Couple who drew long straw

Valerie and Greg Lack in the small sitting room.
Valerie and Greg Lack in the small sitting room.
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Valerie and Greg Lack moved from a bustling market town to a perfect chocolate box thatched cottage. Sheena Hastings reports.

THEY grew up and met each other in Pickering, marrying 37 years ago. They loved the town but over the decades it grew and became busier. They still knew lots of folk, but for them the town had lost some of its charm with the arrival of many new faces and more traffic, say Valerie and Greg Lack.

Despite having the glories of Ryedale and the North York Moors close by, the couple longed to live out there among those hills, in a quieter place with a spare room or two to offer bed and breakfast.

They’d completed the renovation of Valerie’s mother’s former house and, after a few setbacks, found the perfect place in the small village of Pockley, up a quiet road near Helmsley.

Approaching West View Cottage, the sight of deep thatched roofs is surprising, breathtaking even – and there are several of them.

The original part of the building dates back to the 17th-century, and for most of its life belonged to Lord Feversham’s estate. It’s built in the traditional Yorkshire Long House style of cruck (A-frame) construction with straw thatching. It’s Grade II listed and was made using whatever materials were available locally – limestone, oak and straw. A byre was later added to house the animals during winter.

Starting as a small croft for a farm worker and his family, the cottage has evolved over time. A cross passage separated the byre from the living accommodation, and lofted floors were added which were accessed via ladders. Finally, around 150 years ago, a barn with tiled roof was attached to the cottage, housing a carpenter’s workshop and blacksmith’s forge.

The byre is now the kitchen and the cross passage is a travertine tile-floored hallway leading to the low oak-beamed and panelled dining room and small sitting room beyond, whose bowed ceiling is even lower. The house is littered with reminders to “duck”.

On the other side of the entrance hall is a larger sitting room with beams, pale carpet and an eclectic mix of antique furniture, elegant lamps and classic easy chairs refurbished using striking contemporary fabrics. Valerie sourced many of the textiles at Wath Court Fabrics, near Hovingham, and Stitches, in Malton.

Greg, an engineering manager for a large commercial property company, and Valerie, who then worked for North Yorkshire Library Service, knew West View was for them as soon as they walked in.

“We fell in love with the cottage because it was more rustic than grand. But, while we liked living in an older house, we didn’t want it to feel like a museum,” she says. It had previously been owned by an elderly couple, and was in need of some modernisation – which had to be done carefully because of the house’s listed status. Changes were made gradually, as and when money allowed.

They used local craftspeople and suppliers wherever possible, but Greg could turn his hand to plumbing, electrics and some smaller joinery jobs. He fitted the three bathrooms and loo.

For larger projects, such as the kitchen and bannisters, they found a kindred spirit in master joiner Phil Magson from Pickering.

A bathroom was made in what was a void between the two upstairs bedrooms. They took down the ceiling to expose the glorious original oak timbers of the cruck.

When it came to re-thatching, the most obvious option would have been to go for reeds, but they would not have met conservation regulations. Like had to be replaced with like. “Straw is expensive because it’s a kind that has to be specially grown,” says Greg. “It was painstaking, but should be good for 20 years. Reed thatching would have cost about the same and lasted even longer.”

Valerie not only made all the lush curtains, she has decorated throughout and has a happy knack of putting together artwork, ceramics and other decorative items in groups that please the eye. They’ve added contemporary but subtle luxury, while maintaining an overall feel of easy comfort – and a lot of quirky interest with items found in favourite antique shops. Bespoke items like wrought-iron fire baskets add to the cottage’s tremendous character.

Valerie’s general philosophy is “you get what you pay for”, so there’s little of the cheap-and-cheerful in the mix here. Periodically refreshing a room is largely down to textiles. “I have a cupboard full of cushions,” says Valerie. “I change the feel now and again by moving cushions around, or getting some out that we haven’t seen for a while.”

When they first moved into West View Phil Magson fitted a country kitchen. More recently he returned to update the look – so out went the range cooker and in came an induction hob.

“When we saw the price of new kitchens, we decided instead to give a facelift to the old one, changing the flooring, sanding down the doors of units and adding a slightly ‘distressed’ look with a paint-on white product called Osmo.”

In the larger sitting room two Victorian portraits (of a Lakeland couple called Mr and Mrs Briggs) dominate one end of the room. They belonged to a neighbour who owns Bridge Antiques in Helmsley. She no longer wanted them when she moved to a different house and gave “Mrs Briggs” to her daughter.

“The daughter couldn’t live with the painting, as she said it did ‘spooky things’, says Valerie. “She gave it back to her mother – who reunited the two portraits and put them in the shop. We bought them, and so far no spooky happenings.”

The Lacks enjoy sharing their home with bed and breakfast guests, who stay in a separately-accessed en-suite garden room with a big brass and iron bed and a view of yet more beams. “I do my ‘Manuel’ act for visitors at weekends,” says Greg.

“We get a lot of returning visitors,” says Valerie. “So I guess they must enjoy the house. We certainly do.”, tel 01439 770526,

Useful contacts

Thatcher Jonathan Botterell of Stillington, near Easingwold: 01347 811005,

Bridge Antiques, Helmsley: 01439 771579.

Moorside Antiques, Kirkbymoorside: 07973 292956.

White’s Antiques, Barnard Castle:, 01833 638329.

Peter Silk, Helmsley: 01439 771500 – supplied and refurbished the Chesterfield and winged chairs.

Phil Magson Joinery, Pickering: 07974 205749 – manufactured and installed kitchen and other joinery.

GM & CE Smith Building and Joinery Contractors, Beadlam, near Helmsley: 01439 77167 – works to guest bedroom.

Kohler Mira sanitary ware, sinks, taps and showers: 07850 024805,

Custom-made ram’s head wrought-iron fire grate in small sitting room made by James Godbold Blacksmiths Ltd, Forge Garage, Egton, near Whitby, North Yorkshire Y021 1TZ: 01947 895562,

Bob Leete, blacksmith, of Nawton, near Helmsley: 07955 310994 – fire basket in large sitting room.