Carving out a cave house against all odds

This truly unique project was driven by one man's sheer grit and determination

By Charlotte Luxford | 11 December 2020

The extraordinary Grand Designs cave house was a huge hit with TV viewers. Angelo Mastropietro braved all the odds to fashion a home out of an 800-year-old cave in the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire. Kevin McCloud likened it to a hobbit house, set in the heart of the woodland that inspired author JRR Tolkien.

But it wasn’t just the transformation of the unusual property that engaged viewers – Angelo’s determination and back-to-basics approach had wide appeal. After a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis back in 2007, Angelo’s health meant he had to leave his job as a high-flying recruitment boss in Australia. He went back to his roots in Worcestershire in search of a better lifestyle and fresh start.

Exterior view of the Grand Designs cave house, which is perched on a rocky hillside

Hewn from rock, the house is on a hill looking out over the forest. Photo: Matt Chisnall

Taking a leap

Not one for an easy life, Angelo set to turning the cave into a 21st-century home almost singlehandedly. He bought the abandoned dwelling for £62,000 after seeing it advertised in a local supplement.

‘I had this bond with the rock house. I was a little bit unsure as to what the next chapter of my life would be, but when I saw it I knew. I was going to be a cave man,’ recalls Angelo. ‘It was a great opportunity to preserve the cave house for the future and inspire people to question how we live.’

Angelo also bought a 200-year-old stone cottage a few miles away from the cave house, buying it online, without seeing it. His plan was to live in the cottage while undertaking the cave project. Also, due to planning restrictions, the cave is only suitable as a holiday let. So, Angelo needed somewhere else to live long term.

Angelo stands in the kitchen of the Grand Designs cave house

Angelo’s vision for the project came together in fine style. Photo: Andrew Wall

Creating the cave house

He started work on the cave in January 2015 with a hugely optimistic nine-month schedule, plus a modest £100,000 budget. Angelo was going to do it largely by himself. A massive undertaking for anyone, let alone for someone with MS.

‘The thing that’s detrimental is that when you’re working to a tight deadline you can’t just take it easy,’ he admits. Angelo’s passion and optimism was the secret to making it work.

‘The job as a whole seems quite daunting, but I broke it down like I would any other task,’ says Angelo. ‘I set myself the target of removing 20 barrows of rubble a day and that gave me an achievable goal. Things like carrying the generator and the tools up the bank made my legs burn. I was trekking up and down about 30 to 40 times a day. I just had to believe that it would happen.’

The dining area looks out over the outdoor terrace

All the windows and glazed doors have wooden shutters. Photo: Andrew Wall

A unique undertaking

Angelo started the mammoth task by making the walls straight and lowering the floors by hand. In total, he removed 70 tons of stone. The difficulty was not knowing how to go about it, as there are no examples of cave house renovations in the UK. While he had a pretty good idea of the style to achieve, the practical side of the project proved tricky.

‘If I was doing it again I would employ someone to work alongside me and source the fixtures and  fittings. I spent all day on site so I was very time-poor,’ he says.

Looking towards the range cooker in the kitchen, which has timber cabinets

Rustic timber cabinets and work surfaces team with a range oven. Photo: Andrew Wall

Unexpected expense

It took two painstaking months to carve out the stone. After which he could start on the layout of the house and dig service channels into the sandstone floors. Getting utilities proved challenging. Angelo was able to drill a borehole to get running water and bring cables across his neighbour’s field for power.

It cost £1,500 to dig the 200-metre trench, with the total £35,000 outlay for services eating up a third of the budget. Another time-consuming element was covering the walls with limewash. It took numerous coats and each layer had to dry fully before the next was applied.

Whitewashed cave walls and a double bed keep things simple in the main bedroom of the Grand Designs cave house

Lime washed walls bounce light around the bedroom. Photo: Andrew Wall

Achieving the dream

After nine months of hard toil, the Grand Designs cave house transformation was complete. On entering via the living area you come to the galley kitchen, which then leads to the shower room. This was originally meant to have a bath in it. Angelo spent hours hand-carving a tub out of the rock, only to be told that the electric hot-water system wouldn’t have the capacity to fill it. Last is the bedroom, which has a wood-burning stove.

‘The house has a soul. It’s a magical place, it’s a dream come true really,’ says Angelo.

Stone basin on a single vanity unit in the bathroom of the Grand Designs cave house

The bedroom leads through to a bijou bathroom. Photo: Andrew Wall

The extraordinary Grand Designs cave house was a huge hit with TV viewers. Angelo Mastropietro braved all the odds to fashion a home out of an 800-year-old cave in the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire. Kevin McCloud likened it to a hobbit house, set in the heart of the woodland that inspired author JRR Tolkien.

But it wasn’t just the transformation of the unusual property that engaged viewers – Angelo’s determination and back-to-basics approach had wide appeal. After a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis back in 2007, Angelo’s health meant he had to leave his job as a high-flying recruitment boss in Australia. He went back to his roots in Worcestershire in search of a better lifestyle and fresh start.

Exterior view of the Grand Designs cave house, which is perched on a rocky hillside

Hewn from rock, the house is on a hill looking out over the forest. Photo: Matt Chisnall

Taking a leap

Not one for an easy life, Angelo set to turning the cave into a 21st-century home almost singlehandedly. He bought the abandoned dwelling for £62,000 after seeing it advertised in a local supplement.

‘I had this bond with the rock house. I was a little bit unsure as to what the next chapter of my life would be, but when I saw it I knew. I was going to be a cave man,’ recalls Angelo. ‘It was a great opportunity to preserve the cave house for the future and inspire people to question how we live.’

Angelo also bought a 200-year-old stone cottage a few miles away from the cave house, buying it online, without seeing it. His plan was to live in the cottage while undertaking the cave project. Also, due to planning restrictions, the cave is only suitable as a holiday let. So, Angelo needed somewhere else to live long term.

Angelo stands in the kitchen of the Grand Designs cave house

Angelo’s vision for the project came together in fine style. Photo: Andrew Wall

Creating the cave house

He started work on the cave in January 2015 with a hugely optimistic nine-month schedule, plus a modest £100,000 budget. Angelo was going to do it largely by himself. A massive undertaking for anyone, let alone for someone with MS.

‘The thing that’s detrimental is that when you’re working to a tight deadline you can’t just take it easy,’ he admits. Angelo’s passion and optimism was the secret to making it work.

‘The job as a whole seems quite daunting, but I broke it down like I would any other task,’ says Angelo. ‘I set myself the target of removing 20 barrows of rubble a day and that gave me an achievable goal. Things like carrying the generator and the tools up the bank made my legs burn. I was trekking up and down about 30 to 40 times a day. I just had to believe that it would happen.’

The dining area looks out over the outdoor terrace

All the windows and glazed doors have wooden shutters. Photo: Andrew Wall

A unique undertaking

Angelo started the mammoth task by making the walls straight and lowering the floors by hand. In total, he removed 70 tons of stone. The difficulty was not knowing how to go about it, as there are no examples of cave house renovations in the UK. While he had a pretty good idea of the style to achieve, the practical side of the project proved tricky.

‘If I was doing it again I would employ someone to work alongside me and source the fixtures and  fittings. I spent all day on site so I was very time-poor,’ he says.

Looking towards the range cooker in the kitchen, which has timber cabinets

Rustic timber cabinets and work surfaces team with a range oven. Photo: Andrew Wall

Unexpected expense

It took two painstaking months to carve out the stone. After which he could start on the layout of the house and dig service channels into the sandstone floors. Getting utilities proved challenging. Angelo was able to drill a borehole to get running water and bring cables across his neighbour’s field for power.

It cost £1,500 to dig the 200-metre trench, with the total £35,000 outlay for services eating up a third of the budget. Another time-consuming element was covering the walls with limewash. It took numerous coats and each layer had to dry fully before the next was applied.

Whitewashed cave walls and a double bed keep things simple in the main bedroom of the Grand Designs cave house

Lime washed walls bounce light around the bedroom. Photo: Andrew Wall

Achieving the dream

After nine months of hard toil, the Grand Designs cave house transformation was complete. On entering via the living area you come to the galley kitchen, which then leads to the shower room. This was originally meant to have a bath in it. Angelo spent hours hand-carving a tub out of the rock, only to be told that the electric hot-water system wouldn’t have the capacity to fill it. Last is the bedroom, which has a wood-burning stove.

‘The house has a soul. It’s a magical place, it’s a dream come true really,’ says Angelo.

Stone basin on a single vanity unit in the bathroom of the Grand Designs cave house

The bedroom leads through to a bijou bathroom. Photo: Andrew Wall

What happened to the Grand Designs cave house?

Angelo Mastropietro inspired viewers with his amazing cave house transformation. After which, the project became a successful holiday rental called the Rockhouse Retreat. The Grand Designs magazine team caught up with Angelo in 2017 to find out what happened next…

Has Rockhouse Retreat been a success?

Yes, very much so. I ran a couple of events in the house as well, including a festival with people camping in the paddock and a DJ set up beside the stream. Three tons of river cobbles were delivered and everyone who came to the party took them to the water, to divert it away from the eroding bank.

Is there work still to be done?

I’m planning on clearing more of the site, so I can hold bushcraft festivals. The interior is pretty much as it was, although guests have been moving things around, which is interesting. The only major thing is the improvement to the hot-water system in the kitchen. There is a small thermal store in one of the cupboards.

What did you take from the experience?

When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis [MS], I went through a period when I thought my illness would jeopardise the quality of my life. But the project taught me that I’m still fit, healthy and able to cope and achieve great things.

Entrance to the Rockhouse Retreat

Timber window and door frames contrast with the terracotta rock. Photo: Matt Chisnall

Would you ever live in the Rockhouse Retreat?

I would consider applying for it to become as a permanent dwelling. During the planning process, I learned that even though rock houses are primitive forms of architecture, they aren’t recognised as homes. I was given advice that it was too much of a leap of faith to apply for it to be a permanent residence straight away.

Are you working on anything else?

I bought another property a few miles away at auction without seeing it. It’s also in the Wyre Forest and has five bedrooms as well as a separate one-bedroom garden flat. I’m finishing the renovation and installing a big balcony on the back. Working in the corporate world for a long time, I saw how disconnected people are from nature. So, the plan is to rent this house as accommodation for bushcraft. The forest at the bottom of the garden has walking trails and the River Severn is at the end of the road. It’s a really great spot for people to come and relax.

Any advice for someone planning a similar project?

Let’s be honest, you have to be a little bit crazy to take on something like the Rockhouse Retreat. Keep an open mind and accept that while some things are going to go well, inevitably others will go catastrophically wrong. You need to be ready for that financially, as well as physically and emotionally.

Would you have done anything differently?

If the schedule and budget had allowed, I would have liked to sculpt more furniture into the rock. Putting wood in the house was experimental, as there were risks with the atmosphere and I didn’t know how it would react. I have to shave bits off the doors as they warp, but I love the effect the timber creates, giving it a look of warmth and cosiness.

How has your life changed since Grand Designs?

People certainly connect with the project. Many have got in touch to tell me that they found my story inspiring, some of whom have been diagnosed with MS. I try to give people guidance where I can. The thing about the Rockhouse Retreat is that it’s a rare and unique place. It’s very powerful and the pleasure is in seeing other people being inspired – and energised and uplifted – by it in the same way that I have been.

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