Secrets and surprises

PUBLISHED: 16:37 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013



Caroline Dunstall found there was much more to her 18th century farmhouse than she had first imagined.

Caroline Dunstall found there was much more to her 18th century farmhouse than she had first imagined.

Words: Victoria Jenkins

Pictures: Steve Russell

Many secrets were uncovered when Caroline Dunstall and her two children Helen (11) and Andrew (9) moved into a beautiful farmhouse, a listed Grade II building on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border.

"The most dramatic was when my children found a hidden room," says Caroline, a medical writer. "During renovations the purlings in the attic bathroom were removed. The children peeped through the gap and came running to tell me they could see another room beyond which no-one knew about. It turned out to be another section of the attic that was much bigger than the area we knew about. So now it's become a great play area for the children."

Another secret was revealed in the breakfast room where the remains of a manger were found. "Andrew came out with a sweet remark; he asked if Jesus had been born there," recalls Caroline.

Next, the builder told Caroline that a floor-to-ceiling cupboard in the living room had once been the site of a front door. "He could see the traces of a door frame inside the cupboard," she says. "He also pointed out a blocked-up window high in the wall which he thinks would have lit a staircase, long since gone."

Another secret was the strange little cupboard in Caroline's bedroom. "I've been told it may have been a wig cupboard - although it's lost its door. In those days you couldn't leave a wig lying about or the mice would nibble it."

And when the builders moved a door to a more convenient spot upstairs they found they were returning it to its original place anyway.

"We moved the door because to get to a bedroom you had to go through its en suite bathroom from the landing. We changed things round so now you go through the bedroom to get to the en suite - and uncovered a door frame that once been there long ago."

And yet another secret - potentially alarming - was how on earth the house had never burnt down, given the state of the chimneys.

"The sweep told us they hadn't been cleaned for 30 years and he had to return with stronger machinery to remove the debris. He finally staggered off with a huge builder's bag full of compacted soot, dead birds, dried twigs and old nests," says Caroline.

The six-bedroomed farmhouse was built in different stages over about a hundred and fifty years, starting around 1700. Where the back garden and garages now are, there used to be a farmyard. By the 1960s, however, it had become derelict but was rescued by a couple who left behind their Aga, now 40 years old.

"It just needed a really good clean and now it's perfect for all the cooking," says Caroline.

However a huge amount of work was needed on the rest of the house, which meant the family had to move out for six months.

"It needed complete renovation, from rewiring and replumbing to installing new oil-fired central heating and laying new floors," she says. "Enough evidence turned up to make us think the house may have been divided into two houses once - maybe at some point the farmer's son had married and needed his own space."

The farmhouse had some wonderful period features from the elm beams to the stone mullioned windows as well as two magnificent fireplaces.

"Although in the living room the fireplace seems to be older than the room so we think it may have been imported from another old building," says Caroline.

The stone flagged floors, however, had been covered with a heavy varnish which had chipped over the years and which took two workmen three days to chisel off. The solid oak floors too were filthy so had to be sanded and then treated with traffic wax.

Behind the house is a half-acre orchard, full of old apple, pear and plum trees. Caroline remembers her first summer picking the orchard fruit: "It was planted with things I didn't even know existed, like red gooseberry bushes."

The kitchen underwent the biggest transformation. Having obtained permission to demolish the pantry walls to make more space, Caroline had a new kitchen installed from Cotteswood Kitchens of Chipping Norton, with maple units, polished dark grey granite worktops, a double fireclay sink and a ceramic tiled floor.

As she works full-time and has two children Caroline has little spare time so she relied a great deal on mail-order when she furnished her home.

"I bought the sofas from Sofa Direct and Sofa Workshop, my bed from a specialist company in Wales, my purple silk and velvet bedspread from Plumo, bedding from The White Company, the lighting from Christopher Wray and the rugs from Next - all by picking up a phone."

And on the occasion when she did go round John Lewis, Caroline picked the same beige and terracotta check curtain fabric for the snug, kitchen and breakfast room and the yellow check version for the hallway.

"But I do take time when it comes to buying paintings," says Caroline. "And my favourite hangs in the kitchen. It's an oil by Craig Wylie and I treated myself to it after seeing it in the Jonathan Cooper Gallery in London - it reminds me of the Mediterranean even on the gloomiest winter days."


Yellow Bathroom - The childen's bathroom is painted in a Farrow & Ball shade called Gervase Yellow. This room was gutted and John Whitehall from Stow-on-the-Wold (01451 831810) put in the new suite. The decoy ducks are from Habitat.

The Blue Bedroom - Andrew's room is up in the attic, which is the children's floor with their own bathroom and sitting area. The bedding is from Habitat and Laura Ashley.

Breakfast room. The green-toned picture was painted by Caroline's mother, Margaret Lamont and given as a Christmas present. The antique pine table was bought from The Tithe Barn in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire.

Kitchen - The units and worktops came from Cotteswood Kitchens of Chipping Norton and the ceramic tile floor from Tiles of Stow in Kingham, Oxfordshire. The turquoise painting is by Craig Wylie and came from the Jonathan Cooper Gallery in London. The checked blinds are from John Lewis.

Snug - Meet Motty, a visiting lurcher cross. The white sofas came from Sofa Workshop and have washable covers. The check curtains are from John Lewis and the rug is from Next; the walls are in Dutch Pink from Farrow & Ball.

Living-dining room - The oak table extends seats 10 and came from Heals, as did the cherrywood chairs.

Living-dining room (other end) - The beige sofas come from Sofas Direct and the old stone fireplace may be older than the room. The walls are painted in Smoked Trout from Farrow & Ball

Guest bedroom - The guest bedroom looks out to the orchard. The beams are thought to be made of local elm. The twin beds have covers from The White Company.

Main bedroom - This is Caroline's favourite room. The purple bedspread of silk and velvet came from Plumo and the lights from Christopher Wray. The headboard is faux suede.

Summerhouse- When Caroline inherited the summer house, it was stained a vivid orange. She repainted it with Farrow & Ball's Lulworth Blue on the outside and Parma Gray on the inside, then installed remote-controlled lighting that can be switched on from inside the house. "Happy" the rabbit sits outside.

Exterior. The Grade 2 listed farmhouse is built of Cotswold stone. The part to the left of the gable-ended section is the oldest part of the house, and built from a slightly different stone.

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