Op/Ed

Jessie Raymond: Small screen, big fixer-uppers

I’ve always wanted to visit the British Isles, but I haven’t been able to convince Mark to go. So for now, I do my traveling virtually. (Of course, for now, we all do.)
Over the holidays I discovered a show that combines my Anglophilia with my other interests, mainly history, old houses and watching other people make poor life choices.
It’s a rebroadcast series on YouTube in which naïve British people purchase an abandoned property — a castle gatehouse or deconsecrated church or royal hunting lodge — with the intention of DIYing it back to its centuries-old glory.
I’m obsessed.
Never mind that these people have no building experience and a limited budget. Who can blame them for falling in love with these neglected spaces?
Like them, when I see a bank of leaded glass windows looking out over the Welsh countryside, or a stone threshold worn down by hundreds of years of use, I don’t think about money or time. If I came across an old castle with its original portcullis in the entry, hell yes, I’d buy it; who cares about drafts if you have an actual medieval iron grate for a front door?
In a typical episode, a young couple — I’ll call them Nigel and Clara — have recently bought a hidden “gem.”
“It may look like a pile of rubble at the moment,” Clara says, pointing to what is, in fact, mostly a pile of rubble (albeit historically significant rubble). “But if all goes well, we reckon we can have all 10 bedrooms, servants’ quarters, kitchen, great hall and roof restored by Christmas.”
The host blinks at them. “It’s September 12.”
“It’s a bit ambitious,” Nigel says with a wink.
We soon learn that Nigel and Clara have remortgaged their current home and taken out a construction loan on the new property. Nigel is on a three-month unpaid leave of absence from work while Clara focuses on raising their two young children. And she’s pregnant.
Neither has ever worked in construction or restored a historic property, although Nigel once built an end table in school. But they’re doing it themselves to save money, and they think they can handle all the work alone.
It’s adorable.
They haven’t anticipated a single problem, but there are many: the foundation is crumbling; the local building council is requiring them to use historically accurate lime plaster on the walls, a sixfold cost increase over sheetrock; the oak beams in the great hall are rotten.
Bad news is followed by more bad news in a slow drip, like the rain that runs down the back of Nigel’s neck as he roofs. He chuckles, noting how he has to singlehandedly carry 4,980 red clay tiles up 30 feet of scaffolding, 12 tiles at a time.
“Bit daunting,” he admits. (From what I gather, this is the British version of an outburst.)
They blow past their planned Christmas move-in date and through their budget, begging the bank to extend them another £100,000 (which is something like $40,000 or $160,000; I can never remember which way it goes). Clara grows great with child, while Nigel, who is economizing by skipping trips to the pub, as well as breakfast and lunch, manages to trim out a window.
In the end, we don’t get a glitzy, American-style reveal. Instead, the host returns to find the couple still plugging away. The baby they were expecting is now riding his bike around the cement mixer in the yard.
It’s been awhile.
In all that time, they’ve finished a few rooms — I gasp at the restored oak paneling and working Tudor fireplace — but fully 75 percent of the work is yet to be done.
They insist they have no regrets.
“If anything,” Nigel says, running a hand through the ever-present plaster dust in his hair, “we love this place even more now.”
“Yeah,” says Clara. “Life before — with central heating and being close to the shops and having money — was kind of boring, d’you know what I mean?”
Nigel concurs. “Now we have a great hall. Not many people can say that.”
I nod in agreement at the computer screen.
Mark eyes me with alarm. But before I can stop myself, I say it: “We should buy an old castle. You could fix it up.”
Whoops.
Thanks to my big mouth, now I’ll never get him anywhere near the UK.

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