We are a British couple, Tiffany Bown and Joe Studwell, who lived with our three children for more than a decade in a beautiful spot in Umbria, near the walled town of Città di Castello, before transferring to the UK in 2011.
A HOUSE IN RURAL UMBRIA
We moved to our haven of peace and tranquillity – with its heart-stopping views over hills of oak forests full of porcini mushrooms, truffles and wild boar – in 2000, after ten wonderful but stressful years of living and working as journalists in China. While in Italy, Joe continued to write, as a journalist and author, while Tiffany moved off in two directions – into the worlds of property restoration and of natural health (as a yoga teacher, naturopath and reflexologist, specializing in fertility).
The 400sqm farm house we had fallen in love with and bought in 1997 was a window-less, door-less stone shell that had been empty for some 35 years (on our first visits, we camped in tents). By the time we moved in in 2000, it had a new roof, stable walls and floors, and even windows, doors and basic utility supplies. But still only one room was habitable. That was our bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen for many months.
By 2002, the main renovation was complete and over the following years the house and its large garden became a well-lived-in and much-loved home. Since moving to the UK, we visit the house regularly, but have now decided to sell.
In 2005, we needed some down-town office space, so bought a small apartment within the old-town walls of Città di Castello. We were then among the few foreigners owning town properties in the region. But in recent years, a steadily growing number of individuals — bucking the country-house trend — have been seeking out properties in small historic towns in Umbria and neighbouring Tuscany.
One of the biggest challenges of restoring such apartments is finding a promising unrenovated space, especially if the search is restricted to top-floor properties that offer the full romantic old-town experience, with a characterful interior and a terrace with roof-top views. Much has been spoiled by the misguided ‘modernizations’ of the 1960-70s. Other properties remain shut up by families that are not yet ready to sell. Many get sold off when elderly owners die, but only once their children have wrangled for a few years. Negotiations with these undecided heirs can be tortuous. But, with patience, care and local knowledge, wonders are to be found.
Since 2005, we have bought and restored four such gems, whose character and potential we spotted behind the small, dark and dingy rooms, the low ceilings and narrow corridors, and, in some cases, the sagging and leaking roofs. Each restoration has been a labour of love, focusing on being sympathetic both to the environment and to each property’s character, to create light, modern, energy-efficient apartments that retain oodles of their old-world charm.
We finished our last project in 2010, having knocked down pointless walls and installed a ventilated roof, an internal wrought iron staircase and new electrical, plumbing and energy-saving heating systems, not to mention converting the junk-room attic space into two bedrooms and an extra bathroom. This lovely flat was our family’s pied-a-terre in town, but, with our move to the UK, is now for sale.
A LITTLE HOUSE IN THE WOODS
We also have a beautiful woodland site with the stone remains of a small house in a clearing in the valley below our house in the countryside. The land is for sale with planning and other permissions for the construction of a completely new, ecologically state-of-the-art house.