Maggie McDow has modernised her Norfolk Grade II-listed farmhouse into a restful retreat.
Moving into a new home is a memorable occasion, but for Maggie and Mayo McDow, it was a totally unforgettable experience – not least because the elements had conspired against them. ‘We moved house in November during the most horrendous weather imaginable – there were storms, floods; the works,’ Maggie recalls.
A fleet of five removal vans were crammed with the family’s possessions and – in a scene reminiscent of Noah and his ark – Maggie and Mayo followed along in their car with their three Dalmatians, Boomer, Billeau and Bo, for company, with a Land Rover transporting their menagerie of hens and alpacas close behind. ‘It was a nightmare; a pure white-knuckle drive down country roads from our former house in Cheshire to Norfolk,’ she says. ‘We were also soaked to the skin from when we’d loaded everything up at six that morning.’
It was a relief when the convoy arrived in one piece at a Grade II-listed Georgian farmhouse set in five acres of land. The core of the property, which includes the kitchen and living room, dates back to the 1650s, with a later addition added in the 1720s.
‘Our previous house was situated up in the Chester stockbroker belt,’ Maggie explains, ‘and we wanted to move further south so that we could be closer to our two children, Ashley and Alex, who both live in London, as well as to my work. We also craved a bit more peace and tranquillity.’
The couple found the idyllic farmhouse after a year of solid hunting. ‘I loved the homely, country feel straight away,’ Maggie says, ‘but it was dated, the decor was not to our style, and Mayo just saw all the work that needed doing. Fortunately, though, he liked it enough to be persuaded to buy it.’
Once they had moved in, the couple got started on the renovations straight away. As the property is Grade II-listed, they were not able to change anything structurally, so they concentrated on the internal modernisation. This involved installing new bathrooms, including turning a large cupboard into an en suite, rebuilding rotten wooden window frames and installing a new ceiling in the master bedroom.
‘We were fortunate in that previous owners of the house introduced us to skilled local tradesmen,’ Maggie says. ‘They were unbelievable – just fantastic. We found people in Norfolk are so friendly and will go out their way to be helpful and accommodating.’
While the builders tackled the modernisation, Mayo, a dab hand at DIY, and Maggie, who loves decorating, set to work on the cosmetic side. ‘We both have full-time jobs, but were keen to push things along,’ she says. ‘We did it all in our spare time: the whole project took us 12 months of non-stop effort. Mayo and I did the painting and wallpapering ourselves, though we had help from a decorator right at the end, because we needed to get it all finished in time for Christmas and for a New Year’s Eve party Ashley and Alex were hosting.’
With the builders’ work now completed, the layout of the house has been transformed. A spacious entrance hall opens on to a study to the rear, to a formal dining area on one side, and on the other a sunny kitchen and a breakfast room with views over the front lawn. A decent-sized living room leads off from the kitchen with stairs up to the first floor. Here, there are four double bedrooms and three bathrooms, with stairs leading to a fifth double bedroom and a games room in the attic.
A mink-grey carpet runs throughout, apart from in the kitchen, with its wooden floorboards, and the breakfast room – this space has a cream carpet to mask parquet flooring that the couple felt jarred with their decor. Maggie and Mayo’s passion for bespoke furniture, furnishings and accessories means that each room has its own individual look. Rooms throughout also showcase the family’s creative talent: bespoke soft furnishings include patterns designed by their daughter, who founded interiors company Occipinti, and many pieces of furniture – either restored or built from scratch with leftover timber – were Maggie and Mayo’s handiwork.
The ceiling lights are another personal touch. ‘Mayo grew up in Texas,’ Maggie explains, ‘and when we were over visiting his brother, we saw some beautiful, cast-iron pendants we couldn’t get here.’ The couple had them shipped to the UK and Mayo hung one set in the dining room and another in Alex’s bedroom. ‘They are very heavy. When affixing the light in the bedroom, Mayo had to straddle the ceiling beam while I stood below supporting its weight with a pole,’ laughs Maggie.
One of the biggest DIY undertakings was the ceiling in the master bedroom. ‘We took down the old plaster ceiling to expose the original beams,’ Mayo recalls, ‘and out fell hundreds of walnut shells that had been used as insulation years back.’ The wood was also full of little nails from the old ceiling joists. ‘I had to pull out each and every one before sealing the beams,’ he adds. ‘It took me a whole week and, yes, it did almost drive me mad.’
Other tasks included employing a carpenter to repair the window sashes where they had rotted away and having a builder raise the floor of one of the bathrooms by approximately 20cm so that the shower enclosure could sit flush with the floor. ‘It was a big job, but I knew it would completely change the look of the space,’ says Maggie.
With the extensive renovation and decorating completed, Maggie has several favourite areas – the couple’s master suite for its tranquillity; the top-floor bedroom for its views; and an inviting guest bathroom with a vanity unit hand-built with old oak beams. ‘We’ve created a warm and homely house where we can enjoy plenty of peace and quiet,’ Maggie says. ‘It’s just perfect for us.’
Photography: David Giles