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The Bell Tower Renovation Update

Historic buildings overlooking Penzance harbour
The Bell Tower overlooks Penzance Harbour

Just over a year ago Chris and I made an appointment to view a flat in Penzance. 'Do you think it's a bit too quirky?' I asked him, looking at the photographs in the brochure of the bell tower and spiral staircase but we went anyway and we fell in love with it.

The Bell Tower was built in 1834 as The First National School. It served for a while as part of the local council offices and was converted into four flats in the early 80s. Badly. When we viewed it, Flat 1 still had its floating ceiling with polystyrene tiles that hid the top of the beautiful arched windows. There had been no thought put into the layout and the proportions were all wrong. This was also a building that had been badly neglected; there was a strong smell of damp in the staircase and the walls were covered in green mould but what good bones it had and what a location! The Bell Tower is tucked away just off historic Chapel Street and overlooks the harbour and St Michael's Mount beyond.

We put in an offer that day. Due to legal complications it took nine months for the sale to go through. There were moments when we almost gave up but at the end of March this year we finally got the keys and we knew it had been worth the wait.

My builder, Gary, who has worked with me on my own house and all of the cottages at Middle Colenso began immediately. He and his trusty sidekick, Ed, pulled up the carpets and the Lino to reveal beautiful floorboards beneath or at least they became beautiful after five days of sanding. The hideous floating ceiling came down early in proceedings too and we uncovered lovely wooden boards above. Of course, this meant the existing stud walls were about a foot too short so they had to be re-built but this allowed us to tweak the internal layout and hide the plumbing and electrics inside. The plaster on the external walls literally crumbled away beneath our fingers so this was stripped off and Gary re-framed the walls and was able to add a layer of insulation. The elegant front windows, which such a feature of the flat, have been restored.

Three months in and it still looks like a building site but things should come together relatively quickly now. The bath and shower are in and Gary has started tiling the bathroom walls. The fronts for the kitchen units will arrive in the next week or two and there's even paint on some of the walls.

It's been a hard slog for Gary and Ed in particular who's found himself carrying all kinds of materials, including sheets of plasterboard, up the spiral staircase but they're doing an amazing job. This week, they're having a break from the flat to concentrate on the staircase which is shared between the two first floor flats. They've hacked off all the damp plaster and are prepping the granite so it can be pointed with lime. Naturally we've uncovered a few unexpected issues as you would expect with an historic building but this is just the first phase in what will be an ongoing project to fully restore it and the other three freeholders are all keen to do their bit.

So what will the flat eventually look like? Well, once we'd got over the shock of how much more expensive things have become since we last renovated and how much more work there was than we'd anticipated, we decided to go all-out. After all, this is the place we'll be living when we retire from Middle Colenso.

I've learned from experience that there are areas in a renovation where you can safely economise and others where you absolutely shouldn't. That means taps and showers from Lefroy Brooks and Vola, sockets and switches from Corston Architectural and radiators from my friends at Eskimo.

You probably won't be surprised to learn that a lot of the furniture will be vintage, partly because I love the patina, history and quality of vintage pieces but also because in age of rampant consumerism, preloved is kinder to the environment. I've already sourced a lot of the furniture, much of it mid-century Scandinavian, and some of my own favourite pieces will be finding a new home in The Bell Tower including a pair of Borge Mogensen's iconic J39 dining chairs and my beloved Spoke-Back Sofa. Oh, and there'll be plenty of books. I want the flat to feel like proper home from home so they're essential.

When it's finished which, all being well, will be by the end of the summer, the flat will sleep two people. It has off-road parking although it's ideally placed for anyone wanting to make the journey by train. It's right in the centre of town and is in easy walking distance of all that Penzance has to offer. You'll be able to book via the website but feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or would like to reserve any dates.

#renovation #renovationstories #historicbuilding #selfcatering #thebelltower #penzance

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