Merchant’s House, a sensitive Grade II* listed renovation in Topsham, Devon
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Merchant’s House — Sensitive Grade II* Listed Renovation Devon

This striking property overlooking the Exe Estuary, in Topsham Conservation Area, is one of a series of distinctive 17th century ‘Dutch style’ gable ended merchant’s houses. Grade II* listed for its archaeological and historical value, it has an inner courtyard and reclaimed estuary garden across the street – features typical of these properties.

Over the centuries various alterations, updates and repairs had been made, however the distinctive interior layout that characterises these houses was still evident, albeit joined together by a two storey infill. Unsympathetic moderisation in the 1980’s contributed to the interior requiring repair and improvement. The house was therefore in need of a gentle touch to bring it up to 21st century living standards whilst ensuring that its historic character was revealed and respected.

The rear portion of the house had become cluttered with a series of small rooms as a result of years of modifications. Careful re-planning introduced clearer circulation within the house, giving a sense of space and order. Structural and fabric repairs to the distinctive curved bay window were undertaken and modern services installed throughout. As is common with heritage projects of this kind, repair of the building fabric had to be balanced with value engineering and cost management. Outside, the traditional side courtyard was reinstated with flood measures introduced to protect against overly high tides.

A contemporary twist was introduced in the estuary garden in the form of a cabin to provide a modern retreat and painting studio. This seemingly simple construction was clad in charred oak with sliding folding doors to open out to embrace the sea view on sunny days.

The understanding and application of conservation repair techniques and materials, and their integration with modern construction standards underpinned the renovation, with close coordination with the Conservation Officer of the Local Planning Authority.

“Our huge appreciation for your guidance through a challenging project metamorphosing into a very happy end result” — Client

During the opening up of an unattractive 20th century fireplace in the house, and unpeeling centuries of infill and soot, the remnants of 17th century sgraffito plasterwork in a chequered design were discovered.

Following assessment by conservation specialists, McNeilage Conservation, it was decided to conserve this rare form of decoration – only to find a rarer tulip design underneath that. Following consultation, it was decided to focus upon the earlier tulip design.

The work received a special commendation at the Devon Historic Buildings Trust 2017 Conservation Awards:

“A very careful and considered unusual restoration; conservation at its best. Further, as noted in the submission, the restoration has given archaeologists evidence of the nature of the architectural decoration in these important buildings.” — Assessor

17th Century Tulips

During excavations in the garden, a near complete glass flask dating to the late 16th century or early 17th century was discovered. Originating from northern France, between Rouen and Dieppe, the flask would have originally been covered in wickerwork, due to its fragility, and would have been owned by someone of high status.

The flask offered an insight into the history of the property, where at the time Topsham was the main port for the city of Exeter. This is an extremely rare discovery and is one of the best preserved examples of its kind in the area.

The removal and subsequent cleaning of the flask, along with other artefacts discovered during the work including further, less exotic bottles, shards of pottery and painted tiles, was overseen by archaeologists as a watching brief during construction work.

Glazed Flask