When Harry and Rebecca Whittaker bought a handsome limestone building where weavers once lived and worked, it had very little to recommend it beyond its eighteenth-century windows and views of Bradford on Avon. You would have needed a forensic architectural eye to spot the potential beauty hidden by the render, concrete slabs and featureless rooms.
Fortunately, as an experienced conservation architect – ‘but without the tweed suit and mustard trousers,’ he jokes – Harry was well equipped to tackle what, for most people, would be a nightmare project. He has recently set up his own firm, Bath Conservation Architects. Rebecca’s profession as a relationship counsellor must also have come in handy over the two gruelling years it took to renovate the house while they lived in a rented farmhouse, doing much of the work themselves before they had the money to extend the house. There was a lot of hard labour – taking down ceilings and stripping loose plaster, opening up fireplaces, laying marble and timber floors, and ferrying rubble to the tip. Every weekend, they took one of the original windows back to the farmhouse, Harry repairing the frame while Rebecca extracted and cleaned the thin panes of mouth-blown glass. When they could no longer afford to pay rent, they had to move into the unfinished house. ‘It was very hard work at times. And uncomfortable,’ says Rebecca. ‘I remember sitting in the cold, dark kitchen, crying on the phone to my mother, saying we’d made a terrible mistake.’
But as soon as the one-storey back extension’s steel windows were fitted, flooding the timber-framed kitchen with light, there was no more talk of mistakes. If you approach the house from the back, via a small stone courtyard, these glamorous windows alert you to the fact that this is no tweed-suit-and-mustard-trousers conversion.
Whereas the three-storey side extension is a textbook work of conservation, seamlessly blending a new hallway, utility rooms and bathrooms into the original building, the kitchen extension announces its contemporary status with a mix of opulent salvaged pieces and practical repurposed objects, which sets the tone for the rest of the house. Worktops were made from a slate billiard table, the kitchen table was once a ping-pong table (made by Harry’s grandfather), now topped with salvaged elm floorboards from upstairs. A collection of marble slabs, sourced online and combined to create a stunning floor, has echoes of history, with none of the ‘polished perfection’ that Harry dislikes.
This piecemeal approach to materials is a reminder that houses are a patchwork of shared histories, passions and previous lives lived there. All this is woven into the fabric of the house, along with the couple’s own family backgrounds. Rebecca feels an affinity with the wide, shallow stairs from the living room to the first-floor bedrooms, as they remind her of the Lutyens-style houses where she grew up in Kent. Harry’s father was a lecturer in architectural history at Newcastle University and a keen collector. ‘Dad would be restoring broken chairs and cracked china while my mother, who was an architect, would be worrying about the drainage.’
Despite rebelling when younger against what he calls this ‘knobbly old background’, Harry is clearly his father’s son. He has amassed a collection of ironmongery, industrial lights, plaster casts, doors and mouldings, to which Rebecca has added her own obsession: salvaged sanitaryware and taps. Floorboards and old windows were found on the internet. Where possible, the couple reused existing materials; the flagstones in the hallway of the side extension were found in the old lean-to kitchen, under four layers of carpet, Sixties newspapers, lino and concrete.
Weavers’ cottages were built to house looms on the top floor and living quarters below, and designed with profit in mind, rather than beauty or comfort. Panelling the thin walls of the sitting room has lent the house the appearance of a grander history and allowed Harry to add insulation. On the top floor, which once resounded with the clatter of looms, Harry and Rebecca luxuriate in a vast space made from knocking two rooms into one and removing the ceilings to reveal ancient roof trusses. The half-tester bed is one of Harry’s concessions to Rebecca’s need for softness. ‘He’d prefer a horsehair mattress like a monk, whereas I need to be comfortable in a feather bed,’ says Rebecca. But discord is rare – this is a house where harmony reigns in every sense.
Bath Conservation Architects: 01225-314074; .
The house and garden studio are occasionally available to rent on Airbnb; visit