Berni and Peter Leach constantly tweak and switch up their house in Hastings Old Town – and their wonderful shop too
The usual set-up for interviewing people about their beautiful houses for this magazine is one-on-one, because in the vast majority of households, there’s one person with the vision (obsession…) for how the place should look.
So it’s always a nice surprise when you get to do the tour of the premises with both the owners, as I did with Berni and Peter, in their early Victorian villa in the heart of Hastings’ picturesque Old Town.
It was my first visit to the house – although I know it from many walks past, imagining how amazing the views must be from its spot on the hill across the valley which so neatly contains the town.
I’m not disappointed. From the sitting room windows you look over the whole higgledy-piggledy snaggle of streets, to the green swathes of the country park on the East Hill.
To the south, your eye travels across the fishing boats pulled up on the beach, to a wide expanse of sea and the high cliffs marching on towards Dover. (Except these ones are more grey, not chalk white.)
And while it’s my first call at the house, I have met the couple before in their lovely shop, Merchant 57, just down the hill at the bottom end of the Old Town’s High Street.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that their home has the same appeal as the shop – a fascinating mix of new things, with antiques, original artworks and hand-crafted one-off pieces. “The shop is Berni’s concept,” says Peter. “She does all the buying, although I do enjoy it too.”
“It represents us,” says Berni. “We sell what we would have in our house. We also like to find things that are Fairtrade and sustainable.”
“And nothing that anyone else has,” says Peter. “We never argue about what to buy for the shop, it’s quite simple, if we don’t both love it, we don’t buy it.”
But Peter is a being a little modest about his contribution, because the antiques in the shop are very much his domain, from his years as a dealer – an expertise which is very apparent as we tour the house and he can date the many beautiful pieces of furniture to the decade.
Having the shop, which opened in 2020, is giving him a fun outlet for those skills.
“When we moved here from London, we said, ‘let’s not clutter the place up…’ then I’d go out for bread and I’d come back and Berni would say, ‘What’s that under your arm…?’ Now with the shop, I can scratch the itch.”
They made the move down the A21 twelve years ago after visiting the town, on what Berni describes as ‘a complete whim’ after reading about it in an article. “It was pouring with rain and we got soaked and we didn’t hate it,” says Berni, laughing, which helped them decide it was the place for them.
And so, it seems, was this particular house, with there being one of those ‘meant to be’ property purchase stories involved – when their London place was sold, only for the house they were buying in Hastings to fall through.
“We were going to move into a rental, to look for another house to buy,” says Berni, “when the estate agent told us about this one. We had seen it was empty when we were exploring the Old Town and presumed somebody had already got it. We drove down the next day and bought it.”
What they snapped up is an early Victorian villa, from 1830, attached to a neighbouring house on one side – with a small gap on the other, which gave them a great opportunity. “We found an Edwardian photograph of the house from The History House in Hastings Old Town,” says Berni, “and it had a conservatory on the side, so we were able to get planning permission to put a new one in.”
But before we go through to explore that light and airy space, we take a moment to sit at the dining table to take in that splendid area, looking through to the sitting room, with sliding doors to separate the two spaces, if required.
All of it is papered with a wonderfully vivid Asian-bird wallpaper by Colefax & Fowler sourced from the excellent decorating resource of Vintage Bird, just a few hundred metres away in the High Street. “We looked at loads of wallpapers,” says Berni. “I wanted the background to look slightly tea stained, so we chose this one for the background really.”
But while the background colour may be soft and subtle, the overall effect is marvellously vivid – exactly what they wanted.
“When we first moved in here we had the woodwork painted blue/black and the walls were dark grey – it looked very chic, but during lockdown we used this room more during the day and we started to find it depressing.”
There is no chance of that now, with colour and pattern leaping about. From the vintage tiled coffee table to the wonderful ceiling lampshades, made from mixed-up fabrics. “We sell them in the shop,” says Berni. “A woman makes them for us in the South of France, from vintage fabrics. They are all mixed and no two are the same. We met her at an interiors show in Paris.”
Another masterpiece in mixed fabrics, is the armchair next to the fireplace. “Peter has had the chair for 40 years,” says Berni, “and we came up with the idea to cover it with a patchwork of old Indian Kantha quilts.”
So, in this one room, are two perfect examples of how they like to keep switching things up, to keep it interesting. “The house is forever changing,” says Peter. “That’s fun, that’s what we enjoy. The pictures must have changed a dozen times.”
And talking of pictures, another element adding to the sitting room’s dynamic colour is the door through to the conservatory extension, with a wall covered in paintings – many, it turns out, by Peter, as I find out when I say that I like a particular piece. It’s one of his. “I’ve been painting for 18 years,” he says. “I hadn’t painted since I left school and I just took it up. I sell a few in the shop.”
As well as all the artwork, the space has a dining table “we use it for breakfast in summer” and the French windows on the front side lead out on to a balcony, with another table and chairs, making it a perfect spot to enjoy that amazing view.
The French windows on the other side of the conservatory lead out onto a large courtyard garden – a masterclass in how to garden with just pots – cleverly divided into two distinct areas, by a pierced screen and a rose-covered rusty metal arch, giving that lovely sense of discovery. Most importantly, there is a table and chairs in each part. “We follow the sun,” says Berni.
Heading back into the house, I pause to admire the wallpaper in the hall and up the stairs. This design of leaping deer, with a Medieval feel, called Battle Great Woods, is by local artist Lindsay Alker.
My attention is then grabbed by a large gilt umbrella stand, at the bottom of the elegant stairs – it’s absolutely full of old walking canes, with wonderful carved heads of dogs and other animals. All treasures found by Peter. “There are 35 of them, I’ve collected over the years,” he says, taking prize specimens out to show me. There’s one with a hinged jaw, to hold gloves, and a bendy one that would have been used in a musical hall act.
I could have spent all day examining them (I have a collection of one, which is a prize possession…), but I’m eager to see the kitchen.
This is a galley format, as it was when they moved in, refreshed to their tastes, painted in Farrow & Ball’s Sulking Room Pink, which is a very unexpected and lovely colour for a kitchen, a muted pink.
One wall is papered with bright floral Hollyhock by House of Hackney, with the same pattern on the fabric of the Roman blind. “The kitchen carcasses were here,” says Berni. “We just took out the wall cupboards and put marble on the worktops.”
On the wall opposite the sink and run of cupboards is a butcher’s block with open shelves above, showcasing a collection of bowls, jugs and other interesting vessels – all in use, not just for show.
Leading on from the kitchen is another extension, filling in a gap between the kitchen, to create a utility room and a downstairs loo – and what a loo! It is papered on the walls and right over the ceiling with another wonderful House of Hackney wallpaper, on a rich pink background – plus a disco ball. A loo first in my experience.
We then head upstairs, where a surprise awaits me – the room that I was expecting to be a wonderful bedroom is actually another sitting room and it would be nuts not to make the most of this spot in the light of the day, because that view is even more amazing one floor up.
Decorated in muted shades, this ‘day sitting room’ is a great contrast with the vivid ‘evening’ parlour downstairs and has a sophisticated city feel to it – perhaps not surprisingly, when Peter explains: “It’s furnished mainly with stuff we had in the London flat.”
I’m struck by two more very interesting ceiling light shades in here. Echoing the large round shapes of the fabric ones downstairs, these feature a monochrome print of Brighton’s burnt West Pier and they found them in a shop in Rye.
The wonderful master bedroom is one floor up, painted a lovely restful colour – Little Greene’s Limestone – and yes, on this top level, the view notches up yet another gear.
The room has the lovely generous dimensions of the day sitting room below, which means there is space for it to be furnished with more than just the practical bedroom necessities.
There is a small French sofa at the end of the bed, a table and two chairs in the window bay and two chests of drawers. One is from the 1820s, says Peter and the other is a ‘faded mahogany low boy from about 1770’. He’s had it for 40 years.
A more recent acquisition is a magnificent oval mirror, which they bought from the antique furniture shop that used to occupy the spot where their shop now is.
Perhaps a find from one of Peter’s forays to the bakery, when he came back with a bit more than a loaf and two almond croissants.
Find Merchant 57 at 57 High Street, Hastings Old Town, or follow Instagram @hastingsmerchant57
Hastings History House ohps.org.uk
Moore House Hastings moorehousehastings.com
Vintage Bird 01424 433300
Words: Maggie Alderson Photographs: David Merewether Styling: Holly Levett
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