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Heart of a Devon village to beat again

— 21 Nov 2016

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In 2014, the multimillionaire founder of social networking site Bebo, Michael Birch, bought a collection of run-down buildings in the North Devon village of Woolsery.

He had fond childhood memories of the village and on visiting it many years later was saddened to find many of his favourite buildings in a state of disrepair.

One year after being selected to facilitate the repair, conservation and development of The Farmers Arms pub and historic Manor House, Devon-based conservation architects Jonathan Rhind Architects (JRA) are working hard to inject new life into some of the village’s oldest buildings.

Initial archaeological assessments of The Farmers Arms suggested that it had served as a public house for much of its 300-year life, before the last pint was pulled in 2012. It had since lain abandoned in the centre of the village. Michael’s vision was to see it restored to the working pub he remembered with affection, while still retaining its unique character as a historic building.

As work began, it quickly became clear that the pub’s roof would need immediate attention to protect the rest of the building, as the original timber beams were beginning to rot due to water damage.

At first it looked as though the only option to save the building from further water damage would be to build an entirely new roof, but with a brief to retain as much of the pub’s original character as possible, the architects explored ways of repairing the 18th century timbers.
Jonny Poland, conservation architect at Jonathan Rhind Architects, said: “The simple method of repair would have been to build a completely new roof but we felt this would have led to the loss of the subtle character of not only the roof, but the building that had taken shape over the last 300 years.

“So we took on the far more difficult challenge of repairing the existing structure. We formed a team of specialist engineers and local craftsmen and developed a method of recording every piece of timber before carefully dismantling it and repairing each individual element, before re-assembling it with added support from discrete steelwork where necessary.”
To further retain the building’s traditional character, it was decided to demolish an aesthetically unsympathetic 1980s kitchen, cellar and WC extension.

Plans for a replacement kitchen extension include a timber louvered gable, which references local vernacular barns whilst providing necessary ventilation for commercial kitchen appliances hidden from view within the roof space. A separate bin store will be built away from the main building to ensure that it’s not visible to customers.

Redevelopment to the rear of the building will also allow for improved level access to the pub. Currently the front door exits directly onto the main road through the village, and parking facilities are limited. New plans detail extended parking facilities to the rear, as well as a walled beer garden to make the most of the outside space.

Across the road lies Woolsery’s historic Manor House, parts of which are believed to date back to medieval times, and work is now under way to turn it into a 19-bedroom hotel and public café. The grassed area at the front of the building is set to become a village green, with its existing raised wall lowered and a public footpath laid through its centre to allow for safer pedestrian access from the primary school to the middle of the village.

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