PUBLISHED: 15:15 22 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:04 20 February 2013
A flair for design, an eye for detail and meticulous sourcing, has breathed new life into an old stone cottage, as Peter Booton discovers
Toni Ambrose jovially refers to herself as 'a woman on a mission', which seems a pretty good way of describing someone who has devoted five years of their life to meticulously restoring an old stone cottage in North Dorset. Clearly, this charming and talented lady not only enjoys a challenge but also has a discerning eye for detail, judging by the delightful and comfortable home of considerable character which she has created.
Situated in a small village south of Shaftesbury, the two-bed Greensand stone cottage was at one time the local shop and post office, although little evidence of this remained when Toni purchased the property in 2002. However, feeling that its interior was rather bland and lacking in character, she decided to improve things. "My vision was to put it back to how it might once have looked," she explains. "The house needed to come back to life. I wanted to work with what was already there from different eras and make it homely."
Fortunately, Toni knew a number of talented local craftspeople who could help her with the multitude of tasks which had to be accomplished. Essential repairs to the roof and drains were carried out, all the external stonework was repointed in lime mortar and the modern PVC guttering replaced with reclaimed cast iron. Many of the small glass panes in the existing metal-framed windows were cracked and so these had to be painstakingly removed and replaced. Also, a number of the old metal window catches and stays were broken, replacements for which were made by a local blacksmith.
The cottage's interior was completely rewired and replumbed, damaged floorboards repaired or replaced, internal pine doors stripped of paint and a new kitchen and bathroom installed. Whilst all this was going on, Toni remained in her home 'living in dust and rubble'. Her first Christmas in the cottage was particularly memorable. "There were 30 boxes of my belongings piled up in the dining room. My sister came to stay and we had to endure a cold draught from the fireplace. Then there was a power cut on Christmas Day!"
Most of the original fireplaces had been blocked up and so these were re-opened. The surrounding plaster was removed to expose the brickwork beneath, which then had to be restored, and a new hearth of blue lias stone added to the fireplace in the breakfast room. The sitting room, which once served as the village shop, lacked a fireplace and any other interesting features so Toni put in an oak-planked floor with profiled skirting boards and designed a large feature fireplace of red brick, complete with a huge oak bressumer beam.
Toni is passionate about using reclaimed building materials and restored pieces of furniture, and feels that if chosen carefully they will fit in with the age and character of an old property. Not surprisingly, one of her favourite places to shop is the local reclamation yard from which she has sourced brick, stone and timber for her home, as well as decorative practical items such as the ornate Victorian gazebo, which makes an eye-catching centrepiece in her garden.
During forays around various Dorset antiques shops and the like, Toni discovered a wealth of interesting objects, including the two sturdy oak doors from a school in Sherborne, which now grace her kitchen, and four restored church chairs that provide seating around the breakfast room table. Admitting to being an opportunist when out and about, she recalls spotting a metal garden archway, which was about to be thrown away, in the grounds of a building undergoing refurbishment. After asking permission she was allowed to take it, along with a stone statue and a staddle stone for the friend accompanying her!
When it came to fitting out the galley kitchen, still with its original clay-tiled floor, Toni wanted a country-style look and installed a compact electric Aga, for which a brick surround was built, polished granite worktops and a large oak dresser, which was specially made to suit the limited space available. A nice touch is the ceiling-mounted laundry drier from an old farmhouse, on which are now hung various desirable pieces of lace and starched linen.
Delicate lace items, ranging in size from small placemats to bedspreads, are proudly displayed in every room. With the exception of two remarkably detailed cushions, one of which came from a sewing school for young ladies in Florence, and the other created from pieces of old wedding dresses, all were lovingly crocheted by Toni's Aunt Mary.
Attractive French-style fabrics feature prominently throughout the cottage, where each window has been fitted with a handmade Roman blind, chosen in preference to curtains, which would reduce the available light when open. In consultation with Sandy Jones of Delight soft furnishings in Shaftesbury, Toni selected a fabric to suit each room, choosing a gold-coloured material and complementary trimmings for the bathroom, which Sandy then made into blinds to match the room's 'Timeless Gold' fittings.
After furnishing her home with so many lovely things, Toni focused her talents on the garden. Here, she has created a gently flowing waterfall alongside a broad flight of steps, built with old railway sleepers, which lead down to a reclaimed circular seat beneath a weeping willow, where she can now deservedly relax and savour the fruits of her labours. ?
Location: North Dorset village south of Shaftesbury
Accommodation: Ground floor: sitting room, dining room, breakfast room, kitchen, utility room. First floor: two bedrooms, bathroom, stairs to attic room
Building work and general restoration, carpentry, tiling, painting and decorating
Dorset Quality Trades (Kearne Brown), Gillingham.
Handmade soft furnishings and accessories
Delight (Sandy Jones), Suite C, The Trinity Centre, Bimport, Shaftesbury SP7 8BW. (01747 858342)
Reclaimed building materials, oak doors (kitchen), Victorian gazebo
Semley Reclamation, Unit 2, Shunters Yard, Station Road, Semley, Shaftesbury SP7 9AH. (01747 850350)
Old Dairy Antiques, Station Road, Semley, Shaftesbury SP7 9AN. (01747 853317)
David Jameson, Evercreech, Somerset. (01749 831355)
French painted furniture and decorative antiques
Liam Johnston, New Era Trading, Shaftesbury. (07976 792098)
Semley Forge (Alan Whiffen), Church Green, Semley, Shaftesbury SP7 9AS. (01747 830414)
Bathroom fittings from 'Heritage Range'
Sydenhams, Higher Ham, Shaftesbury Road, Gillingham. (01747 822246)
A & R Tiles, Unit 12a, Old Market Centre, Gillingham.
Richard Hardiman, Shaftesbury. (01747 854979)