Behind the doors of Emma Samms’ home makeover

Emma's beautiful Cotswold home

Emma's beautiful Cotswold home - Credit: Emma Samms

We follow the story as Emma Samms stars in her own version of Extreme Makeover

The ancient fire alarm system

The ancient fire alarm system - Credit: Emma Samms

Last year I had some American friends come to stay for a few days. After I had welcomed them and offered them a drink, I sat them down and began the twenty-minute tutorial on how to make things work in my house.

“To flush the loo you have to pump the handle twice, maybe three times, very hard and fast.”

“Don’t use this light switch in the kitchen, use the one by the other door. And there is no light that works in the office. If you need anything in there, you’ll have to get it during daylight hours”.

One of three very full rooms in the attic

One of three very full rooms in the attic - Credit: Emma Samms

“There’s hot water in the kitchen and bathroom all evening, but in the shower room it’s completely unpredictable. Let it run for a bit and see if the Hot Water Gods are with you, or not”.

This sort of thing might sound familiar to you if you live in an old house with lots of ‘period charm’ as the estate agents like to call it. Mine is a gabled, Cotswold stone, rambling 18th century wool merchant’s house, with a Victorian addition known to my family as “the modern bit”.

I’ve been living with my house’s “quirks” for so long that they actually don’t bother me as much as you’d imagine. I’ve found ways to work around them and that’s become modus operandi. It isn’t until you attempt to explain it all to someone else that you realise how ridiculous and laborious everyday living has become. And, of course, there are many things about my house that I’ve stopped explaining, though that’s probably a mistake. What appear to be decorative choices are sometimes horrors inherited from the previous owners.

Even more ancient fuse box

Even more ancient fuse box - Credit: Emma Samms

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Woodchip wallpaper, paper lampshades, dodgy secondary glazing, comedy pipe-work and an ancient fire alarm system are just a few of the eye-catching features that came with my house when I bought it twenty years ago. Luckily it also came with original fireplaces, beamed ceilings, Victorian servant bells and a rather lovely stained glass window. In truth, my house’s previous purpose as a children’s home, (it had closed down before I bought it, I didn’t turf them out, I promise) with its institutional fire doors and all over lack of cosiness, was probably what stopped it from selling for a year and a half, bringing the price down enough in order for me to buy it.

So, twenty years later, as I embarked on the requisite tutorial to my American friends followed by the disclaimers regarding the décor, I realised it was TIME. Time for the big refurbishment that I’ve been putting off since moving in.

I’ve always known the wiring needs replacing. They say you should do that every 30 years and mine is probably 1970’s, so it is well overdue. And the heating – well let’s just say I’ve been cold for 20 years. Knowing that it would be clearly advantageous to do both those huge jobs at once has meant that they haven’t been done at all. Time, upheaval and expense being three very good reasons to delay the inevitable.

Comedy pipework

Comedy pipework - Credit: Emma Samms

Of course, I foolishly convinced myself, if I’m doing all that, I might as well replace the carpets, fix the leaking roof, remove the woodchip wallpaper and redecorate throughout. I took a deep breath and started what I knew would be a mammoth undertaking.

I started by asking around to see if anyone actually had a positive renovation story. As with most things, the negative stories get far more traction than the good ones, but if there was such a thing as a non-cowboy builder, then I was going to find him (or her). I needed someone who was familiar with older properties of a similar scale to mine but not a stately home, National Trust type of builder because they’d surely turn their noses up at the more down-to-earth budget I had in mind.

So I heard some stories and I got some quotes. As a single woman my antennae are always up to being talked down to, being bamboozled by technical matters or any attempts to sweet-talk me. But likewise, I knew that finding a builder who I got on with was an important part of the equation. Looking back on it now it’s a miracle I was able to find anyone in that Goldilocks spot of compatibility but I believe I did.

Comedy pipework

Comedy pipework - Credit: Emma Samms

Richard Kelly is a well-known builder in Gloucestershire. He’s done many successful projects, big and small and is familiar with old buildings as well as new. He has a long list of enthusiastic references, all of whom I have spoken to but I also have one additional insurance policy up my sleeve: Richard is well aware that I am writing three articles for this magazine about the renovation of my house and if all goes well it’ll be the best possible advertisement for him but if there are any problems.. well, he’s a brave man that Richard Kelly!

As we walked around my house, discussing radiator placement, insulation and power outlets in all the rooms, I realised that the amount of possessions that I have accumulated over the years is excessive. I would balk at the idea of being described as a hoarder but I fear it’s borderline. The aetiology is a perfect storm of circumstances: My mother down-sizing and sending over a truckload of ‘treasures’ she couldn’t bear to part with, various friends asking me to store things for them, having the space in which to do so, a passion for antiques combined with regular attendance of the Wotton Auction Rooms sales, and possibly the most relevant excuse, no husband or partner to say “You don’t really need that, do you?”

Last year, my daughter surveyed the loaded boxes filling every corner of the attic and deemed it “Child abuse”. When asked for an explanation she said “If you go tomorrow then it’ll be me who has to sort through this lot.” Nice. But she has a point. So in the same way that one would write a will and even have funereal preferences declared, I vowed to leave my house in a condition that wasn’t too much of a nightmare for my kids. I’ve decided to distil all their childhood memorabilia into one large box for each of them and fill another two boxes with family photos and clippings. After that, on my demise, they can summon Wotton Auctions to find and sell anything of value and bin the rest.

I gave myself plenty of time to prepare the house for the building work. I knew I had to empty it out as much as possible, but I wanted to sort as I went and not just box up and put into storage things that I wasn’t intending to keep. This was a big job.

I hired a skip, became familiar with the local recycling centre and made regular deliveries to my local charity shops. I’d like to think that all the charity shops within a ten mile radius of my house are booming right now (especially the ones with easy parking) but it reached the point where my carloads of bags were almost too much; those shops only have limited room themselves so I dropped off bags in an ever widening circle from my house. I learned that the thing to avoid was waiting around to see if everything was acceptable as being handed back items by a charity shop is, frankly, a bit humiliating.

I decided not to move out during the build. Both kids were away at university and I could live in the bits of the house that weren’t being worked on. Whilst packing I’d put aside enough clothes to get me through a couple of months, plus anything else that was crucial to daily life. These were put into a couple of large bags that would travel with me as I moved around the house. Ray Cox, my wonderful moving man, came and took away a truckload of boxes of all my other personal possessions and put them into storage.

So the stage was set; my house was packed up (in the most part) and I’d told friends and family that I wouldn’t be hosting anything other than tours of a building site for the next couple of months. A new and empty skip was now parked in my driveway and next to it a portable loo. I was introduced to Noel the Foreman, Luke the Plasterer, Paul the Electrician and last but not least Andy and his three Plumbers. The thought of having working heating, predictable plumbing, a roof that didn’t leak and to be finally rid of my woodchip wallpaper was exciting to say the least and now the team who were going to make that happen were here! What could possibly go wrong?

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