Converting a village school was a labour of love for Glenys and Nils Persson. Heather Dixon reports. Pictures by Colin Poole.
Glenys and Nils Persson were so keen to find an old property to convert into a family home that they even went knocking on people’s doors asking to buy their barns and outbuildings. Unfortunately, no-one wanted to sell and after two years of fruitless searching they were on the verge of giving up – until they spotted a dilapidated old school in a village near Skipton on the verge of rack and ruin.
The disused school belonged to North Yorkshire County Council and had been run for a while as an outdoor centre before being left empty and exposed to the elements. It was to be sold by auction and there was a lot of interest.
“It was held at the local pub and it was the first auction we’d been to,” says Glenys. “Our family did the bidding. Nils’s father is a builder and the plan was for him to convert it into two properties, with Nils and I buying one of them.”
Their bid was successful. “We were delighted,” adds Glenys. “We were planning to have a family and this would be much bigger than our last house, and we loved its village location.”
Getting planning permission to convert the school into two homes was relatively easy, but working to the conditions of consent wasn’t quite so straightforward. The school is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so they had to stick to the original footprint and height and use the original stone where possible. When building work began, however, they realised a lot of the original materials had perished and they had to go back to planning for permission to use new stone where necessary.
“In the end, we used the reclaimed stone towards the front of the property and newer stone to the back, dismantling and rebuilding in sections to preserve as much original stone as possible,” says Glenys who, with Nils, lived in rented accommodation while the school was being transformed. “We also rebuilt a flat-roof lean-to and incorporated it into the house to create a large sitting room with our en-suite bedroom above.”
The dining kitchen was originally one of just two classrooms – the other is now in the adjoining property – while the open roof area has been transformed into two more bedrooms and a bathroom. The old playground was replaced with a driveway and Glenys tamed the overgrown garden while Nils’s father and brother carried out the building work. What happened next was bittersweet. In the last four months of the renovation Glenys, who by this time was expecting her son Noah, was confined to hospital bed rest. At the same time her mother was ill with cancer.
“There were so many mixed emotions,” says Glenys. “When I came out of hospital with our new-born baby the new house was ready to move into, which was wonderful, but then Mum died not long afterwards, which was heart-breaking. It was a really difficult time with so many life-changing events happening at once, but I took comfort in the fact that Mum lived long enough to see Noah and to know that we were settled into our new home.”
At around the same time Nils was made redundant so when Noah was a bit older Glenys and Nils launched their own business together, running a cafe and ceramic studio in Skipton. Even with so much happening, the couple never wavered from their mission to turn the former primary school into a warm and welcoming family home.
“We wanted to create the lived-in, country look,” says Glenys. “We like to find new uses for old things and will often go for something a bit retro. We try to mix old and new together.”
The fabric of the building is in keeping with its history, including reclaimed floorboards from another old school and beams from a disused mill. The bespoke painted wood kitchen was made by Eastburn Country Furniture and Nils has built in plenty of shelves and cupboards to create storage, which was lacking when they first moved in. “I love bright colours,” adds Glenys. “We use a lot of colour at work and that’s reflected in the house. They are cheerful and homely. We tend to live in the kitchen most of the time because it’s such a relaxing space, but the sitting room gets used in winter. We’re really happy here – it’s just the right size for us and we love the fact that the building has such a history to it.
“Some of the best moments are when people walking by stop to tell us that they used to come to school here. They like the fact that it’s been given a new lease of life and that children are running around here again after all those years of standing empty.”
Glenys advises anyone renovating an old property to work with the character of the building but have a clear focus on the way they want it to look when it’s finished. “There is so much choice that it’s easy to get side-tracked, so decide what you want to achieve from the outset and keep that in mind from start to finish.”