06 May 2020

Lose yourself at Filly Island

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Life began at Filly Island in the 1700s, when this cottage was used to store the cart which the neighbouring mill’s horse dutifully pulled upstream. Flash forward to today, and the building has received an extraordinary transformation thanks to the dedication and determination of its current owner, Mouse Martin. The building now serves as a luxury self-catering cottage in Cirencester, the Cotswolds – available for bookings via Unique Homestays – and is sat upon a tiny island accessed solely by a humpback bridge.

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Mouse Martin has a passion for upcycling and discovering use for old objects, and it is this quirkiness that makes this property so unique. Pre-loved finds have been revivified to great effect – from fire bucket lampshades and curtains made from old Hungarian grain sacks to the vintage mangle and cartwheel.

For Martin, the renovation of Filly Island was a long-held passion of hers, as she explains: “I actually lived opposite, and when the owner put it up for sale, it had to be mine! I had always wanted to pursue my own project, and the right home is often hard to come by.

“I look at the property over the stream from my kitchen window. It was put up on the market when I was away on holiday, and the Friday I came home, a neighbour told me it was for sale. That hour I put a note through the owner’s door explaining that I would really like to buy it – having no clue what it looked like on the inside or how much it was on the market for. That night, the owner put a note through my door which said: “Let’s talk on Sunday”. I made the best batch of chocolate brownies of my life, and we sat down and had our first chat about it. The owner told me she wanted the asking price and to remain there for six months, and that suited me just fine. She told me to put my offer in the following day, so I did, at 9 am, (this is when I learnt how much she wanted for it!). By 11 am, my offer was accepted.

“Initially, I had no clue what I was going to do with it. A fellow villager walked past one day with her dog and asked me the same question – I replied “no clue!”. She then told me that her father had sadly passed away, who she described as a hoarder and had left a barn full of old things. She asked if I would like to take a look, and that’s where the upcycling element of the interior derives from. I walked into the barn and instantly fell in love! I saw an old flip-top mangle, a larder cupboard, apple ladders, front doors, old painted doors and many other delights that now reside inside the cottage.

“The only structural changes I made to the build itself is at the front. I simply added a porch so visitors can sit outside and enjoy the full view of the two rivers joining at the tip and becoming one. Overall, it took me just under six months to gain planning permission for the project and construction ran for around four months. However, I did have the Christmas holidays in between, and my builders were travelling up from Devon. The build itself was simple really; I knocked everything out from the inside and was left with four walls and a roof!”

Building materials

Martin continues: “I live in an ‘Area of Outstanding Beauty’, so there is no point in trying to get away with cheap ‘lookalike’ materials. You have to spend the money and do it properly, using Cotswold stone and slate; for example, so it’s in keeping with the surrounding area. When it came to material and product specification, I took faith in my architect, builders and my structural engineer.

“The exterior is made from Cotswold stone. How it was fabricated in those days is absolutely mind-boggling because this structure was built in a stream, and every stone would have been handcrafted to fit. It’s actually astonishing that it is still standing today – you can even see chisel marks in many of the stones. It truly is a unique building; a river continuously flows on one side, and a mill stream on the other. Both sides have a bank of grass with a row of cottages on one side and a beautiful thatched barn on the other (which is now the village hall).

Brimming with biodiversity

“Filly Island is surrounded by nature. I have wild ducks – who have become friends and will come and peck at my door for breakfast – a lovely pair of yellow wagtails that are always feeding and a kingfisher that zooms by and loves darting under the bridge. I’ve also had two otters rolling in the river, squeaking with delight. But for me, the best of all is a water vole, who happily pops up from his hole, nibbles on the grass and then darts off swimming across the stream to the other side of the bank.

When asked what her favourite element of the build is, Martin answered: “Probably the porch – there is nothing better. Even on a sunny winter’s day, it’s fantastic to be curled up outside with a glass of something in your hand and being able to listen to the water gushing past and just watching nature and the wildlife go about its day-to-day business.

“As for the interior, you can still see the stonework above the gable, and everything inside is upcycled, recycled, pre-loved or hand-made.”

Top tips

For others looking to take on their own renovation project, Martin offers the following advice: “Give yourself one very simple rule. Allow yourself double the time to complete the work and double the money. Then when you’re done, you will be under budget because it has not cost double! I’d also advise not to skimp, to do your research, get reliable builders, and not rush it – enjoy the process and trust your instincts.”

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