When Sarah and Dean made the decision to move to Kent from Hertfordshire, they agreed that they would only buy a house they both truly loved. When they found this 16th century Wealden farmhouse near Ulcombe, in need of restoration and decoration, they knew they’d found the one.
It would be easy, when walking into such a homely, perfectly furnished Wealden farmhouse, to think that it had been in the same family for generations. Everything is ‘just so’ – not in an uptight, take-your-shoes-off-at-the-door kind of way – but in the sense that the interiors work so well with the timber-framed structure and its role as a cosy and hospitable home.
Its owners, Sarah and Dean, moved to the house near Ulcombe in 2008, from Bourne End in Hertfordshire, having scoured the southeast for something they both loved. “There was no compromise,” says Sarah. “We agreed that we both had to love the home we were going to buy.” Both had family connections in Kent – grandmothers from Appledore and Hythe, respectively – but it was still a big decision, leaving leafy Buckinghamshire.
“Many of the houses Sarah spotted online looked lovely, but when she came to do the initial recce, they turned out to be on busy roads, or not in a nice location,” says Dean. “But I couldn’t find this house,” adds Sarah, “and had to ask a postman.”
The other big selling point was its location between three decent country pubs. “We went for a drink in the nearest pub, before we put in an offer, to get a feel for the area,” says Dean. “As we don’t have children, we knew that our local, or local pubs, would be a social hub – and our way of getting to know people.”
It’s clear that their research paid off – and they are now an intrinsic part of the village. But things could so easily have been different… On the day they put in an offer on the house, Dean received a phone call.
“I was asked to head-up the Yorkshire Bank, whose head office is in Leeds,” he says. “So, for three years I was travelling up to Leeds, to be in the office for 9am on a Monday morning, and coming back to Kent on a Thursday. I was leading a bit of a double life for a while! I had to give the impression that Yorkshire was the place for me, when really my heart was in Kent.”
So, while Dean was away in Leeds, Sarah focused on renovating the place. “I’d been working in an interiors shop in Berkhamsted, so had a great contacts book – but that was no good to me in Kent. I had a couple of friends down here, but had no idea where to find decent tradesmen.”
Her saviour was the local hardware store, where the manager had a fantastic address book of her own. “I found several great tradesmen through Headcorn Hardware, and then it was just word of mouth from there,” says Sarah.
The first room you enter, from the box-edged gravel drive, is the kitchen. It is under a cat-slide roof at the back of the house, with the ceiling raised to the roof, revealing what was once the exterior rear wall and windows of the farmhouse. “The house was very old-fashioned when we looked at it, and needed a lot of money spent on it. But I wanted a project and a house that needed work,” says Sarah.
A new kitchen was a priority, and Sarah had heard about JM Interiors at Frittenden so, after a visit to the showroom, they were booked in for the job: “I wanted to use local businesses, and we liked them and their family business instantly,” she says. “They did a stonking job, especially as none of our walls are straight – and I kept on changing my mind on colours!”
It’s certainly an interesting space in which to fit a kitchen – but with gorgeous existing features, including long, low windows under the eaves and an original, reconditioned, Aga at its heart.
A Welsh ‘deuddarn’ cupboard next to the Aga, which Sarah and Dean brought with them from their old house (their Herts home was dated 1595, whereas their current home is even older, dating from 1525) would originally have been a larder in the top half and clothes storage in the lower half. Today it holds crockery. They also brought an old-fashioned clothes airer with them, which hovers, perfectly, high above the room.
At the pantry and utility end of the kitchen, there is a charming loo, decorated with quirky chicken wallpaper, designed by the artist Belynda Sharples. “I’m not making it up, but I was on a hen weekend in Norfolk, and met the artist,” says Sarah. “There was this fantastic craft market in Burnham Market – I was nipping round – and was drawn to her work. I decided then and there I would find a place for it in our house.” The downstairs loo was one of the few places with sufficiently straight walls for wallpaper, one of the foibles of an historic house.
Yet, for a house of this age, it’s surprisingly warm and draught-free. “It does take a bit of heating, but the Aga makes a huge difference, and I have put heavy roller blinds and thick curtains in every room,” says Sarah. The blinds are discreet and dark purple, so when rolled up, are hardly visible, whereas striking curtains throughout the house, are from Bell House Interiors in Cranbrook. “We also put new carpets in every room – thick sisal, which I love – which is tough, practical and keeps the cold out.”
Sarah and Dean have resisted putting a wood-stove into their classic inglenook fireplace: “When we arrived, it looked like a pub fireplace, with a large metal hood, and horse brasses all around,” says Dean. “We had a guy remove the hood, and hide it in the space above the fireplace, but we didn’t know if the fire would draw properly. We decided it was worth a try, and that if it didn’t work, we’d put in a wood-burner. But it burns a treat.” The fireplace features firedogs, bought this year from an antiques market in Montpellier, France, while the fireback is one of several purchases from Symonds reclamation yard at Bethersden. It is a fitting focal point for the living room, which contains a mixture of antiques, many of which were bought from the renowned antiques dealer, John Bly, as well as replica pieces skilfully made by the Headcorn carpenter, Tim Smith.
A rustic wooden door to the right of the fireplace leads to the dining room and the stairs. The dining room is furnished with dark, period furniture – almost all from their former home – including a refectory table and ladder-back chairs from about 1780.
Despite the care that has gone into sourcing these antiques, this is no showroom – and the room is regularly used for lively dinner parties. A large, seemingly old, maritime painting along the side wall gives a nod to the couple’s sense of fun: “I said to the artist, Donald MacRead: ‘I want a picture of Nelson beating the French at sea,’ so he knocked this up for me.”
Shallow stairs lead upstairs to the first floor, with a gorgeous master bedroom, modern wet room and a spectacularly wonky guest room. Notable, on this level, are the unspoilt views from every room, out over little Wealden fields and hedges, or across the expansive lawns. The main bedroom has the pick of the views, across the garden to a newly built oak-framed cart shed, and paddocks beyond. It is also home to an impressive roll-top bath: “It’s meant to look like cast iron, but we would never have got it upstairs, and I was worried about the floor taking the weight,” says Sarah.
Hidden behind doors next to the upstairs chimney breast is a generous walk-in wardrobe, with textured pebble flooring to echo that of the wet room. It works surprisingly well and, as Sarah says, is ideal when your floors are so uneven; tiles just wouldn’t work.
One look in the second bedroom, and you can see the kind of uneven floors the couple have had to deal with; floors so uneven that they had to have a special bedside table made, with different-length legs.
Short legs are needed upstairs, in the attic bedroom – though on guests rather than on the furniture. Nestled into the upper beams of the house is a gorgeous, almost secret bedroom which has been made extra cosy with the addition of thick luxurious carpet, a reindeer skin on the floor and discreet lighting. It is reached by a quirky and steep ‘paddle stairway’, as you sometimes see on boats, and Sarah and Dean had a loo and basin installed en suite, to save guests an awkward climb down the stairs.
This kind of consideration is typical of Sarah and Dean, consummate hosts and now a key part of village life.
Both these facts are borne out by a story about the end of their restoration and decoration: “At the end of the job, we had all of the tradesmen – about 20 of them – plus some of our neighbours, round for a party. The guy with the digger, who dug out our pond, brought round some of his homemade cider, and we all got extremely merry,” says Sarah. What an appropriate way to celebrate moving to Kent.
A Welsh ‘deuddarn’ cupboard takes pride of place in the kitchen Right: Sarah met the designer of this chicken wallpaper at a craft fair in Norfolk and decided that she had to find a place for the paper in their home. The downstairs loo was one of the few rooms with sufficiently straight walls
The downstairs loo was one of the few places with sufficiently straight walls for wallpaper, one of the foibles of an historic house
The first room you enter, from the box-edged gravel drive, is the kitchen. It is under a cat-slide roof at the back of the house, with the ceiling raised to the roof, revealing what was once the exterior rear wall and windows of the farmhouse
The couple bought this Salvador Dali lithograph, from the Femmes des Fleurs series and dated 1939, in Paris. It hangs above a chaise longue that Sarah had re-upholstered by Steve Burton in Appledore
Cocker Spaniels Milly and Pip enjoy the fire in the living room
The view from the kitchen window, across the lawn to the oak-framed, cart-shed-style garage
The kitchen’s flag-stone floor was already in place when the couple bought the farmhouse and is ideal in a household where visitors often have muddy wellies – or muddy paws
Although Sarah and Dean brought much of their furniture from their former home in Hertfordshire – which was also 16th century in origin – they commissioned Tim Smith, a local carpenter, to make various antique-effect pieces, such as this oak coffer-cum-coffee table in the living room which was ‘distressed’ using metals chains and clever varnishing techniques
The main bedroom has the pick of the views, across the garden to a newly built oak-framed cart shed, and paddocks beyond. It is also home to an impressive roll-top bath: “It’s meant to look like cast iron, but we would never have got it upstairs, and I was worried about the floor taking the weight,” says Sarah
Shallow stairs lead upstairs to the first floor, with a gorgeous master bedroom, modern wet room and a spectacularly wonky guest room
Sarah used a darker version of the pebble flooring in the wet room for the couple’s walk-in wardrobe
The ‘snout’ of a 24-stone marlin, caught by Dean in Mauritius, is used as a doorstop in the master bedroom
The cosy attic bedroom, with a newly fitted en suite is reached via steep ‘paddle stairs’, as sometimes seen on yachts
Ascending and descending the stairs takes some practice
A seating area in the garden with a fire-pit made by Cranbrook Iron
Sarah is kept busy tending the large garden, which includes a duck pond, fruit trees and trellises, as well as a vast lawn
The duck pond at the back of the house is thought to be the result of digging for clay to make roof tiles. When the couple decided to clear the pond and dig down to its original depth, they discovered that it was 20 feet deep. "The digger and driver completely disappeared out of sight," says Sarah
- Bell House Fabrics www.bellhousefabrics.co.uk Cranbrook 01580712555
- Belynda Sharples (Wallpaper and Fabric Designer) www.belyndasharples.co.uk 01580531171
- Cranbrook Iron www.cranbrookiron.com 07765344298
- Headcorn Hardware 51 High Street, Headcorn 01622890409
- John Bly www.johnbly.com 02073517799
- JM Interiors www.jminteriorsuk.uk Frittenden 01580291221
- Symonds Salvage www.symondssalvage.co.uk Bethersden 01233820724
- T J Smith www.timsmithfurniture.com Headcorn 01622891025
- words: Jennifer Stuart-Smith
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Helen Barton
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