SANDFORD House was almost beyond repair when Ralph Webster and Evelyn Hardie bought it, but their tenacity and hard work has brought it back to life. Located near Newport on Tay, Sandford House started out as a thatched cottage. Built in 1902 for Harben J Valentine, the photographic publisher from Dundee and photographer to Queen Victoria, Sandford is one of only two houses in Scotland designed by MH Baillie Scott, renowned architect and member of the Arts & Crafts movement.
In 1910, an additional wing was added to the property but it wasn’t to be there for long. Later that year a catastrophic fire left only the walls standing. Baillie Scott was once again commissioned, to redesign the house, turning it into an elegant Arts & Crafts mansion, but this time it was rebuilt with harled brick walls and a tiled roof to reduce the fire risk.
When the house was sold in the 1960s it was converted into a hotel and for many years enjoyed much success, with an additional wing being added in 1979. However, by 2007 business had dwindled and the hotel was in a serious state of disrepair, as current owners Ralph and Evelyn can testify to: “We booked a viewing and when we came in it stank like rotten cabbage. The kitchen floor was so deep in grease and fat, it was like the deep fat fryers had been tipped upside down, and there were even dead mice stuck in the grease.”
With such a pretty picture painted, why on earth did the couple go ahead and buy the property – after all, even the estate agent didn’t want to go in? “It used to be my local pub,” says Ralph, “and I used to bring all my prospective girlfriends here! As the hotel stopped making money it stopped being maintained and then of course it didn’t attract customers because it needed work doing. I’d always kept an eye on what was happening to the building but thought it was out of our league. However, when I received an email saying it was for sale I just knew we had to come and have a look.”
Evelyn adds: “Ralph wanted to rescue the building and he had one of the outbuildings earmarked for his cars, and whilst I also thought it deserved rescuing I could see it as somewhere we could make a living from when we retired.”
Ralph is a master mariner and Evelyn works as a graphic designer, and although neither are strangers to a challenge, this was more than a makeover project. Even purchasing Sandford took a year as the company they were buying from became insolvent. During this time the couple became unofficial caretakers of the property and did some roof repairs in the knowledge that they might never actually own it.
After selling their own property and renting for nine months they finally became the official owners in 2010. With 18 bedrooms, they knew that living on their own in Sandford didn’t make financial sense so their plan was to use the wings as holiday accommodation, but of course, first they had to make it habitable.
“We used the wing that had been added in 1979 to live in while we did the renovations,” recalls Evelyn. “We made a flat for ourselves, with a kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms; there was no point putting a caravan in the garden when we had so many rooms. We had to apply for planning permission and listed building consent, but because it had been a hotel many of the Arts & Crafts features had been removed and obviously there were many things that had been put in for fire regulations, so we started reversing all of that. Whilst Historic Scotland were delighted with our plans, the permissions still took another year to go through Fife Council, which was really frustrating.”
Taking the house back to its Arts & Crafts roots has been a painstakingly long process but the end result is stunning. And while the couple have done everything to complement the property’s Arts & Crafts heritage, they’ve also tried to futureproof the house. A ground source heat pump has been installed and the kitchen and downstairs lounge both benefit from underfloor heating.
One of the biggest changes to the property was the removal of the wall in the former bar and reception area, which revealed the fabulous ingle nook fireplace which had been blocked up and hidden behind the bar. “We couldn’t actually believe that this had been covered up, it’s such a stunning feature but the bar had been built over the front of it.”
Working from old drawings and photographs, Ralph and Evelyn have tried, wherever possible, to put back the past. “When we started the renovation we were featured on the BBC’s Restoration Home programme. They did a lot of research which they shared with us and that was really helpful.
“We did most of the knocking down and the dirty bits ourselves – the pine floor in the sitting room was covered in seven layers of lino so it took a while. Ralph likes knocking down and I like putting it back together and we’ve had the same joiner for five years! Now, we’re beginning to look at the finishing touches and I’ve discovered I have quite a passion for William Morris wallpaper.”
The renovations to the final holiday cottage were completed a few months ago, so the couple can almost take a breather, but in a house that oozes history from every pore, there will always be something else to discover or do.
Evelyn says: “It took us about two and a half years to make the house liveable and it’s taken us five years to get to this stage. We’ve now found photos of the garden when it was actually terraced so that’s another project we’ve started, but again, it’s a huge job.”
For a couple who obviously relish a challenge, have no doubt, they’ll do it justice.
• Sandford Country Cottages are available to let, tel: 01382 540000 or visit www.sandfordcountrycottages.co.uk