In the last two years, I have got very into searching the whole of the UK for the best Airbnbs. When I say the 'best', I don't mean hot tubs and huge flat-screen tv's (although I am actually pretty partial to both), it's more about the essence of the house, seeing the owners decoration and love that they've put into it. No house embodies this better than Dyffryn. I came across it when researching my first list, and I was excited when I laid eyes on it. This excitement has only been compounded by having Helen take part in Knock Knock and talk us through their labour of love. I always envy people for their houses and think of how lucky they are, but in this case, I believe the house to be the lucky one. Helen and her husband, John, have brought it back to life in a spectacular fashion.
We found Dyffryn almost by accident. We were exploring the possibilities of buying a small patch of field in West Wales to stick a marquee in and get married. We'd seen a super-dilapidated smallholding nearby, which had an actual stream running through what was left of the house. We were on the verge of giving up when we spotted an eye-catching "Gentleman's Residence" (far outside our tiny budget) in the agent's window. They suggested that if we weren't interested in a 'doer-upper gutted in the 60s; then there was little point in showing us something 'unimproved' in forever. But sensing our tastes might be misaligned, we persisted and were soon haring across the Welsh countryside to pull up in front of a grey concrete rendered house which had clearly been empty for many years.
When we entered, we couldn't believe our eyes as we stepped back in time, not just the 20 years of its last habitation, but more like one hundred years. The house had never been modernised, save for a couple of bakelite switches on the walls. It was entirely empty, but for a bath, there wasn't even a tap in the "kitchen". What remained was breathtaking; the house had a soul and strength all of its own, and as we walked through it - gasping at 14-inch floorboards in the bedrooms, huge slate slabs on the ground floor, and traditional Welsh room dividers. The estate agent softened and told us that the owners might accept an offer. It's not often that you get the feeling that something bigger than you is happening, but that's how we felt, not so much us buying a property, but the house itself allowing us to be part of its life.
It was the winter of 2010, and Dyffryn had been in the same family since being built around 1790 (the annexe added in 1850). Although unoccupied, the inheriting niece had maintained the roof and windows, ensuring a sitting population of frogs, crows and crawling invertebrates were protected from the worst of the Welsh winters. The chimneys were choked with corvid skeletons, the gardens unnavigable with brambles and fallen trees, the house empty of everything save the solitary green bath. It was heaven.
The walls were crumbling lime plaster, a patchwork of layer-upon layer of flaking paint, or a flick book of wallpaper strata. The floors were slate slabs (confusingly painted black), quarry tiles, and upstairs a single layer of 14-inch floorboards through which you could/can hear every word and get a flickering impression of the action below. Where the agent had seen endless work, we saw none - although that turned out not to be true. The rubble-stone cottage had been entombed in a sarcophagus of concrete sometime after the First World War. That being the conventional wisdom on how best to protect and insulate such simply constructed buildings at the time. The reverse is true, the concrete served to make the house colder, and damper than the lime render with which it would have originally been finished.
Removing the concrete turned out not to be the work of a weekend with a hammer and chisel, as initially envisaged. Our early months were soundtracked by the jarring of jackhammers and cuss words. Things got worse when the builders called us one Saturday morning to say the end wall was separating from the house and would likely fall before the weekend was out. Their solution was to take it down and rebuild in blockwork. By now on a steep learning curve towards authenticity in Welsh vernacular buildings, we demurred and had them begrudgingly rebuild it stone by stone. Helping us finally reconnect the tie-bar that had inexplicably been disconnected in the roof space sometime in the past and holding the wall within an inch of two off its original position (a drift still discernible in the gap between the ensuite timber partition and the end wall).
While work continued, we camped with friends and family in the house for the first couple of summers, getting a feel for the place and working out how to adapt it into a home without dispelling its powerful mystique. The electrics we ran from a solitary, double plug by the front door (there was no electricity as recently as the early 60s), and bathing was conducted in a Poundland bath in front of the open fire. Slowly things came together; the outside and then inside was re-limed. We collected cast iron radiators one by one from eBay and installed them throughout, the kitchen was finally constructed using a snooker table slate for the surface and storage inspired by housekeepers cupboards at a nearby National Trust House, Llanerchaeron.
We augmented the '30s parquet floor' feel of the dining room with a reclaimed bolection fireplace. In the breakfast room, we added a (barn find) Welsh box settle and a new Esse stove for winter cosiness, and in the living room a pair of old armchairs with moquette that could have come from the Bakerloo line. We removed tinfoil-lined hardboard sheeting from a bedroom ceiling to reveal the original tongue-and-groove lining right across the low expanse. In the kitchen, we extended quarry tiles over what had been the dirt floor of the coal-hole, whilst also removing the ceiling to the catslide roof and installing some skylights to let in more light (a process we repeated in the bathroom).
We had our woodsman friend and neighbour @kennyboikie rebuild the decaying porch on the 'posh' front door (used only for weddings and funerals, apparently). He also made the pencil-point beds in the middle bedroom, the box-bed in the back bedroom, and the mighty oak table we use for alfresco dining. The garden was eventually revealed (apart from anything, it was useful to find out we had a septic tank) and a south-facing lawn was laid in front of the house. We let the rest of the woodland garden go native, home to slow worms, toads, foxes and overhead a booming population of red kites, as well as owls, woodpeckers and bats.
We finally got married at Dyffryn in 2015 in the tiny grey corrugated iron chapel at the end of our garden, one final baby and four years renovation after buying it. And the grand adventure continues because we never get bored of thinking about what to do next. Whether it's John's vision to plant the whole garden in Piet Oudolf drifts, plans for the pigsty, or my continued wrestling with the creaking upholstery, we just can't get enough of it. We are never going to be interior designers, blessed with a fully-formed vision and the money to execute it. Instead, Dyffryn remains in flux, constantly evolving and, like all good things, this takes time, something that being in Dyffryn with its mighty echoes of a less frenetic world encourages one to take."
In the last two years, I have got very into searching the whole of the UK for the best Airbnbs. When I say the 'best', I don't mean hot tubs and flat-screen tv's coming up from the floor (although I am actually pretty partial to both), its more about the essence of the house, seeing the owners decoration and love that they've put into it. No house embodies this better than Dryffn. I was excited when I laid eyes on it, which has only been compounded by having Helen take part in Knock Knock and talk us through their labour of love. I always envy people for their houses and think of how lucky they are, but in this case, I believe the house to be the lucky one. Helen and her husband have brought it back to life in a spectacular fashion.