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A Private View: thinking for the future in a Victorian villa in Dorset

Converting an anachronistic 19th-century house into a functioning family home that makes sense in today’s world is a challenge, say James and Georgia Montgomery – and that’s the fun of it. As they put Park Grove on the market, they look at the legacy they’re leaving behind

Adam Firman
A Private View: thinking for the future in a Victorian villa in Dorset

James Montgomery is telling us about his discovery of a map, dated 1918, he found hidden at home. “It’s the size of the kitchen island,” he explains. “You can see where the house is, where the apple orchard was, the original stable block, the paddock… I found it in a – sadly unsalvageable – duffel bag in the attic.” Looking on, his wife, Georgia, jumps in: “Can you tell we rather fell for the history of this place?”

Georgia, meanwhile, says it was the potential of this Grade II-listed Victorian Italianate villa in rural Dorset that first caught her eye. “There was something very pure about it,” in part, she felt, because it had been lived in by the same family for 100 years until Georgia, a full-time mum, her husband and three children arrived. “It was a blank canvas,” continues James, who runs his family’s wealth management business, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. The house had been cutting-edge in its day – the original 1900s Cecil Cooper & Co electricity board has survived, as has the servants’ bell cabinet – and had been quietly modernised since it was built in 1872, but in a pretty un-modern way: “There was still a spring-fed well. And a Victorian plumbing system,” he adds a little grimly. It was the definition of “living comfortably… In the 1970s.”

Thankfully, in the two years of renovations since, those creaking pipes and valves have all been replaced in a root-and-branch overhaul. Now, there are smart thermostats, zonal heating and 20 additional cast-iron radiators, as well as a brand-new electrical system. There are 12 solar panels on the roof too, a legacy of the last occupants, which offset the new electric Aga’s running costs, and that well has now been fitted with a pump. This drought-beleaguered summer, it allowed James and Georgia to water their garden.

Such an extensive refurb was always on the cards (the couple previously did something similar in a former Methodist chapel, which they sold through The Modern House in 2020), but a move was not. Twists of fate have led them to leave Park Grove – now on the market with Inigo – earlier than they had expected. “We bought this house thinking it was going to be our 20-year home,” James says. All of our design decisions and the quality of what we chose – from the light switches to the kitchen and the Farrow & Ball paint colours – were informed by that.”

An ironic consequence of this is that Park Grove appears immensely liveable. Georgia thinks this is because of their approach to historic homes; she and James believe they are more custodians than anything else. “You see so many beautiful listed buildings that have been gutted of their history. We have always tried to renovate in a way that will be appreciated by people in the future,” she says. James nods in agreement. “And I don’t think we could have achieved more in the time we’ve been here,” he adds. It’s a laudable legacy.

Georgia: “Our last place, Chapel House, was similar in age to this one, built in 1862. I think instinctively we’re drawn to historic buildings. We like the challenge of making what could be seen as a redundant or old-fashioned space into something suitable for today.

“When we looked at this place, for instance, what’s now the kitchen was an incredibly formal drawing room. We’ve since spoken to people who knew this house before, who’ve told us they’d never even been in here. For us to have transformed it into the most informal room in our house, which is at the centre of our busy, noisy family life, is immensely satisfying.”

James: “Georgia ought to take credit for that. When we first walked into this room, which was where the lord of the manor would have taken his tea after lunch, she could see that we could make it work for us, despite the weighty curtains and mahogany furniture.”

Georgia: “My approach has always been to try make sure the best room in the house becomes the one we use the most.

“I could see that there were magnificent windows in here that were almost being suffocated by the decoration, even though the fabrics were lovely. I did the same thing at Chapel House: stripped it back to its bare bones, to let the architecture shine.”

James: “We also knocked through into the room next door, which was once the morning room; it gets the best light around breakfast time. The idea 100 years ago was that you would move through with the sun, but that doesn’t fit with today’s lifestyles. By opening things up, we’ve made it work. We couldn’t have done it without Atelier Cabinet Makers, though, who worked with us on the kitchen here and before at Chapel House. They created a brilliantly realistic 3D render showing what the connected rooms would look like, which we used to get planning permission.”

Georgia: “But we were also quite cautious, which helped. We know from experience that asking for too much doesn’t get you very far when it comes to planning. You need to make the person reading your application feel confident that you’re not cavalier, you’re not going to ruin a lovely old building.”

James: “We’ve always tried to do that. We’ve also done a lot of the work here ourselves, while bringing up three children under seven. It’s been a big motivator to get things done.”

Georgia: “Definitely! Having a baby on one hip and a loaded brush in your hand gives you a singular sense of urgency. It made me realise I didn’t want to spend their entire childhoods renovating.”

James: “Though I think they’ve caught the bug now too. Our four-year-old often brings her toy tool belt in to play with while I’m grouting, for instance, and I found our seven-year-old decorating her room the other day. I had to force myself to ignore the fact the Blu Tack was going to damage the wall I’d carefully painted…”

Georgia: “Renovating with children reminds you not to be too precious, I think. If the home you’re living in is intrinsically beautiful, it can take a bit and still look wonderful.

“We wanted ours to be practical – and that involves upkeep. Houses like this aren’t ever really finished. Take the garden, for instance, which has been lovingly tended for more than a century. I have always felt a real responsibility to look after it, as I did with the building. Caring for this place is part of our family life now, whether that means picking apples or mixing grout or digging weeds together.”

James: “On the question of what the future holds, I think one day it would be nice to reward our efforts with a finished house… Or at least a partially finished one.”

Georgia: “He doesn’t mean that!”

James: “Fine. As long as there’s no major plumbing involved…”

Park Grove, Stalbridge, Dorset

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