Inspired by her family home’s centuries of history, and her lifelong interest in property, Claire Whisker has drawn on the skills she has learned during the ups and downs of her seven-year-long house renovation to create a successful new business venture

From a young age I’ve always lived in older houses. The home I grew up in was an old farmhouse which had been around for the best part of 500 years. It had a bit of a life of its own and would creak and groan with the seasons. We also had black and white photos of the previous owners who ran it as a farm and worked the land. When I grew up and bought my own home, it was always the older ones that caught my eye and captured my imagination. So it was lovely to meet Claire Whisker, a barrister turned entrepreneur who shares my fondness for older homes and the stories they have to tell.

During our time together Claire spoke of her lifelong journey with property, the incredible family home she’s lovingly restored and an exciting new business venture which supports homebuyers. Sitting down with Claire I detect a slight accent as we begin to talk, which I discretely try to pinpoint before she tells me, “I’m from Northern Ireland but I grew up in Australia.”

Claire who now lives in a small village just outside of Faversham with her husband Jonny and two girls was born in Northern Ireland, but her family relocated when she was young, a move instigated by her father, who is a bit of an inspiration for Claire. “My parents are amazing, they moved us so that we could have a better life and also enjoy more sailing in the sun,” she says. And it was Perth on the west coast of Australia where Claire’s interest in property first began, “My dad started a number of property companies there and my sister and I would tag along at the weekend for his site visits. I think from those early days I have property running through my veins.”

Growing up, Claire went on to study law at university before packing her bags for the UK and the bright lights of London. Once there, she quickly settled into her new life. Initially working in law before switching to the dynamic world of startups. “I was a barrister for a number of years but I joined a startup in the early 2000s which got me more interested in the business side of things.” Working for the startup was a great move for Claire and it became a stepping stone for starting a business of her own in 2011. “It was a short let business called Veeve. We thought people would rent their home out for a bit of extra money.” The business grew rapidly and opened offices in Paris as well as Los Angeles. But in 2018, Claire decided it was time to step down and she sold her stake in the company to start a new chapter and a family with husband Jonny.

A few years prior, during the market peak of 2014, Claire and Jonny had started looking for a place together in London. But the market was tough for buyers and forced them to take a different approach. “Prices in the London property market were so high at the time and the market was really competitive. We were gazumped twice in the space of a couple of months, so decided to see what we could find an hour further out,” she remembers. Their widened search soon opened their eyes to a different way of life. “We never actually planned on leaving London. But we just fell in love!”

The home they fell for was a 10 bedroom former country estate in a small village in Kent. They quickly had an offer accepted and were days away from completion when they got a call. “We were about to complete when we received a message saying the deal was off. We were so upset.” However, not wanting to walk away, Claire made a final attempt to secure the house. “I wrote a letter offering a higher price and, hey presto, we were back on! I still don’t know what happened.” The sale went through and, although joyful at getting their new home, they felt let down by the process. “It was incredibly stressful. We couldn’t speak to anyone and we didn’t know what was happening.”

During lockdown Claire and Jonny found out about buying agents and realised that they could help make the system fairer. “If you are selling your home, you have an estate agent on your side to help you achieve the highest price and get the deal over the line, but there is no one to represent the interests of the buyer. If we’d had an agent with a direct line to the other agent we would have saved so much time and money.”

Claire and Jonny’s situation was also compounded by post contract issues which, if they’d known about, may have stopped the purchase. “It was an absolute minefield. We’d taken on a period property, with all of the issues this typically comes with, including old wiring, a septic tank, a roof greatly in need of repair, as well as a large parcel of land (the property sits in almost 30 acres) and a sitting tenant. We probably shouldn’t have bought it, but we just didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for.” With time they worked through the issues and formed a great relationship with the existing tenant, who lives with her family in a characterful flat above one of the stable blocks, and continues to run a successful livery there.

In 2023, the couple used their experience to create First in the Door, a property advisory platform aimed at helping other buyers, ensuring they don’t have the same negative experience as they did. Claire explains, “We connect homebuyers with buying agents who represent and assist them through the whole buying process, from providing access to private and off-market sales, to negotiating purchase terms, liaising with all third parties and helping manage the entire process through to completion. We have agents across the country including Kent, Sussex, London and the Cotswolds.”

Back to the house and when tackling the renovation their focus was on how to best do it justice. Claire remembers, “The previous owner had converted it into four flats, so we spent time bringing it back into a single home and generally updating it.” Another challenge was bringing the different ages of the home together. “It’s got origins in the 1500s but with Georgian and Victorian extensions. So it’s a real mix.”

Claire and Jonny renovated the house in stages across a seven year period, patiently modernising whilst bringing it back into a single home. “We’ve tried to keep it all connected to create some flow, so have opted for similar paint colours throughout. Our decorator Paul Evans has been amazing – he comes to stay with us for 2-4 weeks at a time and gets a lot done.” It was also important for them to respect the rich history of the house. “We’ve kept it in the country house style and tried to remain true to its origins.”

The result is a wonderful family home equipped for modern life but full of character. And while it still has its quirks the family has fully embraced them into their way of life. “We’re a family of four, so we don’t need all this space but we really love hosting people. So the house contracts and expands depending on who’s staying.”

Walking around there are signs of the history of the home everywhere you look, but it’s the most recent incarnation as a country estate that really stands out. It’s a time Claire has been able to learn much about thanks to extraordinary connections that she made through some of the previous owners.

“I got to know two of the people who used to live here quite well. Arthur was the son of the owners of the house and Ivy was the housekeeper. She lived in the cottage next door and was there for 70 years.” A handful of times Claire had Ivy and Arthur round to the house for afternoon tea, where they shared their unique perspectives. “I asked Arthur about the different rooms in the house but he said Ivy would know better than him because he didn’t go into the servants’ areas like the kitchen.” And for Ivy it was a shock just being a guest alongside Arthur. Claire explained, “We were sitting in the drawing room and Ivy couldn’t believe she was there as a guest with Arthur and his daughter Cary. She had waited on his family her whole life and those barriers were still there.”

Arthur and Ivy both died around the same time a few years ago but Claire’s lasting feeling is one of privilege. “I was just so lucky to spend that time with them both,” she says.

Back in the present day and in the dining room Claire demonstrates the foot operated butler bell which still works today. Positioned under the dining table it shows just how much life has changed. The system is a source of much amusement for Claire’s two girls who enjoy playing in here. She jokes, “There’s a butler bell in all the rooms but sadly the butler never comes.” The room is also a great place to host guests. “It’s perfect for Christmas dinners as you can fit 16-17 people around the table.”

Entering the kitchen – which was completely renovated by Burnhill Kitchens – you can see further evidence of the house as it would have been, with the servants’ area still boxed out behind a curtain. This being one of the oldest (and coldest) rooms in the house, Claire and Jonny have tried to honour it by bringing in more light through glazed doors and have deliberately kept the fridges under counter to maintain the old fashioned look. “Naos Floors did a brilliant job of warming up this north-facing room with underfloor heating and big flagstone tiles,” she explains. In the corner of the room a beamed nook area has become the girls’ living room. “It was a big cupboard before which we opened out and fitted with a woodburner. They love it,”

Accessed via the kitchen is also the original cellar and perhaps the world’s most precarious pantry. Positioned as it is around the open stairwell. On the way down the stairs Claire points out a note on the wall. Written by her dad it reads, ‘Cleaning schedule: 1st clean 1587, 2nd clean 2018’. “He’s so funny,” Claire smiles. Down the steps and a maze of dimly lit rooms stretches out under the house which are spooky enough before Claire tells me that supposedly prisoners of war were held down here during the Napoleonic wars…

Moving swiftly back upstairs we head outside the house where there was plenty more for Jonny and Claire to do.

“In lockdown we did a lot of work in the garden. It was incredibly overgrown. We cleared a couple of acres of laurel and brambles and thinned out trees to let the light in.” The clearing work included the discovery and restoration of an old Victorian greenhouse. “We found someone to refurbish it and it all still works and the windows open. We use it as a sort of outdoor dining space. It has a vine growing through it that’s about 130 years old and it still produces the most fabulous grapes. Our gardener is going to make wine this summer and give us a couple of bottles.”

Near the house there is also a concreted area that was once a pool. “There was a swimming pool put in, but when World War II broke out they turned it into a bunker. Arthur remembers hiding down there as a teenager with his nanny and watching the Spitfires raging overhead.” Past the girls’ treehouse and there’s another piece of history on the lawns. “There was a grass tennis court here where Virginia Wade used to play because she was friendly with the family.”

It was a joy to meet Claire and discover more about her life and journey with property. In Jonny and Claire, the house has found the perfect owners. A couple who have not only lovingly brought the house back to life, but also the ideal custodians for the wealth of stories that it holds. The real value of a home, after all, lies not within the physical bricks and mortar but the people who reside within it. Anyway, aren’t we all just custodians of the homes we live in, adding our own stories to the rich timeline of their lives?

  • words:
  • pictures: David Merewether

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