Georgian-style farmhouse restored

Having initially regretted buying a run-down period property, Vanessa Sayce has created a dream family home and started a new career in the process

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Vanessa Sayce had recently finished renovating her Georgian house in the Cotswolds with husband Murray when she saw Roundhill Farmhouse up for sale, in the village of Kelston, Somerset.

‘The same family had lived there for generations, but their focus had been on running the farm, and they had neglected the house,’ she says. The main barns attached to the farm had already been sold and converted, and Roundhill was offered separately.

‘Walking inside was like stepping back in time as the house had been left to its own devices for years and was almost derelict. There were animals in the kitchen, yet curiously there was an immaculate vintage Aston Martin in one of the outbuildings. It was eccentric and wonderful,’ adds Vanessa.

She was completely taken with the house and asked Murray to consider it for their next project.

‘Bearing in mind we had only just signed off the papers on the renovations to our Cotswolds home, it’s surprising that he agreed to view it at all,’ says Vanessa. ‘But he saw the magic of Roundhill, too, and so we put in an offer and sold our freshly finished home.’

Project notes

  • The owners: Vanessa Sayce, who runs an interiors business, and husband Murray, who works for a French sustainability agency, live here with their children, Finlay, 14, Zachary, 12, and Madi, 10
  • The property: A six-bedroom farmhouse, built in the 1700s, with a Georgian-style façade from the 1870s
  • The location: Kelston, near Bath, Somerset
  • What they spent: The couple bought the house for £630,000 in 2005 and have spent £132,000 on renovations. The property has recently been valued at around £1.5million

Taking on a project

Instead of commissioning a full survey, the couple relied on the assurances of a surveyor friend, who advised them that they were buying a solid building. ‘It was clearly a wreck in need of renovation, but as long as it wasn’t subsiding or falling down, we were happy,’ says Vanessa.

With the intention of carrying out the work as and when funds allowed, the family moved into the house in September 2005. ‘Only then did the reality of what we faced hit. Our daughter Madi was just a baby, and our sons Finlay and Zachary were four and two. Murray was working in France at the time, and the house was almost uninhabitable. It was filthy and damp throughout.’

Vanessa Sayce's house. Roundhill Farmhouse, Kelston, Bath

Polished original flagstones in the hallway are elegantly offset by walls painted in Natural Hessian by Dulux. A Gustavian-style Mora clock, which is a family heirloom, is painted in Annie Sloan’s Versailles

Emptying the house

The first job was to empty out all the furniture, debris and buckets of rubbish that had been left in the house, and pull up the carpets. ‘There were six layers of carpet and newspaper. Once those had been removed, maggots started to come up through the gaps in the flagstones, and the wallpaper peeled off before our eyes,’ says Vanessa. ‘At that moment I just cried and really regretted what we had done, but I had to get on with it.’

Surprisingly, the family managed to stay in the house for the next three years while they saved up enough money for the renovation. ‘The children handled it brilliantly — they thought it was normal to live in one upstairs room, and wear wellies and hats in the house. They didn’t notice that Madi lived in Murray’s backpack until she could safely walk, as the floors were too wet to put her down,’ explains Vanessa. ‘I was completely consumed by the house, and the constant cleaning and fixing.’

Tackling the renovation

Instead of following a traditional order of works, the couple decided to tackle the inside of the house before the outside. ‘We upgraded the interior elements first, because we wanted a warm, safe home, and we left the roof until last. On reflection, that was the wrong decision,’ says Vanessa, who managed the project, hiring local contractors and experts as needed. ‘The roof was leaking the whole time, and so the house was never fully warm or dry.

‘Our budget was limited, so we took things one step at a time. It’s not the most efficient way of working, but we had no other choice,’ she explains. ‘This route has its benefits, though, as you can adjust your budget as you go, and when you run out of money, you stop. It’s far better than being hit with a big bill at the end of the project that you struggle to pay.’

Vanessa Sayce's house. Roundhill Farmhouse, Kelston, Bath

When the family first moved in, they discovered a huge number of marmalade jars in the larder – some dating from the 1950s – which inspired the name of Vanessa’s new company, The Marmalade House

Plumbing and electrics

The first major task was replacing the out-of-date and dangerous electrics. While the walls were being hacked into, the plumbing work also started. ‘We went over budget right at the start because we discovered unforeseen problems,’ explains Vanessa. ‘One night, I woke up to find water spraying like a fire hose out of the hot-water pipes. I had to direct it into the garden until morning. It was scary — I was at home alone with the children.’

With the plumbing work also came a breakthrough. ‘The existing bathroom had a dangerous electric water heater and a chipped bath, which I painted white in a vain attempt to make it look nice! But in March 2009 we finally installed a new working bathroom. I fell to my knees with the joy of having hot water in a new tub,’ says Vanessa. ‘It was wonderful.’

Restoring period features

To preserve the building’s integrity, she hired specialist plasterers to restore the walls and coving. ‘Roundhill is Grade II-listed, so while we were allowed to restore and repair the structure, we had to do it in a manner sympathetic to the age of the house — and rightly so,’ says Vanessa. To that end, the walls were coated with lime plaster, which allows the building to breathe and adds texture and character.

The next year, all the windows were either restored or replaced. ‘This is a job you must do in the summer, as it’s so draughty,’ she explains. Slowly but surely, the house was beginning to take shape — it was warm and dry, although the roof was still leaking into the upstairs rooms.

The living room is further testament to Vanessa’s commitment to authentic restoration. Along with repairing the coving, she commissioned an expert to replace the fire surround. ‘The 1970s fireplace had to go, and I found a lecturer at the local university who specialises in stonemasonry. I designed a new surround and he built it. Then he bashed it with bicycle chains to age it,’ she adds.

Vanessa Sayce's house. Roundhill Farmhouse, Kelston, Bath

Accessed via Vanessa’s walk-through dressing room, the space is decorated with travertine tiles from Mandarin Stone and hessian flooring from Right at Your Feet, for a rustic look. The inset bath is from Total Bathrooms Direct

Installing the kitchen

By 2011, the end was almost in sight, as Vanessa explains: ‘We installed the kitchen that I had been planning since we moved in and started the decorating. I had created almost 20 mood boards and I finally got to action them.’

Previously, she had made do with an odd selection of cupboards, a small stove and a wobbly dining table, but all the while she had been doing her research. Again, budget was limited and Vanessa found a local cabinetmaker to build the French country-style cabinetry to her specification. ‘He did it for such a good price that I was able to use the rest of the kitchen budget on top-quality Cumbrian slate for the worktops,’ she adds.

Interior design

With the new kitchen now in place, the decorating and furnishing began in earnest. Vanessa’s style is a blend of French-and Swedish-inspired design, which is very much in keeping with the period of the house. ‘I love Gustavian style, which originated in the 1780s, when a Swedish king visited France and wanted the look that he saw there in his palaces, hence the blend. It is a timeless and unfussy style that I think is in keeping with the age of Roundhill, too,’ she explains.

Vanessa has a background in fine art and prefers a subtle colour palette, so the rooms at the front of the house are painted in classical pale greys and beiges, while the back of the house has tones of light sage green mixed with grey. ‘I use different colours because the light isn’t the same from the front to the back of the house, and it naturally creates varied atmospheres that I wanted to enhance.’

Furnishing a large house on a small budget takes creativity and style, and Vanessa has both in large measures.‘I didn’t have enough furniture, so I bought old brown pieces and painted them using Annie Sloan paint. I was really impressed with the finish and visitors admired them, so I began doing workshops from home, teaching people how to use the paint and going to customers’ homes and styling them,’ she explains. ‘Over the course of a year, my interiors business was born.’


A traditional cream two-oven Aga range cooker adds warmth to the country kitchen, and perfectly fits into an original fireplace opening

A new roof

The project’s final flourish was the new roof. ‘It cost £25,000 and we saved up over the years to pay for it,’ says Vanessa. ‘There will always be maintenance needed on the house, but I am glad we took the leap as we love living here and I wouldn’t have got my business off the ground without it. Meanwhile, the family is enjoying not having to wear hats and wellies inside!’

The costs

Repointing and stonework£20,000
Renewed windows£9,000