There are many qualities that make for the idyllic country cottage and when thinking about a restoration or renovation project, several questions are pertinent: Do we have a romantic notion of rural living as it was a century or more ago? Are we fascinated by the ‘idea’ of country living over the actuality of ‘real’ country life? Do we want the authenticity of a traditional build in need of repair or a modern construction designed to have the look of an old cottage? These are just some of the themes to be considered in the restoration or renovation of a structure and a home we wish to imbue with rural cottage features. Some people might choose to live modestly with few modern conveniences while others will prefer to include a slew of labour-saving devices, gadgets and gizmos.
In building reconstruction, attaining an appreciation of tradition and authenticity requires an approach that is sensitive, genuine and informed – the inclusion of time-honoured materials to a sympathetic restoration project is important. The essence of a rustic-style country cottage for instance can be realised by building in a traditional manner with traditional techniques – such as thatching and blacksmithing. One might use local stone, clay and timber, fitting picture windows and applying lime-wash to walls. Adding antique furnishings and heritage objects, such as ceramics and pewter pieces, will enhance the overall aesthetic.
Interestingly, it can be argued that such an approach heightens our romantic notion of the rural country cottage, when historically cottage living caused severe hardship for many. In the book “English Cottage Interiors” authors Hugh Lander and Peter Rauter argue: “The well-appointed, comfortable, bookish and civilised rural simplicity of today’s cottage interior, with its pot pourri and polished stick-back chairs is a triumph of casual cleanliness and informed taste. The inside of the nineteenth-century hovel was quite probably a scene of dirt, poverty and disease, where the occupants, according to their degree of luck, skill and industry, wrested what pleasure and sustenance they could from an unforgiving land.”
Still, the aforementioned hovels are likely the homes that have been eradicated with time. Many of the cottages that survive today are those that were occupied by people of greater prosperity and good fortune… “the homes of yeoman farmers, master craftsmen, minor professional men, tradesmen and even merchants,” writes Hugh Lander and Peter Rauter. The long-lost cottages were typically occupied by people of much lesser standing. Sometimes hastily constructed, they would make use of any materials that could be gleaned from the immediate vicinity, hence their lack of durability over the centuries.
In 18th century Wales, for example, there was an old tradition known as Ty Unnos or the “one-night house”. It was believed that if a person could build a house in one night on common land, that this land would belong to them. The house was built secretly between sunset and sunrise and the right to occupy was established if smoke was visible from the chimney at dawn. (Source: S4/C; The Welsh House) One authentic reconstruction of this tradition is ‘Ty Unnos’ cottage, a home built several years ago in the Carmarthenshire hills of West Wales, that has all the hallmarks of an 18th century cottage. Erected using traditional methods, the cottage is at once rustic, yet includes one 21st century convenience – a beautiful contemporary modern bathroom.
Lander, H. & Rauter, P. (2001) English Cottage Interiors. Cassell Paperbacks, Cassell & Co.