The little cottage, once a gate-lodge to a prestigious Victorian housing estate, stood empty, neglected, derelict. It seemed almost to be crying out... 'help me!' Windows smashed, door hanging open, piles of fly-tipped rubble and rubbish in the overgrown garden. The large garage on the side, doors open, corrugated roof broken, and an inspection pit with no cover, half full of water and less attractive, noisome matter.
We were visiting a friend, and we'd watched the deterioration of the little house over several weeks. I turned to my wife, saying casually,
"I wonder if the owner would be interested in selling?"
It was a throwaway remark. We were living in a rented flat not far away, but had been considering buying our own home; we wanted to live closer to the church we attended, to make a commitment to the area which was characterised by prostitution and drug dealing. My wife was a teacher; she'd been qualified and working for five years. I, although older, had just begun training as a psychiatric nurse. Not wealthy, but we were in a position to buy. My wife grabbed the remark and ran with it; there were times over the next few years I was to regret having made it, but we prayed about it. The area had a residents' association dedicated to maintaining the historical character of the area and improving the present condition; they helped us to track down the owners.
No, they weren't interested in selling – they were working on a grant application to restore the property to rent. So that, we thought, was it.
A few months later a used envelope bearing a message in pencil was popped through the door of our flat. Were we still interested in buying the Lodge?
We met the owners; looked around ... saw evidence of unsavoury uses. Broken glass, crumbling plaster, copper and lead pipes ripped out, wires hanging. Used condoms, old, dried faeces ... we agreed to buy. That was the easy part. It took six months to arrange a mortgage. Banks and Building Societies wouldn't touch it; we prayed. In the end the Council offered us a mortgage. We'd be paying a little more than we'd be paying in rent, but it'd be our house. We had to find a deposit - £500 doesn't sound much today, but it was a lot to us in 1978. We had to borrow money here and there to pay for the renovations, even though we'd be doing much of the work ourselves. We made a grant application to help with the cost of the damp-proofing work and bathroom – bank loans covered the interim as we wouldn't get the money until the work was completed
The owners agreed that we could start on some of the preparation work before the sale was complete; we boarded up the windows, repaired the door and fitted a good padlock, hasp and staple, began raking off crumbling plaster. One evening, we were hammering away and received some visitors – uniformed branch police. It wasn't difficult to convince them we weren't up to anything nefarious, and when they relaxed we had quite an interesting chat.
"Hm," said one, looking around, "last time I was in here, there were machetes flying around, and blood all over the walls."
We discovered the house had been a brothel; indeed, for several years after we moved in we'd occasionally have a visitor at the front door, asking for 'Sarah' or 'Jane'. The tenants had been deeply involved in the local crime scene...
During the initial renovations we were visited by 'Vice Squad' and 'Drugs Squad' – both of which had been interested in the activities at the Lodge in the past...
With the boards over the windows, we'd overhear conversations between the working girls and the punters outside on the street corner; one delivered in a sort Harpy scream sticks in my memory;
"I don't care what you think ... I want more than twenty quid!"
The sale was finalised – July fourth! We began work in earnest. The garage had to be weather-proofed and secured so we had somewhere to keep our motorbikes and for me to work and keep my tools. The inspection pit was so disgusting I filled it in and concreted over it. We filled a seven tonne skip with rubble and rubbish ... I sometimes said, when someone commented on the 'character' of the house, that;
"Most of the 'character' went into a skip."
But we tried hard to keep the original feel. We found that four of the original doors were intact and... 'original' under the hardboard sheets. The staircase and door-frames had to go – dry rot.
An electro-osmotic damp-proof course was installed, a mastic-asphalt floor laid downstairs; new windows and doors made in the style of the originals. New drains, new water supply and electricity all had to be organised.
I had to make holes in the ceilings to access the roof-space to lay insulation. A hundred years' accumulation of dirt and soot from the atmospheric pollution of an industrial city descended on my face. Once we'd got the hole we were able to vacuum the rest of the loft ... The holes in the ceiling remained through the winter...
The glass went into the windows on November 27th, and I moved in to sleep on an air bed in the 'lounge'. My wife stayed in the flat. It was quite a mild autumn.
December fourth, a van hired to move our bits of furniture and boxes of stuff from our flat. There was still no plaster on the walls downstairs, only four electricity points, all in the living room. Cold water taps, in the kitchen and garage. Chemical toilet, washing machine and tumble dryer, thankfully. No stairs yet – upstairs reached via a ladder.
The temperature plummeted and it snowed. Six inches of snow may not sound much, but two inches brings the city to a standstill. It wasn't helpful when moving furniture and cardboard boxes. The automatic transmission in the van did not help the handling on the slippery roads. There was snow on the ground from December fourth until Easter. The road gritters went on strike and the roads were skating rinks; I was riding to Middlewood Hospital, five miles, on either my 1956 Norton, or my wife's G2S Matchless, which was lighter and easier to handle. We never got the temperature in the house above fifty-five Fahrenheit and once or twice a week walked round the corner to a friend's house to bathe and change.
I got the stairs built, and they were installed, with some help, on New Year's Day. The gas supply was connected – after Christmas – so we had the cooker working.
The lowest point was in early 1979. I was upstairs ... I had treated the exposed joists with chemicals to eliminate worm and rot and was installing wires and pipes. I suddenly realised there was no way I could test my work before covering it with flooring. The immensity of what we'd undertaken overwhelmed me; the money, time and effort we'd spent ... we'd never get it back if I got things wrong. I just ... squatted, had a full-blown panic attack and wept. Then got on with the job, which has worked fine ever since.
One thing I did which I wouldn't do again was bury the pipework in plaster (wrapped in horrid gooey tape to protect it from the acid in the plaster.) It has since made things very difficult when I needed to access a pipe, and the cooling effect of the rising main led to a strip of condensation on the surface of the plaster.
Installing the boiler, I had to reduce the space in the fire-place with brickwork and line the flue. (it's all going to have to come out again soon – I want to open up the fireplace and install a wood-burning stove since we got a new, wall-mounted condensing boiler)
Do you know how a flue is lined for a gas appliance? You take a big roll of stainless-steel flexible tubing up to the top of the chimney stack. One end of the coil has a string attached which is dropped down the chimney to guide the end (someone stands below and gently pulls on the string).
There I am, on a ladder – I dislike heights – on a platform on the ridge of the roof, with a five-foot diameter coil of 6" steel tube. I take a knife and cut the packing tape holding the tube in a coil.
It was a good thing I'd been to the toilet beforehand. Yes, I installed a proper flush toilet.
I had the flue-liner in place and a terminal (cap) fitted, cemented in place before my wife came home. Never again.
Wiring – it was nice to have room lights. Socket boxes screwed to the wall, wires buried in the gaps in the stone, but no sockets until the wall were plastered.
I'd replaced the old floor-boards in the back part of the house before creating a small bathroom in part of what had been a second bedroom, leaving a small landing and a ten-foot by eight foot room which in time became our sons' bedroom.