How Karen and Conrad Allen created the perfect balance between Cornish outdoor living and their London careers – while renovating three historic properties by the sea. Words: Alex Reece. Photographs: Jason Ingram
On any week night, it’s not uncommon for Karen and Conrad Allen, along with their two sons, Oscar and Noah, to pile into the car after school and head down to the sea. Their family home, Venn Farm, is only a short drive from Bude’s Northcott Beach, an unspoilt stretch of pebble and sand, where their boys like to go surfing. ‘If it’s nice weather, we’ll have the stuff all ready, and go straight to the beach for a barbecue,’ says Conrad. ‘And we’ll probably stay there until eight or nine o’clock, watching the sunset.’
The outdoor lifestyle was a big factor in the couple’s decision to move to the Cornish coast – Conrad is half-Australian, and he and Karen loved the culture of after-school surf lessons and municipal barbecues that they experienced when they spent time down under.
Plus, after a near-20-year spell in the capital, pursuing busy careers in the fashion industry, Karen and Conrad were ready for a change. ‘We definitely felt that the balance wasn’t right for us,’ says Karen, whose afternoons back then involved a stressful commute across London in order to pick up the boys from nursery on time. ‘I can remember thinking that I was just working to pay for the childcare. And on top of that, the schools in our area weren’t great. It just got to the point where it wasn’t for us anymore.’
A BARNSTORMING IDEA
In their quest for a change, the couple began scouting in early 2007 for a home, plus a holiday let, in either the far west of Cornwall or South Devon. Then, in May, Conrad came across a 17th-century farmhouse with two outbuildings – one of which had outline planning permission for a holiday cottage – near Bude, on the Devon border. ‘It was an area we didn’t really know,’ says Karen, ‘but you can definitely get more for your money here. It feels a little bit untouched as well.’
Another big plus was the fact that the buildings weren’t listed, which meant there would be fewer restrictions on redevelopment. Although both the barns were pretty much derelict, Karen and Conrad – with the help of Conrad’s father, a retired architect – could see the potential in the site, which had seven acres of land.
In September, the family moved down in time for Oscar, who was six at the time, to begin the new school term. Karen admits to having a ‘What have we done?’ moment when the removal van finally pulled away. ‘The romanticism of the whole thing was blown away when we walked into the house; we noticed the damp much more,’ she says. Then there were other aspects of rural living that took some getting used to. Forgetting to buy milk, for example, would involve a 15-minute round trip to rectify.
The transition was made easier by regular visits from friends and a welcoming local school. Also, the Allens were both delighted to continue their work in fashion on a freelance basis – retaining their links with the capital and the industry, while securing an additional source of income.
MADE OF BRICKS
The first building they chose to tackle, in early 2008, was the 100-year-old Red Barn, which had a roof and four brick walls but was otherwise void. Conrad’s father re-drew the plans to create a reverse-level layout, with two bedrooms on the ground floor and an open-plan living space upstairs opening out on to a private deck and garden.
However, during the build, the family suffered a setback when a vehicle ploughed into the back of Karen’s car at high speed on the A30, and she ended up in intensive care. Karen was lucky to survive. ‘It was quite horrific, but we got through it and I’m absolutely fine now,’ she says. ‘It was not an easy period, in the midst of building work, but it didn’t make us doubt the move at all.’
Happily, the Red Barn was completed by the autumn, and the family moved in for a few months while the living space in the farmhouse was improved. After decorating the barn in their signature style of gallery-white walls, classic mid-century furniture and accents of bright colour, they began letting it out in spring 2009.
BACK TO EARTH
The next project – the larger Cob barn, converted in 2012 – was more ambitious, owing to the size and dilapidated state of the building, and the nature of its construction. For this, Karen and Conrad enlisted the expertise of award-winning architects Feilden Fowles, whose earlier work they had admired while visiting Conrad’s sister in Wales.
The 200-year-old barn had been built first in stone and then extended in cob – a natural building material made from sand, clay, straw, water and earth (plus, in this case, horse hair). The Allens were keen to keep the chequered history of the building intact. To this end, the architects partially demolished walls that had been poorly repaired in concrete, retaining the original stone and cob, and rebuilt the remainder with cob bricks where needed.
Floor-to-ceiling windows were strategically placed, according to sun charts, on three sides, flooding the building with light and creating an almost see-through effect, when viewed from front to back. Double-height spaces in the kitchen/diner and hall amplify the contemporary feel, which extends to the interior design, with a blend of iconic furnishings and upcycled pieces.
THE GOOD LIFE
After just a month of downtime, the architects and builders moved on to creating a sustainable larch rear extension to Karen and Conrad’s home, in collaboration with Exeter timber-framing company Emanuel Hendry.
In the footprint of a tiny kitchen and a jumble of assorted outbuildings, Feilden Fowles’ design incorporates a large kitchen/diner, encased in glass, with a new bedroom for Oscar, a family bathroom and an en suite above. ‘It’s transformed the way we live, because we spend most of ßour time in here,’ says Conrad, a keen cook, of the new family space, which has zones for cooking, eating and relaxing, plus integral bench seating all the way round the outside.
As for their land, Karen and Conrad are engaged in an ongoing project with the Devon Wildlife Trust to turn their big field into a wildflower meadow. They also grow their own vegetables – plus gooseberries and blackcurrants when in season – and keep six chickens, whose eggs their guests are invited to collect.
Having made new friends through the school run and letting out the barns, the Allens feel they have put down roots here. And, after years of hard graft, they have achieved the work/life balance they were searching for. ‘Living here, where it’s all about being outside, sports and surf, I think it’s been really good for the boys,’ says Karen, whose flexible hours fit around the children. Conrad, meanwhile, expresses his local pride by joining in the annual Christmas Day sea dip – no wetsuits allowed – which he recommends for the ‘big rush’ afterwards. ‘It’s just amazing being down here,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world.’
The Red Barn, which sleeps four, and The Cob, which sleeps nine, are available to let through venn-farm.co.uk (07968 084317).
Quitting the rat race: Karen and Conrad's tips
Before you quit, consider whether you could still do your current job from home. If you’re prepared to travel and can be flexible, it might work for you.
Always check broadband speeds in your chosen area if you will need the internet for work.
If you want to convert a building into a holiday let, choose something with outline planning permission, as this will shorten the process and you’ll have money coming in sooner.
Beware of upkeep. It might be nice to have 40 acres, but what are you going to do with them? Land management can feel like sunken money.
If you have children, or plan to in the future, don’t forget to check out the local schools. It’s good to plan for the long term.
Try to integrate yourself into the community through a local activity (for example, Karen has taken up mud running). It’s a good way to meet new people.