Modernising a Georgian home

Renovating their Grade II-listed townhouse, Cara Wagstaff and Richard Parsloe chose blended styles with modern fixtures and grand antique furniture

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Although a crumbling orangery, the lack of a gas supply and an interior that was crying out for renovation might make some buyers wary, for Cara Wagstaff they were simply extra selling points for the Georgian townhouse she wanted to turn into her family home. ‘The property was completely untouched,’ she recalls. ‘The woman who lived here was 90 years old and her parents were the previous owners, but it hadn’t been modernised at all. It was good to be able to start afresh and I fell in love with the house.’

Having tackled tricky properties as a property developer, Cara wasn’t daunted by the challenge that lay ahead. ‘This was a fantastic opportunity to restore the house to its former glory. It was a blank canvas and I was designing it in my head as soon as I walked through the door,’ she says. ‘However, while it was wonderful that it was Grade II-listed, this brought its problems.’

The main one was that nothing major could be modified until planning permission was secured, but Cara had thought ahead. ‘We bought the property in July 2012 and, prior to this, had applied for planning permission to turn the basement into the kitchen,’ she explains. ‘We set to work as soon as that was in place and we had liaised with the conservation officer over the changes, but in August we realised that at the back of the property, all three storeys weren’t actually tied into the building properly, and the old orangery was rotten.’

Fact file

The owners: Cara Wagstaff, a wedding dress designer at her shop Cocoal Couture and a property developer, and her partner, Richard Pasloe, an engineer liver here with Cara’s two children Red, 17 and Zsa Zsa, 11.

Cara’s builder, Anthony Dobbs of Dynamix Property Services, who had been recommended by a friend, was surprised at what they found the further that they investigated. ‘The bathroom was basically a bit of studwork with a flat roof,’ he recalls. ‘We had been stripping everything back before we found that the rear of the house was only built off the joists on the ground floor. It came to a point where we realised that we couldn’t make good what we had, so we had to start again.’

Dismayed, but not disheartened, Cara reapplied for permission for the whole back of the building to be rebuilt. While the family waited, they did as much as they could themselves inside the house, such as stripping walls and painting. ‘We weren’t allowed to touch the structure of the house and had to stop work for a few months until planning permission was approved,’ she says.

Architect Roger Ford was tasked with redesigning the rear of the property in a style that was in keeping with the rest of the building and within the same footprint from the basement upwards. This rebuilt section was to include two en suite bedrooms and a bathroom. Fortunately for Cara, the rest of the house turned out to be in good condition.

Permission came through for the rear building work just after the New Year in January 2013. Starting in the basement, Anthony put in a new damp-proof membrane and concrete slab, being unable to damp-proof using modern techniques because the building was listed. Then, he knocked through into an adjacent room to make the space big enough for a large kitchen-diner, and finished by rendering the walls with lime plaster so they could ‘breathe’.

When it came to the layout of the kitchen, Cara knew exactly what she wanted. ‘I don’t like traditional kitchens and prefer very modern furniture,’ she explains. ‘Wall-hung cupboards are a no-no for me. I like islands in the centre of the space, which you can work around, because I see the kitchen as a place you live.’ Designed as the hub of the house, the kitchen is next to a cosy living area with a log burner that leads to double doors out onto the garden. Including a low-level table as part of the island helps make the space perfect for entertaining. With this in mind, there’s a separate utility room branching off from the kitchen, formed from two existing smaller areas, and which houses the noisy laundry appliances.

As the kitchen was now home to a dining area, Cara decided that both the existing ground-floor spaces could be used as living rooms – but finished in strikingly different styles. Complete with original fireplaces, each fulfils a separate purpose. ‘I wanted a more formal space, which is the front room with a large armoire, while the rear living room is informal,’ says Cara. ‘People tend to sit there because it has a big TV on the wall.’

As well as a self-contained bedroom on the same floor, the ground-floor twin living rooms show off Cara’s taste in décor to a tee. ‘My style is very distinctive,’ she laughs. ‘I’m drawn to French antiques with a modern twist and most of the furniture in here is French, but my main inspiration for the rooms was the design of the house itself.’

Keen to retain as much of the property’s personality as she could, Cara has restored the original cupboards and sash windows where possible, and has included something special in the main bedroom on the first floor. ‘When opened, the cupboard in there reveals the original wallpaper at the back, which I deliberately left as a little secret of the house,’ she smiles.

Similarly, Cara was disappointed to learn that she wouldn’t be able to use an original cast-iron bath in the new bathroom because it was too large. ‘We couldn’t physically fit it in and include a shower, too,’ she recalls. Instead, she sourced an antique-style bath and tiled the space in splitface limestone so it could function as a Romanesque wet room.

The bathroom, located on a lower-level landing, services all three of the first-floor bedrooms, including one that is now decorated with hand-blocked blue floral wallpaper. Hung with pretty silk curtains, this bedroom is a very different place to the room that Cara started with when she bought the house. ‘It was fairly nasty and full of dead flies because the upstairs bedrooms weren’t used. We had to put lime plaster ceilings back in all the bedrooms because they had fallen down, and meticulously restored the fireplaces to reveal the Painswick stone underneath the paint. However, once we started stripping back the walls in the blue bedroom, we found something really sweet. The decorator had signed and dated the wall in 1913 and I took a photo of it so I knew when it had last been decorated.’

Cara is the first to admit that the renovation was a massive undertaking and that financing it was tricky, especially since the planning permission had been delayed. ‘We were all working as hard as we could,’ she explains. ‘The whole family helped out on the project – everybody stripped wallpaper and painted, even the children. At one point, we were working for 18 hours a day and there was a lot of pressure to get it done. I had a £25,000 retention on the mortgage because it wasn’t habitable, which meant that the mortgage company held this amount back until the work was finished. In the meantime, I sold another property, and then when it was complete, I could finally remortgage this house. I financed the whole thing on a wing and a prayer.’

The house was eventually finished in May 2013, complete with elegant chandeliers, animal skin-effect wallpapers and plenty of French-style pieces. ‘I think the antique furniture really adds to the ambience of the whole,’ says Cara. ‘It’s quite bold, but I don’t regret it. There’s nothing I’m disappointed with or would change; the whole house is lovely.’

The costs

Reart building work£95,000
Kitchen (inluding appliances)£30,000
Fireplace renovation£13,500
Main bathroom£12,000
Front garden£11,000
Rear garden£9,000
French doors£100