the good, the bad and the ugly

For twelve years there has been an on-going programme of building works at our cottage. The first thing we did was pull up the concrete forecourt and establish a front garden. (We knew this was not the priority, but did it anyway because we wanted the garden to establish itself.) Then we had the asbestos roof tiles, that the cottage had been sporting for many years, removed, replacing them with Welsh slate.

Above: newly roofed with slate tiles from a Welsh schoolhouse that was being demolished.

The Bad

Just before it came onto the market twelve years ago, the previous owners had spruced up the cottage with a lick of paint. They used modern, easily available polymer products: emulsion paint for the rooms and masonry paint for the exterior. For a modern building that would would have been fine, but the cottage is built of what in Wales goes by the name of clom, and in England, cob. Clom was made of whatever was locally available by way of stone, piled up and stuck together with clay and an admix of cow-dung and straw. Occasionally hair was added to help hold everything together. Our cottage was built from some medium-size sea-boulders packed out with a lot of rubble-stone. Clom buildings were painted with lime wash, which would build up in layers over the years to consolidate the clay surface. Moisture would continue to penetrate from rain and wet ground, but would be dried out in the heat generated by fires or cooking ranges inside, while outside any damp would freely evaporate from the walls when the sun came out and temperatures rose. This process worked when the cottage was built and it should have been working still, were it not for the coats of polymer paints. Lime wash breathes. Modern polymer doesn’t.

We discovered our beautiful but fragile old building had been compromised with the wrong paints. Damp became trapped in it. In the corners of rooms the walls effloresced and blistered as the modern paint broke down under the onslaught of damp rising from the clay the cottage was built on. In the winters things got worse.

Above: a corner of our sitting-room where the walls were badly affected by trapped damp.

Above: the photograph clearly shows where the wall had been repaired with cement render that was too heavy for the delicate underlying clom. A top coat of masonry paint temporarily held everything together, but had quickly begun to craze and allow damp to penetrate.

The Ugly

Above: at the edges of the widow embrasures, chunks of building material occasionally fell away. We discovered that repairs had been made with cement and modern fillers, which being heavier than the original clom hadn’t properly bonded with it. From fissures between the exposed stone rubble, dried clom haemorrhaged into worrying large piles of grit on our windowsills.

Outside the masonry paint started to blister and crack, though remained obstinate to being peeled or chipped away, particularly where it had bonded with the clom. Over the years the weather had penetrated fine cracks making the cement patches pull away from the clay mix, damaging it further.  We watched all this with mounting concern, not at all sure how to remove all the masonry paint from the building without further compromising the clay construction. Were the clom  to be exposed and caught without protection from the weather, particularly in the case of rain followed by a freeze, then it could rapidly begin to disintegrate. We would have to be prepared to ‘wrap’ it if the weather hit hard. Finally one bitter winter, the damp clom froze behind the crazed masonry paint, and a large chunk of exterior wall sheared away completely. We had a board tied in place to temporarily secure the hole against the weather, but we were out of time. The cottage wouldn’t wait any longer. Together with our builder Steve Edmunds, we further researched and discussed the plan of action while we waited for some decent weather before beginning the process of removing all the masonry paint from the delicate underlying clom. Repairs would then be carried out in the appropriate materials. It wasn’t going to be easy, but there were no choices. Steve was a hero throughout.


Above: with the top surfaces removed, the building reveals its origins. Rubble stone and a few old bricks dating from when the roof was raised a little, with clom and straw the glue holding everything together.

Above: summer of 2011 and the exterior of the cottage is newly restored and looking beautiful under its fresh coat of sparking lime wash. The window frames have been painted in the traditional manner for cottages in west Wales.

However, inside the cottage things continued to decline. The walls effloresced and crumbled under the unyielding polymer emulsion and the damp it was trapping. The unseasonable rain wasn’t helping things, as the ground was pretty waterlogged. We decided not to to face another winter of chunks dropping off the walls. Feeling confident from the fine job Steve had made of the exterior, we asked him to begin the long work of removing the top layers of paint and the cement repairs beneath them. Luckily once the work was underway, the old walls emerged surprisingly intact beneath the surface mess, though in need of patching up with the right materials.

Above: Peter inspects the stripped-back walls. The shelf above him would originally have been used for storage above the fire/cooking range, where food, in theory, could be kept away from vermin.

Above: while we were at it we decided to remove the ugly hardboard that had been tacked in between the beams, revealing the perfectly sound boards above. To the left can be seen one of the two planked walls that divided what would once have been a single-room cottage, into one with a hallway separating two smaller ones.

The cottage was extended in the 1930s, adding a spare room, a kitchen and bathroom, and an additional bedroom in the roof space called a crogloft. Luckily all this was sensitively conceived and executed, and although constructed in brick, the new building was a good match to the old, continuing the original roof line and fitted with twelve-pane sash windows. The new build runs left and turns into the back garden, making the cottage an L-shape and larger inside than it appears as you approach it.

Above: a photograph taken before last year’s exterior restoration, but showing the brick extension.

The Good

The interior clom walls have now been restored and decorated, and over the weekend Peter and I cleaned and put back the furniture. Steve and his team have been sensational throughout this project, tirelessly working to honour the character of the building.


Above: the sitting-room window embrasure, now sound and finished with lime wash. The walls of the old cottage are very thick, making it cool in summer and surprisingly cosy in the winter.

Above: light reflecting from the ceiling and beams newly decorated in flat oil paint.

Above: the stairs to the crogloft, and the cupboard beneath it fitted with perforated zinc to keep the space ventilated.

Above: I love the way the light changes in this space according to the time of day.

Above: a horn-tipped thumb-stick for walking and a couple of shooting-sticks for taking one’s ease, back in place on the coat-hooks. The shooting-sticks belonged to my father, and he used one or the other whenever he attended county shows.

Above: a fish-serving dish I made in the ceramic studio of my friend Pip Koppel.

Above: a door catch repaired long ago with wire. We’ve left it painted for fear of damaging the old mend, which we greatly like.

Above and below: this lovely old crazy-quilt shows evidence of having once been used as a dust sheet to protect furniture from a decorator’s paint splashes. It’s very fragile now, its silks frayed and threadbare. Notwithstanding that we made the decision to use it as a throw. Sometimes beautiful old things need to be functional and not put away where no-one can see them. Some of the patches are embroidered with insects and flowers. It was never edged, and remains unfinished in its ruined though still handsome state.

Between bouts of cleaning and and moving furniture, Jack and I strolled to the beach for playtime and reflection.

More Bad

The calm reflection was needed after I’d forgotten the bathroom window had a broken sash-cord, a fact that was brought home to me with remarkable pain when I released the catch and the top part of it crashed down like a guillotine to trap  and crush the middle finger-tip of my right hand against the immoveable lower half!

I yelled a lot!!!!! I swore and cursed! But Peter was travelling to Wales from Essex, so there was no-one to hear but the dog. Time passes strangely when you’re roaring fit to bust. I have no idea how long I was there, but I have a sore throat from all the baying I put up. The two parts of the window frame were so tightly jammed by my finger-tip that I couldn’t shift the one that had descended with such force to trap me. I was badly angled to get into an optimum position to push the window back up with my remaining hand, and I remained stuck fast. Finally, and with a force of will bolstered by mounting panic, I heaved up the top part of the window and released myself, thereafter hopping and stumbling around the cottage like a bull-elephant having a seizure. (Don’t know whether that helped, but it felt as though it was releasing the tension of the pain.) When I finally brought myself to look at my finger, the tip was weirdly flat and broad, like a kitchen spatula. I ran a basin of cold water and plunged my hand into it, trying very hard not to be sick.

Two and a half days on and it’s not looking too bad. I can feel it again, which has got to be good news. (For a few hours it was completely numb.) I’ll probably lose the nail, but it’s more uncomfortable than painful. I’m keeping it clean and anointed  with antiseptic cream. A lucky escape. It could have been an amputation rather than a crushing. That window was damned heavy. Needless to say Steve the builder has been asked to repair the broken sash cord, and to take enormous care when he releases the catch before doing so!!!

And a last bit of Good!

Here’s a nice picture of the garden to finish on!

30 thoughts on “the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. hi i have just found your blog while searching for info on clom houses, we have just discovered ours is clom although much altered over the years so its hardly recognisable, we too have damp problems and are not sure how to address it, getting conflicting advice, just been to see tom at twyi centre and got some good advice today, but would be interested to know who your builder was please? we are scared and broke, ha ha many thanks hazel

  2. A marvellously instructive saga. Those earlier cottage-builders certainly knew how to make natural materials work for them and your restoration work honours their legacy. Your home looks loved and beautiful in every corner – bravo to all concerned.

    But what a scary encounter with the sash window! Luckily you didn’t have to resort to the radical solution of the mountain- climber in that film…you know, the one who cut his own arm off when trapped in an avalanche? No, let’s not think about that. Your finger is fine now, I hope.

    • In the moment of irrational panic that had me in its grip, the ‘cut and run’ option did flit through my mind. (His name was Aron Ralston, and he was a ‘canyoneer’ who fell and got his arm jammed between some rocks. Danny Boyle made a film about the event.) Scouting around, the only implement I could find within reach was a very small nail-clipper! Luckily good sense prevailed and brute strength got the window open again. But I yelled a lot, and also did a funny ‘pain’ dance around the cottage as a way to deal with it. I think most people would have found it quite funny, but Jack looked horrified and went out to sit in the garden until it was all over!

  3. Well just a marvelously interesting post, one that brings back memories of old house woes. I had an 18th cent cottage back East, and we too had moisture barrier problems. You are right as right, modern paints are marvelous, but organic material cannot breathe; your poor lovely cottage. It suffered. Happily it has such generous saviors. Sorry about your finger. Sashes are a bitch!
    Take care, and thanks for the memories.

    • It’s a relief to have done this work at long last. We put it off for so long because we worried about how to go about it. But the results are great, thanks to the wonderful Steve.

      Finger seems to have survived. Whew!!!

  4. Ouch! We can’t do without our fingers. Are you going to have the nail bored? Doesn’t that keep it from sloughing off? Dunno. Should ask Mike…

    It looks quite splendid and makes me long to strip away certain inappropriate changes to our 1808 house. But shan’t, or not for a long while.

    • The work was pretty intrusive, and we were fortunate not to be living there while it was being done.

      Probably should have gone to the doctor about the finger, but didn’t. I’m watching it closely and will pop along should I feel the healing isn’t progressing as it should.

  5. Beautiful post, beautiful restored cottage…I always like the photos you post of it and was thinking of it when we were in the country recently – one of those earlier still life paintings. Sorry about the finger – that hurts like hell and you probably turned green before the sick feeling passed. Í’ve always been freaked out about things happening to my hands – it’s the piano player as well as the artist – so there’s that, too. Glad all ended well.

  6. Ouch! I cringed reading that about your poor finger, I’m glad it’s feeling a bit better now.

    This was a lovely (apart from the finger bit!) interesting post to read, the cottage looks beautiful.

  7. So sorry to hear about your trapped finger, that sounded bloody painful and unpleasant – thanks for tapping out this post with a badly bruised finger end! Love your description of the newly decorated rooms as like caves of icing sugar, it looks beautiful Clive, what a great job

  8. All’s well that ends well! At least as far as the building is concerned. Sorry to hear about your finger. I had something very similar happen to me once—while naked in a locked bathroom—so I know that pain. Screaming and cursing is quite understandable!

  9. It certainly looks idyllic and so peaceful. It looks the sort of place one would sit on that comfy sofa with a large glass of something, take a deep breath in, exhale slowly …and…relax. Well done on the restoration I hope you enjoy the fruits of your labour for many years.

    • It is peaceful, though we’re flanked by neighbouring properties and a road runs outside. But the thick clom has a way of absorbing sound. And of course the beach is only a fifteen second walk away, so the cottage is beautifully situated. I sometimes go down with my morning tea!

  10. How lucky to find a builder in tune with traditional buildings and materials. Painstaking and time consuming work but you’ve preserved it for many years to come. Living not a million miles away I am familiar with similar vernacular buildings down here. As you say Clive, they have ‘made in west wales’ stamped right through them!

  11. What a lovely story! This is the way I want to appraoch everything that comes within my power, the tangible objects and places, and also… myself. The travails of your cottage until you found it, feel like the story of what life has done to me – a sad story, but not, with enough care and patience, irreversible. Perfectionism is a word we should use much more carefully.

    • I agree Jean. Perfection can be a chilly thing to aspire to. Sometimes the character of an object, place or person, can be better served by a little tenderness and appreciation for what it is, as opposed to some deluded notion of what is ‘perfect’.

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