Enjoying the panoramic seascapes across the unspoilt saltmarshes of north Norfolk from the windows of her 17th century granary barn, Caroline Comber says she used to daydream about owning a home in Blakeney village, near to where she grew up.
That dream became a reality 20 years ago, when she decided to buy the old grain store. One of the original flint-and-brick harbourside buildings, Quay Barn is on Blakeney quay, and has a walled garden overlooking the boats moored along the tidal creek.
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Owner Caroline Comber, a landscape architect and RHS medal-winning garden designer (carocomber.com). When Caroline and her family aren’t using the property she manages it as a holiday let (quaybarn.co.uk).
Property A 17th-century granary barn built on Blakeney harbour, in Norfolk, in the typical flint-and-brick style.
What she did Caroline renovated the property with the help of her parents, enlarging the family bathroom and creating a master en suite. Following a devastating storm in 2013, Caroline had to make further renovations to repair flood damage to the ground-floor rooms.
Caroline’s project began in 1997 when her daughter Isabelle was just two weeks old. ‘My parents picked up the keys and they set to work right away taking out the old-fashioned sinks and built-in cupboards from every bedroom and giving the walls a fresh coat of paint,’ says Caroline.
The family had very few home comforts for several months as they gradually worked through their list of the most urgent renovations.
‘We had the Aga and a kitchen sink and lived with a muddle of inherited furniture for quite a while,’ says Caroline. ‘The greatest heirloom was the large farmhouse dining table that came with the house. The table was originally much lower, but as most of my relatives are very tall, my cousin extended the table legs.’
Two years later, Caroline made further changes when she reconfigured the first-floor landing, enlarged the family bathroom and built a master en suite in a disused corridor. Then, when Caroline and her husband separated in 2005, she decided to rent out the barn occasionally as a holiday home to generate an income.
‘I updated the kitchen, adding a second stove, and put in extra cupboards,’ she says. ‘And my dad handbuilt double bunk beds in the nursery, which are perfect for our holiday lettings.’
Things were going so well until a storm surge hit Blakeney and the barn in December 2013, when Caroline and the children were there.
‘My father telephoned in the morning to warn me and we managed to remove electrical items and lift most of the soft furnishings high up, but we had no idea just how high the water level would end up,’ says Caroline.
‘We made sure the dogs were safely locked in an upstairs bedroom, and took candles, matches and a bottle of wine upstairs!’
The seawater flooded in through the floorboards, the walls and eventually through the windows, reaching over a metre high within a single hour. ‘There was the most terrifying noise when the water reached the electric meter and then the lights went out,’ says Caroline.
‘When we looked out of the upstairs window, the garden was like a swimming pool. Three hours later, when the river burst its banks at Cley, suddenly the water level dropped quite drastically, which was very strange. The fire brigade arrived to pump out the water with massive hosepipes, and although we were left with two inches of silt, muddy water and the smell of damp, we were lucky and I really felt for others who were left much worse off.’
Caroline saw the flood as a cleansing experience that enabled her to simplify the house further, and a time to think about replacing the windows. However, changing the style of windows or adding double-glazing in such properties requires listed building consent.
‘I was unsuccessful with my application for permission to replace the rickety old windows,’ Caroline explains. ‘In the end, my joiners submitted a listed building application to the council on my behalf and liaised with the conservation and design team there.’
Caroline wanted to keep the frames as natural as possible so that in time, they would weather and blend in with the property. ‘I didn’t really want leaded windows, but the council was very insistent, so we chose an aged lead effect, which blends into the windows perfectly,’ she says.
‘The windows were the single most expensive part of the project but look absolutely stunning and in-keeping with the house, and are superb for insulation and sound.’
She has more recently installed new kitchen units, stacked ovens and refreshed the wall and floor paints. ‘I didn’t want too much technology, though. I prefer to keep it rustic and true to its core. Although finding the right balance to keep guests happy has been a challenge,’ she says. ‘The kitchen doesn’t have a toaster as I prefer to toast bread on the Aga – it tastes better, too.’
Caroline hired a local decorator to create a two-tone painted wall in the kitchen. Next on her wishlist is a downstairs cloakroom at the far end of the barn. She also plans to convert the boatshed into a separate living annexe with a courtyard.
‘This is a relaxed, informal home where everyone is welcome with dogs and muddy boots alike – it’s a great house for entertaining too,’ she says.
And although Caroline is the current owner of Quay Barn, she says she doesn’t feel too proprietorial over the house, as she still keeps in touch with its former owners, and the visitors who come to stay, even for a short while, often find themselves becoming attached to it, too.
‘People who have lived here in the past still come back and enjoy it today, and I hope my children will keep this house for ever and continue to appreciate and enhance its rich heritage.’
Photographs by Darren Chung