A Restoration Haven: through the keyhole at a Georgian gem in Wirksworth

PUBLISHED: 15:26 04 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:51 20 February 2013

A Restoration Haven: through the keyhole at a Georgian gem in Wirksworth

A Restoration Haven: through the keyhole at a Georgian gem in Wirksworth

Wirksworth is full of eye-catching architectural gems, one of which is the elegant Grade II listed former hotel that artist Val Carman and her husband Lester Simpson, a musician, composer and performer, have so lovingly restored ...

In the heart of the historic market town of Wirksworth stands George House, whose solid stone walls have provided shelter and comfort for generations of visitors. Originally an 18th century coaching inn, the elegantly-designed building was the George Hotel before its current transformation into the perfect period property.

Artist Val Carman and musician Lester Simpson bought the three-storey building ten years ago and have devoted almost a decade to restoring, repairing and rescuing this Georgian gem from certain dereliction.

Now, in a fitting twist of fate, the couple recently began offering luxury bed and breakfast at George House plus contemporary holiday accommodation in a self contained apartment, which once formed outbuildings serving the main property.

Owner Val said: It is quite nice to be sharing it with the public as historically the building has always been shared by many.

But renovating and repairing this stunning property with its spectacular setting in a conservation area just two miles south of the Peak District National Park boundary, was a considerable challenge.

It was in a bad state of repair when we bought it, recalls Val, who studied Fine Art at university. There was water pouring down the faade of the building! It was incredibly damp. And I cant tell you how awful the external walls looked.

Before restoration work began on their Grade II listed property, Val and Lester sought advice from the local planning office and specialist local craftspeople. The creative couple then employed Wirksworth-based Val said: Both of us were involved in the work and Lester did a lot of manual work alongside the craftspeople. It was such a huge and expensive job and we had to consider carefully that each decision we took was the correct one.

The couple camped out in just two rooms for three years before they finished work on the apartment, which is situated at the side of the main house. Relief set in when they were finally able to take up temporary residence there until the main house was habitable.

It was an absolute delight because the apartment is contemporary and warm and it was great to be able to shut the door on all the work that was going on in George House.

Four years later the main house was ready for occupation. Lester, who is part of the internationally acclaimed a cappella trio Coope, Boyes and Simpson, began opening boxes of personal possessions that had been in storage. He was reunited with books and various musical instruments from which he had been parted for seven long years. It was strange and quite exciting to be finally opening those boxes, said Val.

During low points of their ambitious restoration project, Val, who specialises in photographic art, was able to draw on her keen skills of visualisation to keep her motivated. She had fallen in love at first sight with the first floor drawing room.

It had been used as a function room of a pub but I could see it was an amazing, beautiful, untampered-with Georgian space with windows which overlooked the town. I kept this in my head all along, with the hope that we could help bring back the rest of the building into a beautiful state.

The drawing room is indeed typical of Georgian architecture. An arch-shaped recess mirrors an original Hopton stone fireplace, located at the opposite end of the room, offering a pleasing sense of symmetry to this beautifully-proportioned space. Original cornicing and dado rails remain intact as well as the large original panelled window, which is dressed with cream cotton curtains with a sateen finish.

The drawing rooms first floor location is again a typical Georgian architectural preference, and gives a wonderful sense of elevation. Val said: It is lovely on an evening when you look out and see the lights go out in the shops, as people close up for the evening. Then the lights go on above the shops where people live. You see the town settling down for the night.

Val has dressed the room with several large cream-coloured squashy sofas, which face each other amiably, plus an antique chaise which adds a touch of glamour. Twin chandeliers illuminate the room, sourced from BHS a favoured outlet for lighting. This is a lovely room for our B & B guests to relax in, says Val.

It is also imbued with a deep sense of history. As the former function room of the George Hotel, it was the hub of much community activity. In early 1901 the local cricket club was staging its meeting when a messenger fresh from the Derby train ran up the stairs and burst into the room. He was anxious to relay important information that Queen Victoria had died. A minutes silence was held, while Wirksworth began to digest the momentous news and the event was duly recorded in notes for the meeting. This group of people would have been the first in the town of Wirksworth to know of the monarchs death! said Val.

Val and Lester are now busy imprinting their own history on the house, not least in their flexible use of the dining room. When relieved of furniture, it doubles as an exhibition space for Vals art work and also as a rehearsal space for shows.

Val, who photographs and makes her art at home said: This house is such a generous space it seems to allow us creative freedom. Its a very calm space and it can feel like a sanctuary at times. And that is not us; we dont bring that with us. The building provides that.

The sense of calm may be partially due to the gentle colour palette which is redolent of the late Georgian period and is employed throughout the house.

Val chose Farrow and Balls Bone for downstairs woodwork and many of the walls are painted with the restful James White emulsion (also Farrow and Ball).

It was a dark house, said Val. So we chose soft colours. We did considerable research looking at both colours and materials and I am hoping we have done it sympathetically enough so that it has retained its Georgian identity.

The dining area unusually features two fireplaces at opposite ends of the room, where open fires crackle from cast iron fire-baskets throughout the winter months. The 14-seater oak dining room table is a focal point. It was salvaged from a piece of flooring from another Georgian property previously owned by Val and Lester. We eat in here even if theres just the two of us, says Val, who admits that this is her favourite room in the house.

If the restoration of the fabric of the building is faithful to its Georgian past, the furniture is a homely eclectic mix, where a Victorian dresser may be juxtaposed with Edwardian chairs.

The most modern elements of the house are confined to the kitchen, with units by IKEA and the bathrooms furnished by Bathstore.com. Val said: Lester and I both like contemporary kitchens and bathrooms. They are easier to work with and are designed to make life easier compared to say, a Victorian kitchen. But there is nothing new in the rest of the house.

Almost the last element to be completed was the neat Georgian town-house garden, which was formerly a barren pub car park. As a visitor approaches the house and pulls up through the solid oak gate posts onto the crunchy broad gravel drive they can enjoy the effect of outdoor rooms with neatly-clipped yew hedging, and planters with box and quince trees in containers.

Val said: Its all more or less finished now and its lovely at last. It was always going to be worth it. You are only custodian for your lifetime but if you can help preserve such an old and historic building it is a real privilege. And we love to share it with other people. It just doesnt make any sense if you cant share it.

For enquiries about accommodation at George House or the apartment, see www.georgehousewirksworth.co.uk or telephone 01629 820256.

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