Catherine Bridger-Edwards confesses to having “romantic notions” when she bought her remote cottage, which sits on a bumpy track high above Hebden Bridge. It offered wilderness and stunning views but the rustic retreat also needed a serious amount of work. While it wasn’t quite tumbledown it was a major renovation project.
The 18th century property had been empty for five years and was damp and draughty with decor best described as “challenging”. It also needed new plumbing and electrics.
“We’d done a house up before so we thought we were invincible, plus we were child-free then so we had more time and energy. We didn’t realise this place was falling down,” says Catherine, who bought the cottage 12 years ago.
She and husband Andrew, who now have three children, Gabriel, eight, Aubrey, five, and two-year-old Hepsebah, began by ripping down a partition that had been built to hide the damp back wall in the sitting room. It was covered in wood-effect sticky-back plastic and when they took a lump hammer to it half the ceiling came down.
“We ended up having to put a steel beam in. There were a quite a few moments like that,” says Catherine. “I had visions of restoring the staircase but when I ripped the carpet off, the wooden treads came with it and the stone steps underneath were so worn they were dangerous. I ended up putting treads and carpet back on.
“Then when we took the hardboard off the walls, all the plaster fell off. We did one job and it created ten more.”
Andrew is an architect and Catherine a leatherworker and they are both practical and excellent DIYers, so they tackled much of the work themselves. They removed the cracked concrete that hid the original stone floors and installed insulation and damp-proof membranes under the flags.
They also uncovered and restored the original fireplace, hidden behind what they called the “Norman helmet” – a copper canopy from the 70s. It now boasts a cosy woodburner. Upstairs, they created three bedrooms, a bathroom and a landing from what had been one open space and a bathroom with no door.
The garden was another major project as it was full of items that had been discarded or saved as “might come in handy”, including tables, saucepans and an old Belling washing machine.
Although the couple did most of the grafting, they hired a plasterer after finding they weren’t skilled enough to tackle some of the walls. They also brought in talented local joiner Jacob Newhouse to create bespoke kitchen units and had some help converting the old mistle, or cow byre, at the back of the property. It is now a snug, better-known as Catherine’s retreat.
It’s decorated with her favourite things and is where she takes friends for coffee while the children have the run of the rest of the house. The focal point of the room is an old book press that she uses to glue pieces of leather together.
Catherine is a shoe maker who now specialises in beautiful bags and satchels. Her love of leather began with a desire to make shoes and a Saturday job with a clog maker. She later trained at Cordwainers and worked with Henry Maxwell and John Lobb before making everything from jackboots to saddlebags for the Royal Armouries Museum. All her leather comes from British tanneries and is tooled in her workshop in Hebden Bridge.
She and Andrew like to shop local and much of the furniture and the rugs came from a Calderdale antique dealer. There are also vintage finds like the leather chair, rescued from a skip in Todmorden and restored.
The narrow, winding stairs presented no problem when getting furniture to the bedrooms because there is a built-in alternative. The coffin hatch in the bedroom was created for taking coffins down into the kitchen and straight out through the front door, at a time when there no chapels of rest. It was also plenty big enough for heavy old wardrobes and chests of drawers.
New buys come from favourite shops like Spirals fair trade shop and Brocante in Hebden Bridge. There is also work by other artists and makers, including lamps from Hannah Nunn, paintings by Anna Gibson and automata by Lisa Slater. Their work stands out against the all-white walls, painted to reflect the light in rooms that are naturally dark.
Warmth comes from the woodburner, plug-in heaters and a Rayburn. “The old coal-fired Rayburn, which we called Mary after the previous owner of the house, fell apart when we moved it. It was held together with straps and bricks but it had run two radiators. We bought a new, oil-fired one, which we call Brian, but it’s not as efficient as Mary so the plan is to get a better one that can run central heating,” says Catherine, who admits that the cold and the weather can be an issue, especially when faced with the school run and the work commute twice a day.
Still, there are many compensations. “Sometimes I think we should move back into town but this house has a marvellous sense of history and Andrew loves it. He’s a hospital architect and this is a great contrast to the clinical environments he works in,” adds Catherine. “It’s wonderful for the children too as they have so much freedom. They can build dens, go sledging and have the kind of childhood that happy memories are made of.”
• Catherine Bridger-Edwards Leatherware, www.ce-leathergoods.co.uk