Naomi and David Neighbour have sympathetically modernised two warren-like period cottages in Derbyshire, turning them into an open-plan home
Set back from a leafy, rollercoaster lane, high above the Derbyshire village of Whatstandwell, Posey Row Cottage is nothing short of idyllic. Gazing out across the rolling fields, it’s hard to believe you’re only 10 minutes’ drive from the local shops in Wirksworth. This is legitimate Range Rover country, where you can hear birdsong in the mornings and watch the neighbouring cows poke their heads through a gap in the hedge to eat scraps off your compost heap. “It’s an open buffet!” laughs owner Naomi Neighbour, who doesn’t mind one bit.
“We’ve been here six years now, and it’s still not finished,” she admits. “Bizarrely, when we first saw the cottages, we’d actually come to look at another house just up the road. Posey Row and Elm Cottage were already under offer, but the sale fell through, and when we came to look inside, we just knew straight away. It was a bit ‘olde worlde’, with lead pipes and Economy 7 heaters, but the cottages had all the rooms we wanted, and their layout meant they’d be ideal to join together and open up the downstairs.” The couple put in an offer and bought both cottages in October 1998.
Moving north to Derbyshire was a bold step, prompted by Naomi’s husband, David, landing a new IT job there. The couple had been living in Oxford for 11 years, and had never renovated a house on this scale before. “I was expecting Joshua at the time, and had two-year-old Jasmin toddling about,” says Naomi. “I don’t know how we managed – I was climbing up ladders and rummaging around salvage yards for tiles and stone slabs while I was heavily pregnant. You just get on with it, I suppose.”
David and Naomi rented a house 10 miles away while work progressed on the conversion. With Naomi – who works as a jewellery distributor – acting as project manager, she was visiting the cottage at least twice a day for seven months. “We couldn’t have lived on site,” she explains. “It would have been impossible. Walls had to be removed, ceilings taken down, plaster stripped off, a damp-proof course laid and central heating installed, plus new plumbing and wiring throughout. One of the really messy jobs was sandblasting all the beams, doors and fireplaces, which had been painted black by previous owners. The difference it made was amazing.”
The logistics of converting two cottages into one required hiring an architect, but the Neighbours already knew how they wanted the rooms to work. “Downstairs, we wanted a large open-plan living area, with a massive kitchen that had its own sitting area,” Naomi says. “We’ve found having a sofa in the kitchen means that when friends pop round for a glass of wine, we invariably sit there. It also means you can chat to the kids or to guests while you’re cooking. We definitely didn’t want a formal dining room that was closed off from everything else. Ours is an ‘open-door’ house – access all areas.”
Yet the modern, open-plan lifestyle was completely at odds with the warren of tiny rooms that originally confronted the couple. Walls would have to be removed, and doorways knocked through to connect the rooms. Support joists would have to be installed discreetly into the load-bearing walls, using the skills of a local plasterer to hide the angular girder edges. One set of stairs had to be removed and the other, more central flight, needed to be custom-made so that it led to bedrooms on both sides of the newly merged cottages.
“We really wanted to keep the original rickety old staircase because all the treads were at different heights,” remembers Naomi. “It had loads of character, but there was no way we could redirect the upper flight so it would split both left and right, towards each of the bedrooms.”
Originally, the two cottages had 11 external doors, so part of the conversion involved finding local Derbyshire stone – an evocative grey-pinky-green colour – to brick up four of them. Naomi had a creative idea for the disused doorways, inserting a window in each recess and building a wood-panelled window seat underneath. “We copied an original window seat in the sitting room, and had hardwood windows handmade to match. All along we’ve tried to make our alterations as sympathetic as possible, making it look as though the new bits have been there forever,” she says.
Although the cottage layout required much re-working, Naomi was keen to keep as many of the original features as possible – opening up massive Derbyshire stone fireplaces in the sitting room, dining area and bedrooms, and restoring the ancient oak beams hidden under modern ceiling panels. By keeping the walls white throughout (apart from the deep blue bathroom) she prefers to let the features speak for themselves. “I like it to look lived-in. Real. It’s not a show home with precise colour zones where everything matches. Having said that, Jasmin now wants a purple bedroom and Joshua’s got a silver wall in his room with luminous skull lights…”
Gathering the furnishings has taken the couple all their 17 years together, and as a result, their home is an eclectic mix of pieces collected over time, each with a story to tell: salvage-yard treasures, junk-shop finds, gifts from parents and friends, wedding presents and holiday souvenirs. A salvaged wood-burning stove here; a beautiful vase from a London pal there. Naomi even learned the art of upholstery to transform a junk-shop sofa, bought on a visit to Sheffield. “Its springs used to stick up through the seat,” she says. “I had to strip it down to the frame, replace the springs and padding, then cover it in new fabric. It took me three months and a lot of hard work.”
A local joiner – the same carpenter who fitted the window seats and realigned the rickety stairs – helped the couple find their cast-iron bath. “It was in a country house and belonged to a client he was working for, who wanted to get rid of it. David and I had been looking for ages for a bath that was big enough for each of us to lie down in (he’s 6ft something and I’m 5ft Sin) and this was perfect. We had to get it re-enamelled properly – not just spray-painted, as that just chips off – and as it only had three feet, we had to have another one made by a local blacksmith.”
There’s an interesting tale behind the kitchen too: “It was made by Pre-Eminence Kitchens in Matlock,” says Naomi. “The carpenter knew I didn’t want a modern pine kitchen, so he came round with a trailer-load of salvaged panelled doors instead. The unit carcasses are new, as are the large crackle-glazed knobs, but the doors are recycled – that’s why you can find keyholes in odd places.”
Finding a butler sink for the kitchen was no problem: the couple had been carting one around with them for years, taking it from one house to the next, knowing they’d have the chance to use it in their dream kitchen one day. “An Aga would really make this room,” Naomi adds ruefully, “but it just wouldn’t fit the space. And a Rayburn simply wouldn’t have been big enough for cooking on. So we ended up with an electric range cooker.”
As you might expect of an 1840s cottage, none of the walls are straight, and all those eaves and wonky floorboards are a nightmare for free-standing wardrobes, should you manage to wrestle one up the stairwell. So, the couple’s joiner made wardrobes to fit, recycling the redundant front door from Elm Tree Cottage as a wardrobe door in the master bedroom.
“We’ve had lots of things made to measure in this house,” says Naomi. “Take the pan rack on the wall in the kitchen, for instance. We’d been looking for one for ages but nothing in the shops would fit. So we had one made to our own design by a blacksmith, which cost about £180.”
After all this hard work and attention to detail, when you visit Posey Row you’d never guess that once upon a time it was a pair of poky farmworkers’ cottages. With its white painted walls and hard-wearing terracotta floor linking the entire downstairs living area, the cottage layout flows with a continuity that looks perfectly authentic. The original features and time-worn treasures help emphasise that this is a period property, while the large flowing living spaces and amenities, such as central heating, help make this a modern home that’s ideal for a young family. The Neighbours have truly made the best of both worlds.
- This feature originally appeared in Period Living magazine, with photos by Lu Jeffry. Styling by Donna Wragg