Karen Hamlen brought a rundown Grade II-listed property in Sunderland back to its former glory.
Located on a private pedestrianised street in Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, Karen and Steve Hamlen’s elegant period home is an oasis of calm in a bustling city. Built in 1856 for wealthy shipbuilders, its spacious rooms are spread across four floors. But when the couple found the house in 2006, it was in a bad state.
‘We looked at a lot of properties, but nothing as big or old as this. If you added up the square footage, our last home would have fitted in the basement,’ laughs Karen. ‘It was a complete wreck, but we just couldn’t resist the period features.’
Having just finished renovating an inherited three-bedroom semi in nearby South Tyneside, the couple were no strangers to hard work. Their original plan was to do up the house and quickly move on, but as time went by, they fell in love with the place and couldn’t imagine leaving.
It took three months for all the big, messy jobs to be done, which included completely rewiring the whole house. ‘Every room had to be replastered,’ Karen adds. ‘But thankfully we’ve had lots of help from Steve’s dad, who’s a retired builder.’
As work continued, some wonderful – and not so wonderful – surprises were revealed. Most of the original fireplaces were intact, but required weeks of laborious scraping to remove heavy coats of paint; the blackened floor was sanded to reveal the beauty of the original wide-pine floorboards.
‘We discovered an original pantry in the basement that had been blocked in by a mishmash of kitchen units,’ recalls Karen. ‘There was also a large utility room with a butler’s sink propped up on legs and a WC in the middle of the room – but no door.’ Now the basement has been damp-proofed and benefits from new sash windows and a window seat. ‘I like having the kitchen in the basement,’ Karen says. ‘If we’ve had dinner and the place is upside-down, we can just leave it and go upstairs.’
When the house was habitable, the couple moved in and continued the renovations bit-by-bit as their budget allowed. Tackling the original quirky colour schemes was quite an undertaking. ‘The drawing room was lime green and salmon pink, the guest bedroom was orange and brown, while the master bedroom was silver with neon cornicing,’ recalls Karen, who had to apply up to 12 coats of paint to cover up the brash shades sufficiently.
One of the very last jobs was reconfiguring the attic space. ‘It was formerly the servants’ quarters with three poky bedrooms,’ she explains. Now, it’s a bright double guest bedroom with an en suite, complete with sandblasted wooden joists.
Having so many floors means a lot of staircases, which meant a big expense – and a few problems – particularly when it came to carpets. ‘The fitter started using two different-coloured designs up the stairs, then laid them in the wrong direction and didn’t take them into the cupboards,’ remembers Karen. ‘We bought more carpet from another firm, but they came with a red stripe instead of the green one that we’d ordered. The fitters had already cut the carpet ready for laying, but luckily I liked the colour so we decided to keep it and received a 30 per cent discount off the price for the mix-up.’
With her flair for design, Karen has really enjoyed creating the room schemes. ‘I love mixing textures and putting old with new,’ she smiles. ‘For quirky pieces I’m drawn to interiors fairs, reclamation yards – O’Brien’s in East Boldon is a favourite – and independent stores, such as Wooly Blue in Jesmond, Newcastle. We’ve also picked up lots of the architectural ironware and plasterwork online.’ The couple’s most thrifty buy was the cabinet in the bathroom, which was just £40 on eBay: ‘After putting on a worktop and having a sink fitted, it looks fantastic and really makes the room,’ she adds.
Although they wouldn’t rule out doing another renovation in the future, Karen and Steve won’t be selling up any time soon. ‘We’ll never get a house as big as this again,’ she says. ‘The street’s so quiet and private, and I can walk to the shopping centre or theatre in 10 minutes. It’s a fabulous family home, and is also great for playing hide and seek, as there are storage cupboards absolutely everywhere.’
Photography: Katie Lee