Over the years Tina Atkins has turned her love of homemaking into a successful business, Liberty Bee. Taking inspiration from her travels across the UK and Europe, Tina has steadily grown her brand whilst maintaining a busy family lifestyle.
I’m expecting Butterfly Cottage to be a fairy tale dwelling, and have a vision of it half hidden in flowers and foliage, impossibly beautiful raggedy children skipping barefoot in the garden, a wolf, witch, or woodman lurking nearby… Names do conjure up images and scenarios, and they’re hugely important when you’re setting up a company and trying to create a brand. This is something that Tina Atkins is acutely aware of. Her delightful cottage (not teeming with storybook characters, you’ll be relieved, or possibly disappointed, to hear) was the birthplace of Liberty Bee, the company she started from home in 2010.
We meet round the back of Tina’s house in her lovely garden, where she’s just finished planting up roses and other cottage flowers – plants that were saved from her late mother-in-law’s garden to create a border in her memory. “We’ve done quite a lot to the surroundings since we moved here,” she says. “We’ve completely changed the drive at the front and re-landscaped it, and created some paths and structure, and added a downstairs extension.” They have also removed (like most of the rest of the country) a huge Leylandii hedge, replacing it with trellis and some hand-stripped post and rail fencing. In the seven years that the family have lived in the cottage a fair amount has been done, many of the ideas and much of the work by Tina herself.
“I love home-making; buying and making things for the house and garden. I’ve always made things, and the children like making things too.” Tina points to a cleverly simple wooden boot rack I’ve been admiring, made from a large log with wooden dowels drilled into it. “My son Beau made that, quite a while ago now,” she says proudly. “I’ve always been busy and creative with them. I was actively involved in the children’s primary school – re-introducing maypole dancing, helping with after school clubs and even being a voluntary dinner lady. I was also an Owl at Benenden Brownies where my daughter Liberty attended.” She laughs. “The children called me Fluffy Owl!”
So it was a natural step then to find a creative and productive outlet once the children became teenagers. “I knew I wanted to do something to do with the home,” she says and then adds, “I also knew it would have to be an online thing.” And where did the wonderful name ‘Liberty Bee’ come from? I ask. Tina smiles. “I was sitting stroking our grey and white cat one winter’s evening, thinking about my business idea and my husband asked what I was going to call it. My daughter is called Liberty, and then I looked at the cat, who’s called Bea, and I said ‘Liberty Bee!’ He laughed, and then said he thought it was great – and it all started from there.”
So Tina began going to trade fairs, travelling all over the country and into Europe sourcing items to sell, or rather, ‘Unique Gifts and Enchanting Finds for the Home and Garden’. Although she had decided early on that online was the way to go, Tina also understood the need to build up her brand by getting out and about and having a presence at fairs and shows. She was one of the original exhibitors at both Wealden Times Midsummer and Midwinter fairs when they first started, deservedly winning best-dressed stand in 2011. It is hard work though and takes its toll. “There are lots of early starts when travelling to fairs. All the stock has to be packed and unpacked, transported and displayed each time. My sister has been wonderful,” she adds, “stepping in to collect children from school and helping out.”
There is a knack to finding and creating things for the home, and Tina has developed hers through the act of home-making itself. She has taken this natural creativity to a different level now though, and sharpened her eye; looking carefully at how things can be adapted, made or reproduced for sale and turned the process of home-making into a profitable business. Tina points to the French sash windows that are sign-written, as if they’re adverts or old café windows that are dotted around the house. “I’m always looking out for local artisans who have the skills to make things.”
I can see that the combination of a good eye, a well designed brand and a lot of legwork are behind Tina’s success, although she’s modest about the process; “I buy what I would like in my own home,” she says simply, “which often means that items meant for sale end up staying in the house!” Tina laughs and then indicates a fabulous zinc table in the conservatory, and a huge potato basket – another find from France, originally used for drying potatoes.
Some of these items are one-offs, but fortunately many are for sale. I love the cushions made from printed hessian sacks (sadly there are none of these left for sale) and the ingenious storage seat Tina has made from an old wooden apple box. All around the house there are unique looking ‘finds’ that are available from Liberty Bee – lovely Turkish oil jars turned into lamps, stoneware jugs, woollen throws, and some dear little ceramic milk bottles embossed with ‘pick of the day’ that are just perfect for a simple sprig of leaves or tiny posy.
The office at the front of the house quickly became full to bursting with all the wonderful things that Tina was sourcing from all over the place. “It became hard to tell where the business stopped and the home started!” she says, “it all exploded out into the rest of the house,” and that was when Tina decided that she had to have a separate building for storing the stock. Luckily the family have a large garden and there was plenty of room for a substantial cabin to be built. We walk across the patio to the (Aladdin’s) cabin – “Please excuse it, I’ve just had a huge delivery of pear boxes,” Tina apologises.
Peering behind the towering stacks of (very attractive) old wooden fruit boxes, I can see that the cabin has been laid out like a shop, rather than a storage unit, and suddenly I’m in shopping mode, perusing the shelves and thinking about gifts for people. Oooh – I’m on dangerous ground now (‘move away from the cabin’ says a little voice in my head), so we hurry back into the relative safety of the house before I completely forget what I’m here for.
Tina has done all the decorating in the house herself, choosing tasteful colour schemes in neutral greys and off whites – Farrow and Ball’s Skimming Stone, Elephant’s Breath (so much more poetic than the Dog’s Breath in my house). “I do like colourful things though, and can work with every colour but red. I find it a bit difficult to use.” I’m nodding sagely in agreement at this, and then remember that much of my kitchen is accessorised with red. Perhaps that’s where I’ve been going wrong.
We wander down the garden, past some productive looking vegetable beds, to where her son’s working dog, Bonnie, is relaxing in the sunshine, surrounded by the family’s chickens. They’re Seramas, some of the smallest chickens in the world. One is broody (that’s bantams for you) and sitting on some eggs. The family are animal lovers – until recently Liberty had a horse (her riding rosettes are proudly on display in the kitchen). The family’s other dog, Fox Red Labrador Bertie was sought out in Gloucestershire by Tina’s youngest son Tom, who works him as a gun dog. I meet two more cats inside on the stairs too, Arthur and Chops – a gorgeous cream ginger boy – not yet the inspiration for the name of anything business-wise, like Bea, but very appealing none the less.
Back in the kitchen there’s a tantalising loaf of bread on the counter. “You mustn’t go before you’ve tried some of the beer bread,” Tina insists, slicing and buttering some for us. “This is olive and rosemary – and it’s made without yeast.” There’s bicarbonate of soda in the mixture and that’s activated by the beer, which works in a similar way to soda bread, causing it to rise without the need for yeast. It’s delicious and really quick to make, providing you have some beer to spare, that is.
It’s a good job that the bread is quick to make, as Tina’s life is nearly as packed out as her amazing cabin and it sounds like running Liberty Bee is non-stop. “Yes, it can be like that,” Tina replies. “There never seem to be enough hours in the day. But the best thing is that I love what I do, and that drives me to do it well – and I meet some lovely people along the way.” You can’t really ask for more than that.
Tina’s open plan kitchen and conservatory is a great space for entertaining
Rather than tucking them away in a cupboard, Tina’s neatly labelled Kilner jars – lined up on shelves above the worksurface – ensure that dry ingredients are always to hand
Tina’s beer bread mix, which she sells through Liberty Bee, is a surefire hit with guests. “There’s bicarbonate of soda in the mixture and that’s activated by the beer, which works in a similar way to soda bread, causing it to rise without the need for yeast. It’s delicious and really quick to make, providing you have some beer to spare, that is."
Daughter Liberty’s riding rosettes are proudly on display in the kitchen
A velvet sofa tucks neatly into an alcove by the kitchen window
Daughter Liberty’s room. Above the bed hangs a French sash window that has been sign written
The relaxing family bathroom
The master bedroom is a cosy space tucked into the eaves of the house
All around the house there are unique looking ‘finds’ that are available from Liberty Bee
The kitchen opens into the conservatory which looks out into the garden, with its rows of neat vegetable beds
I can see that the combination of a good eye, a well designed brand and a lot of legwork are behind Tina’s success, although she’s modest about the process; “I buy what I would like in my own home,” she says simply, “which often means that items meant for sale end up staying in the house!”
Tina has brought a touch of the outside in, filling large terracotta pots, wooden trugs and troughs with geraniums, climbers and trees
The benefit of running a home and garden business from home means that Tina always has beautiful and useful items to hand
Bertie the Labrador sits patiently amongst a new delivery of old wooden pear crates which Tina intends to use to display Liberty Bee products at fairs and shows
Wooden apple crates have been cleverly repurposed to provide a double nesting box
Hand-beaten copper poppies provide interest in the garden all year round, even when all the summer foliage has died back
A trio of Serama chickens, one of the smallest breeds of chicken in the world, explore a recently emptied vegetable bed
Cosmos fronds provide a rich sea of greenery dotted with pink and white petals
- words: Jo Arnell
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Lucy Fleming
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