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Expert Tips on Lighting an Old Cottage

Lighting an old cottage has its challenges.

Many of us dream of a cosy country cottage with roses around the door but it takes a bit of thought balancing modern lighting effects with a classical interior – and doing it sympathetically.

The main drawback with an old cottage is low ceilings (often beamed) and small windows. And then there are often quirky features that can affect the amount of natural light coming in.

So, when it comes to lighting an old cottage you need to consider how to light it for the day and the night. Oddly, planning the lighting for the day can be more challenging.

At night an old cottage can be charmingly lit with table lamps and floor lamps so, as long as the kitchen has good lighting, and the stairs are lit safely there’s not usually a rush to sort the lighting out.

It’s a different matter during the day, especially in the winter and this can make a dream cottage quite gloomy if you don’t get the lighting right.

Here are a few tips to help with the lighting of an old cottage or old house, and as the decoration can also have an impact, I’ve included some interior design tricks as well.

Unbalanced Light

If you have natural light only coming from one side of a room you need to balance it by casting light onto the rear, otherwise it can feel rather like a cave at one end.

Incorporating light onto this back wall can be done if various ways:

  • Downlights near the rear wall washing light down
  • Illuminating artwork on this wall by tilted downlights or surface spots
  • Uplights washing light up and reflecting on the ceiling (see Case Study below)
  • Wall lights

Each situation will have one or two methods that are most appropriate and your own design and living style will steer you towards your own best choice.

I believe you need to be careful about how many downlights you incorporate into a classical property but, used cleverly (with dark baffles so you don’t see the source of the light) they can create a good amount of light without being a feature.

Low Ceilings

This can be one of the bug bears of an old building. The lower the ceiling, the less light is able to travel to the back of the room. Often ceilings are beamed and these beams are frequently dark.

Painting the ceiling and beams a light colour will make the ceiling appear higher and have a big effect on the amount of reflected light in the room.

Restricted Space for Downlights

So often the recess depth between the ceiling and the floor above is shallow which makes fitting fire rated downlights tricky. If the ceiling is beamed, there is no depth at all.

See if you can partly fill between two beams and create enough depth to take downlights towards the back of the room. You wouldn’t notice this filling when you’re in the rest of the room.

Using discreet spotlights to cast light onto specific points on the walls such as artwork or objets can help to reflect light back into the room.

Use Uplights

Small inground LED uplights set in the floor can give a magical effect by skimming light up a wall and reflecting light off the ceiling. This can give the illusion of a higher ceiling.

Wall Lights

These are often the best way of bringing light into the room but it’s best to select fittings that are compatible with a traditional interior. They need to cast a good amount of light out into the room, and not create any glare. Also beware of having too many in a room – it’s best to mix it up.


Mirrors help to reflect natural daylight, especially when placed opposite a window. They also multiply light coming from other sources such as lamps and wall fittings in the room.

Quality of Light

This is in terms of light temperature and selecting light fittings or bulbs that give out a pure light. I prefer 2700°K temperature bul you also need to consider the colour rendering (CRI) which, ideally, should be above 90.

Light Coloured Curtains

Rich fabrics can suit old properties but if you select a dark material for your curtains they’ll eat up the light so you’re better off going for a light coloured fabric, or at least, predominantly light.

Lighting Case Study

I was called to a lovely Regency house in Falmouth which overlooked the water. They were converting the lower ground floor into a playroom and occasional guest room with a sofa bed. The room was very low! Anybody over 5’9 would have to bend their heads in places. It certainly wouldn’t have passed building regs in this day and age.

As well as incorporating some shallow downlights in a few positions, I suggested putting a run of small LED uplights to run along the back wall. As they didn’t want to disturb the old slate floor I proposed building out some boxing to accommodate the LEDs which would make it very easy and was an economical solution.

Despite the husband being extremely sceptical in the beginning once it was done, he was delighted and phoned to say how pleased they were. No photos I’m afraid,

Claire-PendarvesClaire Pendarves originally qualified as an interior designer and is now a lighting consultant with over 20 years’ experience

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