Surrounded by countryside and forest, a beautiful country house with truly enviable gardens has been opened up for photoshoots by its owners
Eight years ago when Michelle and Ian were looking to relocate from Otham, near Maidstone, they had decided that they wanted a period property house and, as they were partly moving to get away from a noisy environment, to find some peace and quiet in the countryside. A property off a main road was something that was definitely not on Michelle’s list of ‘musts’ when they started their search for a dream home.
It’s funny how once you fall in love with a place, the checklist is easily modified. “Every house has a compromise,” she says. “You never get everything you want. We did get rustic and original features, but I was worried about the road, although it is a long way off.” The house is actually a hundred metres from the road, with a wooded area flanking the drive, so any traffic noise is muffled and almost undetectable.
It’s easy to see why they fell for this property, but there’s no hint from the first impression at what lies behind. Michelle leads us through the attractive brick and tiled porch. Inside, the ceilings are low, in keeping with many vernacular houses in the area, but the windows are of a good size and the rooms are flooded with natural light. There is also an orangery attached to the back of the house to maximise views of the garden. And, oh my, what a garden it is. Striped lawns and topiary flank the long path that runs down the centre of the garden to a yew hedge, its dark horizontal form broken gently by a well-spaced row of perfectly shaped hornbeam trees, merging the formal lines of the garden into the far reaching view of the countryside beyond.
“Originally the garden drew my husband more than me,” says Michelle. Her views on the garden were a little different and she admits – understandably – to feeling slightly overwhelmed by it.
Accompanied by Herbie the Cockerpoo, we walk down among the carefully clipped topiary, and divert to the left to view a Japanese garden. “The area was just grass, but we needed space for Ian’s bonsai’s,” explains Michelle. The grass was replaced with low maintenance grey gravel and the bonsai trees now sit resplendent on plinths near to eye level, where their miniature beauty can be fully appreciated. Impressively large koi carp swim nonchalantly in the raised pool and complete the look.
Down through a wooden walkway framed by climbing roses and billowing Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’, we eventually reach the closely cut hedge – at what I assume is the end of the garden. “There is a lot more,” Michelle smiles, leading us beyond the hedge into a new sports area so huge that it’s almost municipal, containing a tennis court, skate park and professional looking cricket nets, used by the couple’s teenage son.
“This was once an enormous vegetable garden,” Michelle explains, pointing to a huge greenhouse and attached potting shed flanking the tennis court. “The allotment was a step too far. If I want vegetables, I just go to the farm shop,” she laughs. The greenhouse is now the overwintering quarters for Ian’s impressive collection of bonsai trees and the potting shed has become a changing room and equipment store.
Off to the side of the sports zone and hidden by trees, a small lake appears, complete with mini jetty and rowing boat. Adjacent to this on the other side of a gentle, shrub-shaded path, is a lawned area containing a giant chess set. It’s feeling a bit Alice in Wonderland now, as Michelle takes us into a woodland garden, past an adorable tree house built high into a tree trunk and then back up towards the drive and the front of the house.
Back inside, Michelle explains the changes they have made and how she set about streamlining and simplifying the garden to make it more manageable. “There were huge herbaceous borders and lavender sprawling everywhere.” While this may be some people’s idea of heaven, it is not always the tidiest of looks. “I have to have plants that are very neat,” she continues. “That’s my personality.” The giant plant-filled borders were replaced with a calm and well behaved parterre and the lavender flanking the central path was swapped for an avenue of tightly clipped bay trees.
This enormous garden takes a lot of upkeep and Michelle and Ian are assisted for half the week by father and son gardening team Nigel and Cameron Cheesman from Iden Green. “Nigel is a perfectionist, so that works with my head and makes my life easier.” Their efforts in the garden are much appreciated: “In fact,” laughs Michelle, “if they ever left, well we’d probably have to move.”
The eighteenth century house is actually two cottages joined together into one larger dwelling. Unusually, the property has been extended at the front, adding on the library, bathroom and part of the large kitchen-diner. The previous owners also built onto the side of the house, usefully adding a cloakroom that can be accessed directly from the garden.
Ian and Michelle were able to move in without having to do any structural work. The kitchen was already in place and fortunately was to the couple’s taste, although they have recently installed a temperature controlled wine cabinet in the dining area of the kitchen, into the fireplace, in place of the existing wood burner (potentially just as warming).
“Everything the previous owners did to the house was really well thought out and finished to a high standard,” says Michelle. “All the doors and floorboards are solid oak.” So thankfully there wasn’t too much to do inside at first, although they did update the bathrooms and completely redecorate. “The whole downstairs was painted bright yellow when we moved in,” she remembers. “I’m not really one for bold colour.” Now painted in neutrals and woodwork in soothing mid grey, the interior is calm and serene.
Upstairs, the main bedrooms have windows that overlook the gardens. Decorative themes are subtle and understated and Michelle has kept to colour schemes of muted neutrals and greys. The couple’s son’s bedroom is particularly striking; here off-white teams with deep blue, and features a smart line up of cricket bats and Formula One racing posters. All over the house there are hints at the family’s interest in sports – motor sports in particular.
The couple decided to replace the existing conservatory with a light and airy orangery, that brings light into the house and opens out onto a large patio with views across the garden to the countryside in the far beyond. “I very much like the garden to come into the house and for its features to be seen from inside,” says Michelle.
The garden’s layout, with paths and vistas gives clear sight lines and maximises the effect of focal points. Among traditional Lutyens benches and urns, there are contemporary sculptures chosen by Michelle. A huge metal ball made from bars of Corten steel looks particularly effective next to a new seating area they’ve installed. Here there are gabions (large metal cages filled with stones) as seating and a fire pit. “The big ball came from the Goodwood Revival. I love choosing things for the garden and think that sculptures work really well as features in their own right,” she says. “I am the Boot Fair Queen and always look for bargains on eBay and places.”
The house – and especially the garden – offer an ideal location for photo shoots. “The garden takes up so much of my time that it’s good to share it and to make it pay for its keep,” says Michelle. “We had a wedding shoot last week. It’s interesting to do, and people like different parts. The mulberry tree is a lovely spot and has spring flowers that come up in a very natural and pretty way. The Snake’s Head Fritillaries are Ian’s favourite.” This area is near to the lake, which is fed by a winterbourne stream (a stream that often dries up in the summer months) that comes down from Benenden Girls’ school.
Although there wasn’t too much structural work to do in the house, Michelle’s sincere philosophy is that you become a curator of sorts when you buy a property. “You never own a garden or a house,” she says. “Everyone must do something to preserve and improve their home.” The old Victorian glasshouse to the side of the house is a case in point. “It was in a terrible state and we had to decide whether to save it or to knock it down… We couldn’t knock it down. I have no right to do that,” she says. “So we got the Victorian Glasshouse Company to restore it, keeping all the old features. It was a huge job, but it’s an original Messenger Glasshouse.” This style of glasshouse was designed by the engineer Thomas Messenger and has become a standard design, much copied to this day. The project was quite an undertaking, but they have no regrets. The glasshouse is now home to a collection of antique gardening equipment and looks picture perfect next to the bothy within the walled garden. This enclosed space, once a cutting garden has been transformed by Michelle into a cool, calm and collected white garden in homage to the White Garden at nearby Sissinghurst.
With her eye for detail and use of a limited colour palette, choosing well behaved plants in shades of green and white, Michelle has created the perfect backdrop for photoshoots, but more importantly, for living in.
Find out more about using Michelle and Ian’s house as a location for a shoot at locationhouseandgardens.co.uk
Find Michelle on Instagram @hemstedlocationhouseandgardens
Victorian Glasshouse Company victorianglasshouse.co.uk
“I love choosing things for the garden and think that sculptures work really well as features in their own right”
- words: Jo Arnell
- styling: Holly Levett
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