We were very happy to find a beautiful Georgian house in the heart of Rye, which we purchased in July 2011. Norman House was built around 1790 at the top of Mermaid Street, and incorporates two rooms thought to be the slaughterhouse for Sir John Shirley’s mansion (c.1660). It was listed Grade 2 in 1951 (about two years after the façade had been painted) and the three-bay frontage and doorway are noted in the latest edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England for East Sussex.
We thought we were aware of the scale of the project when we set out to restore the property. But we weren’t! The house had suffered from years of inappropriate maintenance which had resulted in significant water penetration. The brick façade, damaged by ivy before 1950, had been repeatedly painted with an impervious coat, which covered areas filled with a cement render. Frost damage to this coat had further damaged the underlying brickwork.
The house was obviously extremely damp, which we could see from the peeling wallpaper and plaster in the kitchen, and waterstains on the landing pointed to a leak in the parapet gutter. Local residents took some delight in telling us of the paint finish peeling away from the façade every winter and, indeed, the fresh white paint applied to the damaged areas before the sale had already begun to discolour. A dilapidated Edwardian extension at the rear contained a two-person lift, complete with sliding metal doors, which emerged into a small back bedroom.
We obtained planning permission and listed building consent and moved out of the house in March 2012. The semi-derelict extension was demolished and replaced by a utility room and bin store. The damp problem was managed internally by dry-lining the walls. Substantial insulation was added, the original sash windows were refurbished and new plaster cornices inserted. The opportunity was taken to rewire and replumb the property, including a new bathroom in a sympathetic second-floor rear extension. A new kitchen was installed and remedial action taken in the cellar to deal with standing water.
The work was extensive and we were guided throughout by local architect Roger Howells from Northiam. As with all such projects we encountered the unexpected – beams that had rotted, supporting timbers cut through for pipework, even an RSJ put in during alterations in 1991 that was unsupported at one end. Our contractors, George Stone of Hastings, cheerfully dealt with everything and reassured us that they had seen it all before! After seven months work inside was complete and we moved back in November 2012.
We debated what to do with the façade. We were recommended a specialist firm who had worked on many listed buildings. They removed paint and plaster from a test patch. At this stage it seemed feasible to clean and restore the whole façade, particularly as it had been inappropriately repointed with a cement mortar, which had to be removed and replaced with lime mortar.
Listed building consent was obtained for this and for rebuilding the parapet, but the conservation officer wanted to review the surface after cleaning. She was unhappy with the result, claiming the brickwork was too damaged to be restored and that the façade should be rerendered – though it had never previously had a render coat. Both sides took specialist advice; work was stopped and finally completed long after the interior was finished. We had to apply for retrospective planning permission, which was finally granted in November 2013. We will always be grateful for the support we had from our district councillors and from residents.
We were delighted to receive a Rye Conservation Society Townscape Award early this year. The society also nominated the project for a Sussex Heritage Trust award in the “small residential” category. At the awards ceremony we were extremely proud to find that Norman House was one of four award-winners. We now have an attractive slate plaque to commemorate the award.
Photos: Andrew and Liz Bamji