to talk to people about their traditional homes and to hear the stories behind their furnishing and decorating choices. And by the time I've finished an interview with a homeowner I've always got a handful of new ideas to try in my own house, as well as plenty of good stories for the magazine. It's the perfect work-life balance.
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