'This is much harder than playing rugby' The challenging home renovation of a former Welsh international and his Olympian wife

'This is much harder than playing rugby' The challenging home renovation of a former Welsh international and his Olympian wife

Updated: 1 month, 7 days, 10 hours, 27 minutes, 50 seconds ago

If there's anyone who is going to have the patience, resilience and stamina to fight for their forever home it's a former Welsh rugby international and his Olympian triple-jumping wife.

But it has been a struggle from the very start of Matthew Robinson's property journey, from seeing a Monmouthshire farmhouse on Rightmove to just securing the sale and picking up the keys was a trauma many would have succumbed to and headed off the property pitch for an early bath.

But the mentality of athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport should not be under-estimated, and it was definitely leaned on as the couple tussled to secure the rundown, Grade II listed house they had fallen in love with.

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Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Matthew, originally from Cardiff but who grew up in Newport, felt the pull of the homeland from his current base in Devon as soon as the couple saw the old farmhouse listed on the online property portal.

The 49-year-old former Welsh and Swansea international rugby union player and his Olympian wife of 17 years, Michelle Griffith-Robinson, who represented Great Britain in the 1996 Olympic Games as well as three Commonwealth Games, were instantly smitten with the property, and that was before they even visited the historic house.

The area around Usk had become a focus for the couple's house-hunting attention after a visit to the area, but even just getting to view a property before it was sold was the first challenge. Add to that the scenario, then trying to stay within their buying budget in Monmouthshire, consistently the most expensive county in Wales to purchase a property, could have made the couple have to rethink their ideal location. But high performing athletes don't give up.

Michelle, 51, originally from London, says: "We were on Rightmove during the pandemic in August 2020, and had a conversation about finding our forever home.

"We went on holiday to Usk to visit a friend and stayed actually very near to the farmhouse. But there was nothing around and as soon as something came on, it was gone. But then we saw the farmhouse, but it was on for £685,000."

Matt says: "The location was perfect, within an eight-minute drive from my best friends' homes, I can be at my cousin Nathan Blake's house easily, it's three minutes away from the rugby club, and the cricket club is just down the road."

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

But at the time there were a number of properties to choose from in their desired location, so why did this particular one captivate them? Any visitor at that time was greeted by rising damp, leaking chimneys, no working electrics and rotten walls.

Add to that welcoming scene a blanket of pigeon droppings splattered on floors and walls that had built up as the house stood empty, and most people would have bolted for the car.

But after a visit to the property it was too late to think about the problems it was presenting, because the six-bed Grade II listed house had called out to the couple and they answered. And they were smitten.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Matt and Michelle had already pictured what the house could become - their forever home, their legacy to leave to their children and grandchildren - they had mentally already moved in, with Michelle picturing a family Christmas dinner in the kitchen.

Matt's heart was captivated, he says: "The house feels very very special, I sensed it, Michelle knows it, it's serene there, I feel like I'm lost there. The garden was magnificent, I could see myself with the goal, diving around, saving goals with my son and him having fun with his mates, for me - that was it."

Plus Michelle's mum was feeling the love too and encouraged the couple to make the massive leap from safety into a risky 'back-to-bricks' renovation.

Michelle says: "It just felt like 'the one'. And what sealed it for me was bringing my 82-year-old mum down there and if you go back historically they've come over here from the Caribbean, not being able to afford anything and sharing several rooms within a house.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

"But then she bought her first property in 1965, which was ahead of the curve for that generation and black people, and once she saw the house she was like, 'you guys have got to get this house, this is awesome!' It was derelict, we hadn't done anything to it yet and her enthusiasm was what made me say, 'OK let's go for it!'"

And so began the fight to secure it - the next hurdle in this marathon of a monster renovation that is now one of the subjects of Channel 4's new daytime property show, Renovation Nation. And it was a fight that maybe only an international rugby player and Olympian could have seen out to the end.

It took over a year of haggling, being ousted out of the negotiations by a cash buyer and losing it, a friend seeing it had gone back on the market, more haggling and then a tousle with the bank to secure a mortgage.

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After the resilient couple had proved to the bank that the work needed was intense but the house didn't have dry rot, the mortgage was agreed but at a lower level than they wanted, so that was a chunk of their renovation budget diverted into just securing the property.

But the timing of how the house eventually became the couple's new home makes it feel like she was always meant to be their next and forever property partner. Michelle says: "The mortgage acceptance came through on our wedding anniversary and the sale completed and we picked up the keys on our daughter's 18th birthday."

But this is not a Grand Designs house, it's not a dream home property story lavished with money - this is a hard slog that started with years of saving to the point of being able to secure a mortgage and buy the house for £537,500, and have at least some budget left to start the renovation.

Michelle says: "Matt and I are both from working class families. We don't have £2million in the bank to instantly turn it into a perfect home. But we are determined, however long it takes us, bit by bit that we will turn it into our family home.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

"As former athletes with that mindset, we're used to the long game, to keep going, to have patience, it's not always going to happen as you want it to happen but it was meant to be ours and as my mum says, what's meant to be yours, no-one can take from you."

Since retiring from sport, Michelle has been working as a life coach and motivational speaker. Meanwhile, Matt gave up a lucrative career in sport science post rugby in 2009 to work first as a PE teacher and then latterly as head of boarding at a school in Devon.

That means the couple live over two hours away and so this has meant not just countless visits to Wales at weekends and in the school holidays.

People say it takes a village to raise a family, and to raise this stone beauty from its rundown state was going to take just as much support from family, friends and recommended local companies as possible.

The team assembled included specialists such as lime plasterer John Edwards, local contacts such as Usk-based MJW Services builders and A Jones & Co builders' merchants, high end suppliers to make sure the farmhouse gets the best quality possible such as Terence Ball kitchens and, of course, Matt's friends and rugby contacts, including Matt at Mandarin Stone who was, in part, responsible for the couple finding this forever home.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

And that has been the hardest aspect of the renovation for Matt. He says: "Managing it from far away has been difficult, and identifying and understanding the level of risk when we realised things were so bad.

"But our architect and engineer said they'd seen way worse and those homes are still standing! They were my team and I had to trust them and let myself go.

"It was much harder than playing rugby because I'd grown up playing rugby and so I had an understanding of the process of team work, but I struggled here because I was so far away, to not be in all of the conversations all the time and just let the guys get on with it.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

"And we are so grateful for the help we've had. Because I'm coming home, a lot of the work is being done by friends of friends, people I've played rugby with, people I've been to school with, builders recommended by friends, using local builders and materials, even the local builder who was recommended to me by the local curry house! It's paid for work of course, but by people I trust, and for me that's been a very important part."

And so the work commenced and has been going for the past 15 months, with the family of five still not able to move in, but Matt and Michelle are determined to do things right, to save the house task by task and so it never has to be done again.

Matt says: "The house was riddled with damp so we took all the ceilings down, treated every beam, there's new padstones, new oak in for support. We took out the old joists where needed and added new ones where needed - the list goes on and on - we've got a whole new first floor.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: David James estate agents, Chepstow / True North / Channel 4)

"We were very lucky in the roof space, the woodwork up there was pretty good, but we treated it anyway. Doing it this way we also get to see what was there before, the original building. There were so many infills, old hidden windows and doorways, features we have uncovered which will look lovely but also tell their own story."

Although an episode of Renovation Nation sees the couple visiting friend Matt's Mandarin Stone tile shop in Monmouth, the house demanded structural work before any of the interior design elements could be considered seriously.

Michelle says: "We thought, 'let's make it watertight first and grow it from there', and that's where the money has gone initially, the tiles and all the fancy stuff are secondary."

Matt adds: "In a year and three months we have gutted the house, there's completely new heating, rewired, new floors, it's fully treated and secure, new exterior, new ground floor interiors - to get to that point in that time I think is a magnificent achievement."

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

The budget of £250,000 has taken a hit and the couple say they will need to remortgage to finish the house off completely, they are about £50,000 short of what they need. Matt thinks the end date will be 2025 but Michelle is not buying into that timescale.

She says: "I'm refusing to say 2025! I'm saying in 18 months!" It will be intriguing to see which sports star wins that fight.

Completed so far is the majority of the structural work and most of the ground floor shower room and utility. The kitchen, which the couple's three children - Reese, 19, Eden, 15 and Elijah, nine - helped to strip out, is going to welcome new units and appliances in the first week of December. So Michelle's wish of their first family Christmas at the house being this Christmas looks like coming true.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

And this tenacious and charismatic couple deserve that first family gathering after the struggles that they have had to tackle so far, but they remain unfazed and full of positivity.

Michelle says: "We are very much on paying it forward, and that's how we've lived and how we've managed to be where we are today. We look out for others and we try and do our very best and try to be role models, so if there's another black couple out there to help them think they too can have a Grade II listed property."

The couple say they are very grateful for the chance to demonstrate via a television programme how they have pursued a dream outside of sport and channelled their personalities into getting the property ready for a family once more, and they know that the house is grateful for all the love and attention.

Renovation Nation - Matthew and Michelle Robinson (welsh rugby international and olympic triple-jumper) taking on a mamoth renovation of a farmhouse in monmouthshire bit by bit with limited budget featuring on the channel 4 show

(Image: Channel 4 / True North)

Matt says: "It feels like home and I have a sense she will give us so much back. She's already beginning to do it - the roof was ok, the woodwork that is now sorted will be ok, the original flooring will be ok once sealed, and we found the hidden vaulted space that is absolutely stunning. She had absolutely no reason to give us all of that, but it's like she is saying 'if you look after me, I'll give you back some golden gems'."

Renovation Nation is on Channel 4 on weekdays at 4pm, and available on for catch up on All4. And don't miss the best dream homes in Wales, auction properties, renovation stories, and interiors - join the Amazing Welsh Homes newsletter, sent to your inbox twice a week.

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