Belinda Benton’s home is as elegantly calm and welcoming as the interiors she designs for others
By the time you have wound your way along the almost impossibly beautiful country lane that leads to Belinda Benton’s house, you are already starting to feel an increased sense of oneness with the world.
To be so immersed in nature when spring is springing forth is a balm to the soul – and this feeling only increases when you arrive at the 17th century former farmhouse, which has been her home for seven years.
From the moment you step into the hall, with a view through to the beamed vaulted ceiling of the original building and the wall to your right luxuriously upholstered with Saltaire fabric by Blithfield, you have that sensation of breathing out. Aaaaah…
I join Belinda in the kitchen, which leads off the hallway to the left, in a vaulted oak-framed extension installed by the previous owners – one of the things that made the house appeal to Belinda. “The hard work had already been done,” she says. “The kitchen extension was built and the oak-framed car barn was there.”
This structure was perfect for Belinda to convert into a home office/studio and to add some extra bedrooms to the three in the house – and these were very necessary, for she is a mother of six and when everyone comes home, with partners and grandchildren, bedrooms are at a premium. “We needed a lot of accommodation for high days and holidays and a table we could all sit at together,” says Belinda. “But I also needed it to be cosy for two people the rest of the time.”
Amazingly, this is exactly what the house delivers, with a lovely big dining area in the vaulted hall – where Belinda says the animals would have been kept, when the farmhouse was built – a smart sitting room, plus a comfy, book-filled snug, perfect for two.
The other surprising double whammy this house achieves is feeling so wonderfully remote, down that long and winding lane – but actually being only five minutes’ drive from Hawkhurst and ten from Stone Street, Cranbrook, where Belinda has had her interior design business, Evernden Interiors, for the past eighteen years.
This is all about to change, however. Belinda is moving the business – with herself – to the quaint seaside town of Deal, where she has also had a second home for the last seven years.
Her daughter, Hannah, an architect-trained interior designer made the big lockdown decision to leave London for somewhere she and her partner could afford to buy their own house. With mum already having a base in Deal – and it being such a lovely place – it was a no brainer as the relocation destination – and the chance to have Hannah, with her technical skills, on the Evernden Interiors team was too good for Belinda to miss.
There is also the advantage that while it is an exciting change for them both, the new location is close enough to the current base for them to be able to continue to look after their loyal roster of happy clients.
And they will want her to. Spending time in Belinda’s own house, you can see exactly why people return to her time-after-time for professional help with their interiors.
She’s just got ‘it’ – the instinct for what will work together to enhance a space. She also has an expert understanding of window treatments, which I know from a recent adventure in my own bedroom is a very complex area.
Belinda laughs when I tell her about my curtain-decision-hell – who knew there were so many choices? So many details to pick, on top of the broader decisions of blinds/curtains, pole/track, pelmet/not pelmet.
I bring the subject up, when she takes me into the cosy snug, which has two windows finished with Roman blinds – one of the many possibilities I considered, while having a small nervous breakdown over my bedroom arrangement. It’s not like that for Belinda… “I usually have a feel for what will work,” she says. And looking round the house, you can see it in action, with each window perfectly finished for its particular spot. The amazing thing is she can do this with no formal training.
“I learned by doing it,” she says. “I had six children in 12 years and moved five times… ending up in a big old house in Hawkhurst. That was a big project, my first experience of working with an architect and I loved it. That was the turning point when I realised ‘I love doing this’. I’ve had no formal training – I guess if it’s in you, it’s in you. Hands on experience is the best way to learn.”
“We needed a lot of accommodation for high days and holidays and a table we could all sit at together,” says Belinda. “But I also needed it to be cosy for two people the rest of the time.”
This decorator skill is particularly in evidence in the more formal sitting room. Like the kitchen, this is a square room and the windows have classic farmhouse glazing bars, with three sets of three horizontal oblong panes. It gives a similar effect to the currently fashionable black steel Crittall window, but this is the original rustic version, painted off-white.
There are two sofas, two armchairs and a large, upholstered ottoman – furnished with a rattan tray and appealing books – all of which have their own lesson and story. The ottoman is a recent arrival in this setting, moved here from the annexe – hauled over by Belinda herself, who likes to switch things up. It’s covered in a striking William Yeoward blue and white graphic fabric.
The soft green sofa was made by Belinda’s upholsterer – with whom she has been working for 20 years – and I learned that this classic style, with loose seat cushions, an upholstered back and small wooden feet, is called a Howard sofa.
Another great thing to learn from it is Belinda’s approach to the seat cushions. I know from bitter experience what a pain they can be if they’re filled entirely with feathers. You spend half your life plumping them up and they weigh a tonne. The rest of the time they are trying to push you onto the floor, as they deflate to nothing the minute you sit on them.
Belinda has her seat cushions made with a mix of foam and feathers, in a Dacron wrap. So you get a soft landing, with enough resistance, and it stays in place.
The smaller sofa – an unbuttoned Chesterfield – is an old trooper. “I’ve had it for more than 20 years. It’s been orange velvet, yellow linen, now it’s natural linen.”
The chairs – versions of a Nina Campbell chair – have also been enjoyed in three versions, currently finished in another bold blue and white William Yeoward fabric, which works brilliantly with the ottoman.
Which all goes to show how personal this house is. Some decorators treat their own gaffs as show cases for the business, this is very much a family home.
The gorgeous curtains in her sitting room, however, do display her credentials. “These curtains were a client mistake,” she says. “The fabric had stretch in it and it kept dropping.” I ask for a professional run down on the exact details of them: “Pinch pleats and a ruche on the leading edge. Oversized wooden rings and reeded polls.” Or to put it another way: heaven.
Belinda throws in another decorator tip, as we are leaving the room and I enquire about two large, impressive lamps on a cabinet. “They are by Porto Romano. Low seating – so tall lamps…”
Her light – but very effective – professional touch is also apparent in the kitchen. Where the same farmhouse glazing is seen on the windows and French doors, here painted the same pretty pale grey as the cabinets.
The basics of the current kitchen were there when she moved in, with a lovely cream Aga and Shaker units, but Belinda created the graceful airy space – both classic and contemporary – with just a few tweaks. She painted it – Storm Grey by Zoffany – and changed the worktops, to actual Carrara marble. No quartz for her. Don’t you worry about the marks? I asked. “They become patina.”
A more radical change was to take down the wall cupboards and replace them with one shelf extending round the far corner, stacked with plates, jugs and mugs for instant access in everyday use. She also put a cupboard on top of the drawers in the left-hand corner, creating the effect of an old dresser and echoing the integral fridge in the opposite corner.
She is particularly delighted with the classic Victorian clothes airer, tucked up in the lofty ceiling of the oak-framed space – “I couldn’t live without one now” – but for me, the detail which makes this room is the wonderful old, gnarled kitchen table, which she found in Rye. It ties in beautifully with the golden oak of the beams and finished with six mismatched French chairs, it packs the room with character.
With a brand-new table and matching chairs, it would still be a lovely kitchen, but these carefully selected unique details – and two lovely original paintings – which have travelled with Belinda from home, to home, take it up a whole notch.
There were more expert decorating tips to be gleaned across the gravel driveway, past the lovely treehouse and two perfect pom-pom potted bay trees, and into the annexe.
Belinda has clad the internal walls with horizontal panelling made out of MDF boards, spaced slightly apart, hung horizontally, instantly giving the place a Connecticut beach house vibe. The reception room is a tranquil haven of linen-covered sofas and wide floorboards, with a big, old French armoire – another of her long-term pieces, which has worked in many different places – and a lovely dolls house.
The bedrooms are furnished with old French beds, the headboards upholstered with linen, and dressed with rugs and cushions. I noted that in one room the bedside tables were pleasingly mismatched, giving a relaxing informal air – it’s not a boutique hotel, after all. Belinda agrees but is quick to point out that while “the tables are different – the lamps match…”. Which is how you make such a combination work and look pulled together.
But my favourite detail here is in the window treatments. Gorgeous floral print linen, in fabrics by Kate Forman and Vanessa Arbuthnott, thickly padded with… well, I’ll leave the expert to describe them: “With upstanding frills on curtain tops and a contrasting lining in a check. It’s nice when you can see it from outside.” So, the first thing I do as we leave the annexe is check out that effect – and yes, it does look absolutely lovely from the outside, to see the cheery grey and white check lining.
Which leads me to an unavoidable conclusion: I need to re-do my bedroom curtains.
To find out more about Belinda’s interior design services, visit everndeninteriors.co.uk
- words: Maggie Alderson
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Belinda Benton
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