Build a New a New life in the Country

build a new life in the country
newton stewart (7/10)

Architect and property expert George Clarke meets another group of British adventurers who dream of creating homes in perfect rural locations. This week, he meets Dave and Debbie Slater, who hope to transform an old schoolhouse into an antiques centre.

Dave and Debbie’s obsession with antiques is about to change their life forever. They have bought Douglas House, a historic former schoolhouse built in the 19th century, in the popular Scottish tourist town of Newton Stewart. The couple dream of turning it into an antiques centre, tea room and family home, and want to spend more time with daughters Louise (21), Charlotte (14) and disabled son Karl (18). The house’s prime location means that business will be good, and it is ideal for Karl as it is opposite a disabled resources centre.

The 1832 building has been derelict for 20 years, with a rotten roof, damp and dry rot, but Dave and Debbie fell in love with it and bought it on the spot for £120,000. Until recently, it was at the centre of the community as a school, World War II civil defence quarters and a centre for the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service. Dave and Debbie are passionate about saving it from ruin and putting it at the heart of town life once again.

The Slaters’ budget for the entire project is just £35,000 –and the building is huge. George Clarke estimates it will cost nearer £80,000, and thinks they are attempting the “near-impossible”. They have also set themselves a six-month deadline to get the business open –optimistic, especially as they will be doing 80 per cent of the work themselves, in addition to their full-time jobs.

Work begins in September, and although Douglas House is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Blackburn every Friday night after an exhausting week at work, Dave and Debbie are in their element. Debbie in particular is forming a very special bond with the building: “It talks to me! I know you’ll think I’m mad, but it does!”

Unfortunately, it is not long before the true extent of the house’s problems is revealed. Not only has the roof been damaged by ivy, but half the walls have dry rot. Putting this right requires bringing in the professionals, which means that most of the budget is spent just three months in.

As well as restoring the building, Dave and Debbie also have to start up a new business from scratch, so any spare minute is spent bargain hunting for antiques. They are counting on their eldest daughter Louise to run the tea room, but a few months in, she begins to have doubts. “It’s their dream,” she says. “But I’m really not happy about moving at the minute”.

In February, Dave and Debbie decide to put their Blackburn house on the market, hoping for a quick sale to release some extra funds. Having lived in Blackburn all their lives, this is a wrench for all the family –especially Debbie’s mum, who is a carer for Karl. But now there really is no going back… and it is time for Louise to make a decision. Eventually she heads up to Scotland, along with the rest of the family and her new boyfriend. After a reluctant start, she finds herself won over by the house and its beautiful setting on the banks of a river, and decides to commit herself to giving this new life a go.

This is a relief for the family, but Dave and Debbie must now finish the renovation with just a few thousand pounds and are in danger of running out of steam. For inspiration, George takes them to Edinburgh to visit the grand Arthur Lodge, a building from the same period as Douglas House. It too has been restored as a labour of love by its owners, which gives the pair the drive they need to carry on: “It’s good to know people out there are just as mad as us!” says Debbie.

In May, George returns to Scotland to check on the family’s progress. Will they have managed to begin a dramatic new chapter in their lives, or did they bite off more than they could chew?

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