Craving a dramatic change from the stresses of London life, David Page and his partner, David Baker, chose to set up home – and shop – in Hastings Old Town. And they couldn’t be happier that they did.
Popular music from the 1940s is playing, there are Moomin plates, knitted cacti, fragrant candles, Majolica cabbage bowls. I have landed in shop heaven, gazing around at a colourful cavalcade of things I really want to buy. We are in Hastings Old Town and this is Shop House Hastings. Excuse me while I just buy these cards and then we’ll get started.
It could be the lure of the sea, the Georgian architecture, the wonderful mix of eclectic shops and the unique character of the Old Town, the smell of fish and chips, or even the siren cry of the seagulls (maybe not the seagulls) that draws many of us to Hastings. As David Page says when we sit down in the kitchen behind Shop House Hastings, “it’s such a contrast from London – like a different planet; the sea, the countryside; you have the best of everything here, a quality of life.” Like many who dream of escape from the rat race David and his partner, David Baker, were living in London, but not always enjoying it. “We weren’t able to appreciate it,” he says. “I was always too tired, busy working – and doing the daily commute.”
At first the couple tried using Hastings as a weekend retreat, but it got harder and harder to go back. “We bought a house in Ashburnham Road – we would come down every weekend and go back on Monday. At first it was Monday morning, but it got later and later. Then we would take Tuesday off…” David smiles. Despite wanting to move away from London, making the break was not that easy. David moved down first to look for work. “I was on holiday really though, at least that was what it felt like. Then I saw this.” He gestures around him and says that for months they must have walked past the shop, “It was an invisible building, and then suddenly it was there.”
The property had been on the market for a while, but David explains that he didn’t think it was easy for people to see through the emptiness of the shop – and the fact that the whole of the interior was painted black. “It was like something from Harry Potter,” he laughs, “more of an anti-show home.” The building was not without charm though, with high ceilings, exposed brickwork and period features, including some wooden shutters in the bay window of the upstairs sitting room. “The shutters reminded me of Holland, when I went as a child,” says David. “I made an offer there and then.”
The couple were suddenly on a tight schedule. “We bought the house on December 10th and the shop had to be opened in April,” David remembers. Undaunted, they didn’t waste time, painting over the black walls as they moved in. “We used Valspar paint from B&Q, as it covers so well and hid the black.” David had a clear idea of what was needed, which was lucky, as four months is an incredibly short turnaround time in which to launch a shop. It was also the dead of winter and the house had no central heating. “At one point when we had a leak in the ceiling and it was in the minuses I thought ‘what have we done?’” he says. “So I just put more and more clothes on – people thought that I’d really lost weight when the spring came and the weather warmed up.” He grins. While the Davids were busy painting on the inside, the scaffolding went up on the outside and the whole building was painted blue. It makes a strong statement. “When you stand at the top of the hill and look down, it’s easy to spot the shop.” David laughs. “It’s about branding. I learned that at The Conran Shop.” (He was floor manager there before the move.) “You only get one chance to get it right, you’ve got to have a strong look.”
Although most of the black was eradicated from the interior, the staircase has remained dark, in contrast to the rest of the house, although it is not at all gloomy. “Two weeks in, while we were painting, I fell down the stairs,” David says cheerfully. Did he go to hospital? “No, we were on such a tight deadline, I had to get up and carry on painting, covered in bruises.” The staircase has become a striking feature in itself, rising just behind the shop, going up through the centre of the building. It provides a great backdrop for all their paintings and photographs, many of their two cats, the handsome Cyril and more delicate Vera. “Vera sometimes sits in the window of the shop, but Cyril isn’t allowed, as he’s too clumsy and knocks things over.” There are other intriguing mementos and some very effective light boxes made from magic lantern slides, bought from Robert’s Rummage shop across the road for £1 each. “I will always have lots of pictures on the walls,” says David. “Photo albums are static and not often looked at. When we go up or downstairs, it’s like opening a diary. You remember where you were and what you were doing when the picture was taken or the piece was bought, or who gave it to you.”
The living room was the first room they decorated. The impressive fireplace was an Ebay find, the surround has been cleverly wallpapered instead of tiled using paper by Vintage Bird, the gorgeous fabric and wallpaper shop next door to Shop House Hastings. This room feels particularly open and bright, benefitting from the light pouring in through the big bay window with the wooden shutters. In a brave move, the laths on the wall opposite the window are exposed, all the insides and plaster removed. This pared back, skeleton wall works beautifully, opening up the whole space, the effect enhanced by the stained glass window in the door. Almost knocking out the wall adds another dimension to both the living room and the staircase and makes the house feel bigger and lighter. The light and airy rooms appear to be enjoyed by the couple’s many houseplants too, as they are found in every room of the house, including the shop. David loves plants. “When we moved we had to have a separate removal van just for the plants,” he says, smiling. “I need greenery and we don’t really have a garden, so I have brought it inside. A lot of the plants are from Mao Bramall at Shimizu, the florist’s further along the high street.”
David is an artist by training and began his career making paper and metal sculptures. “That was how I first started at The Conran Shop,” he explains. “I got a commission to make 150 paper and wire sculptures for their window.” He has also worked in a French home fragrance company based in Provence, and at Cox & Power the jeweller’s. “I’m obsessed with fragrance – I had to do spot tests all the time when I was there, guessing the elements of a scent.” David now sells a brand of candles that appear to satisfy the obsession. “They are soya based, with such amazing fragrance.” His experience at the jewellers taught him more about the detail. Shop House Hastings had to have a homely feel – “as if you are going through someone’s house,” David explains. “The detail gives you that too. I wanted all the shelves to have scalloped edges to them – so we had to make them. First we cut each one in half and then we painted them all by hand – it took ages.” Part of the same ethos is to keep moving the stock and regularly refreshing the theme. The window display is changed once a month and the Christmas window is becoming an eagerly anticipated treat. David clearly enjoys this creative aspect of the job. “The Christmas display has been planned for months,” he says with glee.
“We have all heard that retail is detail, but it is also about a sense of style and having a clear vision of the business and its direction. It’s not about commodities,” he says. I suspect he’s aware of the irony; the house and shop are packed full of commodities. But it’s not just stuff; everything in the house has memory and meaning and David is also careful about what he buys for the shop. “We sell things we would buy as gifts for friends or family.” And that never stands still. “I had particular friends in mind to buy for – and now I have new friends, so the shop has evolved. New things came – toys for children, things that last – nothing to do with fashion or trends,” he says, adding, “some people really surprise me, some spend a lot of money and you don’t think they will. People buy from the shelves – and they form emotional attachment to things,” says David (I can hear those Moomin plates calling me).
As we sit in the colourful cosy kitchen behind the shop, painted a cheerful primrose yellow, (“all kitchens should be yellow,” declares David), I admire the collection of blue and white china and the way that items originally from the shop mingle happily with their other possessions. The atmospheric music comes drifting through from the shop and perhaps I can even hear a seagull too. It is all a far cry from the stress of London life and the endless commuting. David and David’s escape plan has worked brilliantly and Shop House Hastings is the shining proof. “It’s almost like sitting in my living room with coffee on tap but people coming in and buying things,” says David. “Sometimes,” he adds, “we sit on the wall opposite the shop.” It’s a hard life.
The bedroom has a decidedly forest feel with wood panelled fireplace and mossy green walls – the perfect backdrop for more of the couple’s collection of houseplants
One of the shelves made with a scalloped edge, sits above a rail of clothes
Although most of the black was eradicated from the interior, the staircase has remained dark
"When we go up or downstairs, it’s like opening a diary."
“I need greenery and we don’t really have a garden, so I have brought it inside. A lot of the plants are from Mao Bramall at Shimizu, the florist’s further along the high street."
The staircase has become a striking feature in itself, rising just behind the shop, going up through the centre of the building
Exposed brickwork cocoons the staircase which rises just behind the shop, going up through the centre of the building. It provides a great backdrop for David and David’s paintings and photographs
The wonderful light boxes are made from magic lantern slides, bought from Robert’s Rummage shop across the road for £1 each
The impressive fireplace in the sitting room was an Ebay find, the surround wallpapered instead of tiled using paper from Vintage Bird
Everything in the house has memory and meaning and David is also careful about what he buys for the shop
The living room was the first room David and David decorated. The laths on the wall opposite the window are exposed, all the insides and plaster removed. This pared back, skeleton wall works beautifully, opening up the whole space, the effect enhanced by the stained glass window in the door
Almost knocking out the wall adds another dimension to both the living room and the staircase and makes the house feel bigger and lighter
Nestled below a windowsill of tropical greenery the roll top bath offers the perfect place to unwind after a busy day in the shop
Decorative apothecary bottles line the shelves surrounding the bathroom mirror
Pictures of cats can be found throughout the house
“When we moved we had to have a separate removal van just for the plants.”
Strategically placed mirrors illuminate the potentially light-starved staircase that leads down to the stockroom in the basement
“I will always have lots of pictures on the walls,” says David
“All kitchens should be yellow,” declares David
I admire the collection of blue and white china and the way that items originally from the shop mingle happily with their other possessions
Shop House had to have a homely feel – “as if you are going through someone’s house,” David explains
"I wanted all the shelves to have scalloped edges to them – so we had to make them. First we cut each one in half and then we painted them all by hand – it took ages.”
- Visit Shop House Hastings at facebook.com/shophousehastings 49 High St, Hastings, from 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday.
- Shimizu shimizuflowers.co.uk 22a High St, Hastings 01424425971
- Vintage Bird 48 High St, Hastings 01424433300
- words: Jo Arnell
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Helen Barton
You may also like
Stella Hayes initially fell in love with the property's glorious garden. She has gone on to create a beautiful home.
I’m sure we’ve all thought about buying a house by the sea – perhaps after an idyllic holiday, or a bracing walk, even just a drive along the coast. On the morning we visit James Rourke’s house, as the sullen...
When Sally Harrington opens the huge front door of her Kentish weatherboard home I assume that the 1950s bungalow that once stood here was demolished to make way for the new house. “No,” she says, “it’s still in here somewhere,...