• Sat. Oct 29th, 2022

REVIEW: Homeowner converting an ancient flour mill says she doesn’t give a s… what outsiders think about the project – she’s talking about Kevin.

May 6, 2021

REVIEW: There’s a very depressing start to the final episode of this series of Grand Designs UK (as if that fact wasn’t depressing enough).
Presenter Kevin McCloud shows us a derelict old flour mill in Cornwall that Leigh and Richard plan to convert. It’s winter; the trees are bare; the building is a blackened dilapidated, spooky monstrosity looming in the landscape McCloud even refers to it as “one of Blake’s original dark satanic mills”.
You would have to be mad to take on this project. As McCloud says: “This ain’t no domestic project. It’s an industrial building… and probably a building that’s going to resist being lived in.”
Grand Designs UK presenter Kevin McCloud has reservations at the start of this huge building conversion in Cornwall – a massive project by Richard and Leigh, formerly of Derbyshire.
This couple met while skydiving; they know about risk-taking. “We don’t tend to take the easy option,” Leigh says. “You’ve got to push yourself. If you don’t push yourself you don’t know how far you can go.”
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McCloud is worried. He doesn’t think their £250,000 (NZ$486,000) budget is anywhere near enough to repair the heritage listed building sensitively. He loves the old timber equipment on the interior the polished newel posts, for example.
The flour mill conversion has transformed the exterior and given it a new life. At the time of filming the reveal, the owners had yet to move in.
“That magic of the place. That magic lies in details like this,” he says. “Remove these, change, adapt, and actually, quite quickly you begin to chip away at that magic; at that spirit of the place. And there’s tremendous poignancy in that, because once this is gone, it’s gone forever.”
That quote was not a voiceover on completion in hindsight it seems he had a premonition that this is exactly what would happen.
Conservation builders start on repairing the brickwork, but surprise, surprise, the interior is in far worse shape than anyone thought. The building is absolutely “resisting” change as work gets underway – a 1mm gap becomes a crack big enough to fit a hand through.
Two weeks in, Richard and Leigh can see costs spiralling, and they’ve hardly started. They don’t want to spend more, so they will have to “claw it back” from other areas. (But Leigh won’t sacrifice her kitchen.)
There is disagreement between McCloud and the owners over how much of the interior they should be preserving, with Leigh saying she doesn’t care what “outsiders” think.
There’s even an underground tunnel full of water and it’s damaged. It’s affecting the structure. Flooding is possible. “There wasn’t any money in the budget for fixing this problem,” Leigh says worriedly.
So, they ignore it. Another high-risk strategy.
McCloud doesn’t even want to touch a single stone above a lintel, in case it all comes falling down. New timber lintels are required. They had hoped to keep 80 per cent of the original timber insitu, but that’s not happening.
Meanwhile, to save money, Richard and Leigh move into the tiniest caravan ever and put it inside a box for winter, which kind of makes sense.
McCloud is not happy ‘inside is a work of fiction’
The slates come off the roof. Bits of the building lie all over the ground outside “bits that maybe should have stayed inside the building”, says McCloud.
He is now despairing, and we have to side with him. “All my life I have loved old things and loved them for their cantankerousness and wonkiness, and their history and the stories they tell, the narratives they weave. And here it’s just being ripped apart.”
But the couple do save the old A-frame trusses in the roof. McCloud just feels it’s not enough.
New timbers feature extensively on most floors, but McCloud relents and says it’s a practical, simple solution that works.
The brickies have done a great job of repointing. At least from the outside, the building looks great. But Leigh and Richard, who are complete novices, are left to work on the interior themselves.
McCloud is brutal: “Outside you can read the narrative history of this building. Inside, however, it’s a work of fiction.”
Everything is new. Leigh defends their decisions, but Richard acknowledges “purists will be horrified”.
Old timbers from the interior are now lying in the garden (keeping the new timbers dry) and they are being fed into the fire. This is crazy.
‘I don’t think an outsider standing here is in a position to make a judgement’
Then Leigh says this after he goes: “You can’t save everything. It’s a significant building. We have saved, and to be honest, I don’t think an outsider standing here is in a position to make a judgement, and really I don’t give a s… about what they think.”
This is Kevin McCloud they are talking about not some “outsider”. They invited Grand Designs on the journey and now they want to dismiss his input, despite his 20+ years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom on projects just like this.
“Well, that’s me told,” is his response.
The best space is the attic level, where all the original timbers were retained.
Finally, it’s the reveal, and McCloud can’t fault the exterior. In fact he says it’s brilliant. The landmark building has scrubbed up beautifully. It’s “bursting with character”. “Romantic, beautiful and magical.”
But what about inside? Well, they’re not living in it yet. Lockdown has impacted materials supply, and time has not been on their side.
McCloud goes in by himself (social distancing), and says it’s an entirely new story. But he doesn’t mind now, because it is simple and lovely in itself. “I might lament the passing of the old stone floor, but this space is now practical,” he says.
And in the dining room the giant millstones have been turned into “Fred Flintstone tables”, which he describes as “bonkers”.
It would have been wonderful to see at least some elements of the old staircase preserved. But at least the new stairs are open timber treads and not out of character.
You would want to watch your head getting in and out of this tub.
McCloud, who appears to have got over his earlier dismay (or perhaps because he is a genuinely nice bloke), gives Richard and Leigh the best praise: “It’s a really nice job. It feels as though the new components, the bits of architecture that have gone into the building; they feel that they are of the building. And that is a plus.”
Yes, the ceilings are very low, but the attic ceiling, with its line of original timber trusses is quite superb. The couple plan to turn this into their suite. It’s the best floor, by far.
And the budget? It’s creeping up to £300,000. But clearly it was worth it.
This, too, was a worthy project to end this series. Richard is so exhausted, he can’t hold back the tears. And Leigh also, but she still says she’d do it all again “in a flash”.
If she does, let’s hope McCloud is right there along for the ride.
While this was the final episode, Grand Designs UK can be viewed at TVNZOnDemand