A mother and daughter duo have taken on the challenge of restoring Jesus Green’s Lock House to its former glory.
The Grade II listed building in Cambridge has been derelict for years, but Victoria Li and Elizabeth Huang are determined to make it a community-centred home.
The former lock keeper’s cottage was built in 1836 and more recently was used as a house of multiple occupancy and student abode under the care of the Conservators of the River Cam.
Plans to turn it into a cafe in 2016 were rejected by Cambridge City Council given the greater need for accommodation during the housing crisis.
Living near Mitcham’s Corner, Victoria and Elizabeth walked past their future home frequently, their curiosity rising as its price dropped from one million in 2018 to £625k last year.
They put in an offer close to the asking price before Christmas, which finally went through in late April, and are now at the start of an “exciting but daunting” journey to make it their own.
“I think everyone thought we were too romantic about this place and didn’t see the reality,” Victoria said – referring to the anti-social behaviour the unloved Lock House has attracted, plus the lack of parking.
Sending a strong and engaging message that the property is under new ownership, she has erected an easel in the front yard, which tells the story of an ugly duckling growing into a beautiful swan.
An Instagram account charting the renovation project got over 300 followers in the first three days of it being created last week.
This is the first fixer-upper the family has taken on – partly inspired by George Clarke’s Channel 4 show The Restoration Man, the BBC’s World’s Most Extraordinary Homes presented by Caroline Quentin, and Grand Designs, having attended Kevin McCloud’s live shows.
“We are quite independent,” said Elizabeth, who graduated with a law degree from Trinity College Cambridge in 2019, an incoming trainee lawyer in London who has a penchant for DIY.
“We always want to do things if we can do it, we don’t like to bother people.”
Victoria and her husband, who is currently working in New Zealand, moved to Cambridge from China in the 1980s, and want to retire to the Lock House.
“It’s a very beautiful and romantic city really, we fell in love with it especially when we first came in the mid-eighties.
“I think we romanticised it in a certain way because we came from China; that everything in Cambridge was so wonderful,” said Victoria, who started teaching Chinese at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies before working at various colleges.
“This is a dream house to renovate and live in, and we hope the finished product will give the area a greater sense of community so people can come in for tea because a lot of local people have been so helpful.”
“In a way, it’s like a community house,” added Elizabeth.
A “pipe dream” for the time being, they imagine hosting community events – such as outdoor cinema screenings and street parties.
Given the Lock House’s very public position, Victoria and Elizabeth believe its restoration will brighten the surrounding area to the benefit of all.
“Because the house has been in this state it has brought down the atmosphere in this corner of the park,” Elizabeth said.
New swan-shaped signs saying “watch this space” and “work in progress” have been attached to the boarded-up windows, while a rather more pointed sign at the rear declares the house “pee free real estate.”
Though there are public toilets just opposite, these close at 6pm; and visitors to Jesus Green on busy summer days may have spotted people relieving themselves around the back of the house.
The p**s poor behaviour is upsetting to see, Victoria said, but they talk to people if they are around and understand that some students and residents thought the building was derelict.
Elizabeth said: “It’s unfair for everyone really, I don’t think anyone wants to be weeing in a bush,” adding that it was a health and safety hazard during the pandemic.
Councillor for Market Ward Katie Porrer said she was very aware of the issue, and encouraged anyone who witnesses such behaviour to report it to the police.
“On Jesus Green, in particular, we are pushing for better provision for evening events and for busy weekends, especially when we know that Cambridge University students are likely to be congregating (such as caesarean Sunday),” Cllr Porrer said.
Needles have also been found on three of four occasions outside, leading them to seek advice from Antisocial Behaviour officers.
Inside, the Lock House is certainly in need of some TLC.
Victoria said they were told by the agents that the house was being used to store stolen goods, such as play stations and TVs, and when the back window was boarded up in 2019 the smugglers broke through the front door.
Another rumour has it that squatters lived there for a time.
“Everything needs to be taken out and replaced,” Victoria said, “it needs a full rewire, a new heating system, and insulation.”
As the old Lock House is Grade II listed they are limited in what they can do, but aim to expose its beautiful original features, Elizabeth said, and “restore the property to what it would have been like when it was lived in and cared for.”
The story of the ugly duckling may be a long one – their preferred builders can’t start until next year – but the mother and daughter say they have been “blown away” by the response so far.
Victoria said: “We hope people will support us in making this dream come true and make the house a home again.”
You can see maps with the Lock House – previously called the Toll House and the Sluice House – dating back to 1910 on the Cambridge Antiquarian Society website.
To keep up to date with Victoria and Elizabeth’s renovation journey, follow them on Instagram