Bringing home the bacon: retaining character in a converted pigsty

For a builder to have a penchant for Grandma’s 1950s dainty, flowery teacups is somewhat peculiar, but for New Zealander Martin Gane and his English wife, the interior designer Elle Kemp, seeking out the traditional has always been preferable to the new-fangled.

Their family home, a listed Victorian pigsty in Gloucestershire, is a masterclass in traditional techniques and design. When they discovered it, eight years ago, the building was little more than a neglected ruin. A range of crumbling internal brick walls held up a leaky roof and the floor was bare soil. The few doors that were attached had been well gnawed by the previous residents, and most of the brickwork was worn away.

But, for Martin and Elle and their young sons, it was ideal. They had been looking for a project or land to build on, but with steep UK prices, they had been ruminating about moving back to New Zealand. They knew, however, that their zeal for ancient and reclaimed materials would have gone unsatisfied over there. “We are hunter-gatherers,” says Elle, “we love found and gathered objects.”

Constrained by strict building regulations, they had to retain the original walls and the former pig bays connected by a corridor, with a storeroom at one end, now the sitting room, where an old copper vat originally used to make up the feed had been abandoned in the fireplace.

These rules informed their design plans and, early on, they decided to be faithful to the traditional processes and materials of the building. They later discovered that it had been designed by Victorian architect Benjamin Bucknall – highly unusual for a farm building. Bucknall, a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, also designed nearby Woodchester Mansion.

As a child, Elle had grown up in a series of new-builds and Martin, on the other side of the world, was the son of a farmer in the untamed hills of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. They met when Martin was living and working on a large English country estate, falling in love over a shared obsession with historic buildings.

Every element of their work is exposed. “It is honest, because it is seen,” says Martin. “That meant we were particular about the quality of the work.” Elle adds: “We wanted to retain everything as it was, as far as possible. The pleasure of having an old building is seeing it and we did not want to lose its inherent character.”

These traditions are in evidence throughout, giving their home a comfortable lived-in feel. After Martin had sealed the roof and restored the walls, cobbles stored in the yard were re-laid in the master bedroom.

“Someone had taken down the chimney breast and put those bricks in the yard as well, so we re-built it.” Elle goes on: “We did not have the original plans, but we could see the line of smoke-stains on the wall, so we went with that and tried to keep it as close as we could imagine to the original.”

In the bathrooms, of which there are three, every scrap of pipework is on display. Leftover copper piping was turned into a bannister by the inventive Martin, who also crafted Elle’s engagement ring from a slice of the pipe.

Inspired by their favourite pub, the Woolpack, in Slad, they employed the elements they cherished most: cosy corners, dark wood and worn seating as a design principle and set about sourcing and building their kitchen and snug.

The result is a kitchen dense in glossy black paint and wood panelling. Reclaimed cabinets have been reinvented by Martin to store utensils, brass hooks await coats and brollies by the door, and there are rows of old books and ceramic jars stuffed with dried flowers and feathers. If you added a pint of bitter and a dog at your feet all would be complete.

“It is our cave, it is dark, embracing and all natural,” says Elle.

The snug is furnished with well-used sofas, threadbare rugs and vintage paintings. An old prison cell door, found at Frome Reclamation, is used as a partition to the corridor. Elle says her design style is “very much an evolutionary process, I like it to happen over time. I would rather have things just abandoned. My style is nonchalant. Materials are everything,” she concludes. “Traditional materials look great, they stick around forever, they age well – why would you not choose that?”