There can't be many people who realise their dream home is the house next door, but for Jill Dax and her husband William, that’s exactly what happened. They knew the house really well, and when moving day came around there was no need for removal vans, it was simply a case of removing a fence panel and carrying their furniture through the garden before setting it up next door.
Renovating and updating the 500-year-old house wasn't quite so simple, with its Grade-II listing to take into account.
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Owners Jill Dax, a magistrate, and husband William, a retired managing director, live here with their two border collies, Captain and Skipper.
Property The three-bedroom house in Dorney, Buckinghamshire, is Grade II listed and dates back to the 1500s.An extension was added in the 1930s.
What they did Jill and William relocated the kitchen, created a new utility room and added an orangery. They turned a small bedroom into an en-suite shower room for the master bedroom and knocked a separate bathroom and WC into one, creating a larger family bathroom. They updated the plumbing and raised the floor in the living room.
‘Our neighbour, a lovely Austrian lady called Hertha, became a dear family friend and her house felt like a second home to us,’ says Jill. ‘At Christmas, the children would pop round and Hertha would let them light the candles on the tree and regale them with Austrian traditions.’ When Hertha passed away, at the age of 93, the house was left to her godson in Austria with her wishes being that he sell it to Jill and William.
‘It was a very comfortable feeling for all of us and so special knowing that we would make many more wonderful memories here,’ Jill recalls.
Moving house couldn’t have been simpler for Jill and William, with minimal packing and not a removal lorry in sight. ‘My son Andrew gathered up his rowing friends and we removed a fence panel between the two gardens so they could carry the furniture from one house to the other,’ explains Jill.
The timber-frame house, which was originally two labourers’ cottages, was structurally sound but inside it needed updating. The oldest part of the house dates back to the 1500s with an extension added in the 1930s. Nothing had been done to the house since and its Grade II listing meant any modernisation had to be handled sensitively. ‘I’ve always loved old houses, and I wanted to make this one work well for our family without losing its original features and charm,’ says Jill.
Work began upstairs, where the couple knocked through from the master bedroom to a small box room to create an en-suite shower room - known as ‘the squeeze’ because it’s so tiny. A wall was also removed between the bathroom and separate toilet to create a more practical family bathroom.
The ground floor required more substantial alterations that included raising the level of the floor in the living room and relocating the kitchen to the newer part of the house. While the new kitchen was being built off site, the builders designed a false
floor to sit over the original quarry tiles in the living room. ‘The floor was uneven to the point of being dangerous and the tiles were in too poor a state to be reused. Although the Grade II listing meant they could not be removed altogether,‘ Jill explains.
The original kitchen was converted to a utility room and is where the couple’s border collies, Captain and Skipper, sleep. It also houses a tiny toilet that was originally outside. ‘We knocked through from the utility room so we could make it a more comfortable indoor facility,’ Jill laughs. ‘We kept the original outside door though, as it is over 500 years old. I often wonder about all the people who have walked through that door over the centuries. It’s all part of the history of this old place.’
Jill and William enlisted the help of local architect Bart Lacey in the design of an oak-frame orangery, which connects the kitchen to the garden and is used as a dining room. ‘Bart turned my ‘back of a napkin’ design into drawings that sailed painlessly through the planning process,’ recalls Jill. Builders Andrew and Bogdan shaped each piece of oak themselves, mirroring the house’s architectural details. Their skill and delight in the material is evident.
With the building work complete, Jill was able to turn the house into a special place for friends and family to gather. ‘I love to fill the house with people. It has become the place everyone wants to gather at Christmas, ready with the warmest of welcomes, just as it was when Hertha lived here,’ says Jill.
The living room, with its high ceiling, is perfect for the couple’s traditionally decorated tree, and a roaring fire. Jill and her daughter Elizabeth, who runs home styling company Dax Designs, add handmade garlands and wreaths, created from natural materials such as holly, ivy and mistletoe. They host Christmas craft workshops and styling talks for local people to share their love of all things festive. Candles, bowls of nuts and sparkling silverware adorn every room, and Jill decorates a bedroom for her grandchildren with festive fabrics, cushions and stockings.
Jill and William have achieved their dream of creating a wonderfully relaxing home for their family and friends to enjoy. ‘We have worked hard to preserve the integrity of this old building,’ says Jill. ‘It’s at Christmas, surrounded by our loved ones, that we can sit back and appreciate how much this house has always felt like home.’