With a focus on sustainability and conservation, Georgina Fulton and her husband, Gareth, ensure that Elmley Nature Reserve and its working family farm preserves the natural habitat on the Isle Of Sheppey, sharing their portion of beautiful marsh landscape with guests in the reserve’s unique accommodation

England is quite a small country and a well-populated and busy one, so it’s amazing to find within it – and not at all far from bustling towns and busily farmed land – a pocket of pure otherness. 

The Isle of Sheppey is one of these magical spots. A mere 30-minute drive from Maidstone – and only 90 from Trafalgar Square – it has an atmosphere of complete isolation, as though you have travelled days (possibly in a coracle…) to the flat landscape topped with huge skies. 

The unique light comes from its watery situation, girt by three rivers, with its easterly tip just across the mouth of the Swale from Whitstable, the Medway to the west and the wide Thames Estuary all along the northern side of the island.

Adding to the magic, over 3,000 acres of the land on the isle is given over to the Elmley National Nature Reserve, created in 1992 by Natural England, to preserve a wetland habitat of world importance, particularly for the breeding and overwintering of birds, which migrate there every year from the polar north.

This was the initiative of pioneering non-intensive farmers and conservationists Philip and Corinne Merricks, who wanted to protect the unique wildlife environment, while continuing to graze cattle on it.

With the nature reserve – and the cattle – well established, the potential of the estate is now being taken on to the next stage by their daughter Georgina Fulton. 

Along with her husband Gareth, they have renovated the various properties on the site into very stylish and characterful holiday rentals, which combine into a stellar wedding venue, with room to sleep 38 – and up to 100 in luxury bell tents. There is also a group of seriously cool shepherd huts to rent.

Francesca sourced the kitchen’s industrial-style wheeled trolley from McCully & Crane in Rye
Francesca sourced the kitchen’s industrial-style wheeled trolley from McCully & Crane in Rye

On my visit to Elmley, I met Georgina in the huge renovated barn, which is at the centre of the hamlet of buildings. Its outer timbers painted groovy black, it has been styled very simply inside with all the original beam structure visible – and is a dream setting for a wedding should the weather get too complicated for an entirely outdoor shenanigan. 

“We deliberately kept it rustic,” says Georgina, as we drink coffee from the barn café, which serves lunches and dinners for holiday residents, and visitors to the Reserve during the day. “We wanted it simple, not twee. The star is the view out of the window.”

She’s not overstating it. This window, filling one end of the barn and looking out over the reserve, affords the kind of view it’s difficult to pull your eyes away from, with murmurations of birds dancing across the vast sky.

“In January and February it’s spectacular,” says Georgina, following my gaze. “There are birds of prey, peregrines, merlins, marsh harriers, short-eared owls, lapwings, avocets. Arctic wildfowl overwinter here from mid-November.”

No wonder birdwatchers come from all over to observe these gatherings on the two lakes from specially constructed hides, which I had great fun exploring, after visiting the houses. 

Indeed, I was so taken with it all, I had been planning to book a visit (it is essential to reserve in advance) to go back myself this January, with binoculars, but the Reserve is temporarily closed due to Covid restrictions. The website has updates on all this and I’m now making plans to go next year.

 I swear that view could be prescribed for high blood pressure, you can’t help sighing out the tension as you look at it…

The question will be which of the amazing properties to stay in. If I were going with my extended family for a special occasion we could book out the whole of Kingshill Farmhouse, which sleeps 14 – individual rooms can now be booked, too. It’s decorated in the very smart, yet always warm and cosy style of interior designer Francesca Rowan-Plowden, who has created the new looks for this lovely Georgian/Victorian building – which had been derelict since the 1960s – and Elmley Cottage.

Kingshill Farmhouse, with its plethora of velvet, old paintings, dark walls and kilims – and a very cool kitchen extension with Crittall windows – is heavenly. As Georgina says, “We wanted it to feel like a home,” and it really does. The home of some very cool and fortunate friends…

But while I found it quite hard to leave the Farmhouse, after my quick tour, for a really chilled, brain rebooting stay, I think for me the Cottage might have the edge. 

From the outside – especially when you have just quit the Georgian end of Kingshill Farmhouse – it doesn’t look like much (although to be fair, it will be greatly enhanced by Georgina’s lovely plantings of fig, bay and rosemary). Possibly because it arrived at the site on the back of a lorry. “My parents bought it as a farm worker’s dwelling in the 1990s,” she explains. “It’s a wood-framed Scandinavian house, delivered as a flatpack on a lorry.” The style of the building was chosen for its eco credentials – it’s sustainably built and has minimal heat loss due to special insulation and triple glazing.

“Only the beds and sofas are new in the whole house. All the other furniture is sustainable finds from antique fairs,”  says interior designer, Francesca Rowan Plowden

“Only the beds and sofas are new in the whole house. All the other furniture is sustainable finds from antique fairs,” says interior designer, Francesca Rowan Plowden

But while that might sound like an IKEA version of a dwelling, once inside – even beyond the striking Tardis effect – it is something a lot more sophisticated than that. 

The first thing that struck me was the dark grey painted wood floors in the hall, switching to pale grey on the stairs with a navy blue ‘runner’ painted up the centre – one of those very simple, but clever ideas that tells you a proper designer is involved.

Continuing past the stairs and round the corner, you enter a large space, with a spare New York loft feel – with three walls of windows looking out over the nature reserve from a slightly elevated position. I swear that view could be prescribed for high blood pressure, you can’t help sighing out the tension as you look at it.

The simple kitchen is to the left, the long dining table straight ahead, two L-shaped sofas in a sitting area to the right – and the space articulated just enough by a central chimney, with a woodburner on the sofa side of it and built-in shelves for glass on the kitchen side.

Creating this big square expanse was the big change Francesca Rowan-Plowden made to the house. “Georgina and Gareth really liked what I’d done at my beach house, which I knocked through to create one big open space, so we did the same here. It was three separate rooms and the kitchen had a big island across it. So we knocked it all out and put in an RSJ. The fireplace was already there, in just the right spot.”

Instead of an island to increase the worktop, the kitchen – a short stretch of black-painted plank doors and a splendid range cooker – has an industrial-style wheeled trolley, which Francesca found at McCully & Crane (in Rye). “I saw it and thought it would be great in a kitchen and perfect for this house, because when they are hosting things like yoga courses and need all the space, they can move it against the wall.”

If it seems like a smallish kitchen for a house which can sleep 10 (Covid restrictions pending), the capacity is cleverly extended by a utility/boot room in the back corner of the house, which has all the white goods and lots of storage for kitchen overflow.

Next to that is the ground-floor bedroom, with walls painted a mid-green (Farrow & Ball’s Green Smoke) two thirds of the way up, then cream, with the back wall finished with tongue and groove panelling. Bringing it all together are Roman blinds and a valance in classic ticking, a side table made from an old sewing machine base and a print of a wading bird.

And so, in this one room, we have several of the elements Francesca used to fulfil another essential aspect of Georgina and Gareth’s design brief: a firm budget with a focus on sustainability. “I used mainly ticking and linen, from Merchant & Mills. Ticking valances have become one of my trademarks. A valance really pulls a small room together, but they are expensive to make, so using simpler fabric allows you to have the effect and keep the costs down.”

The wall features were another clever way to give the house a pulled-together look. “Tongue and groove gives texture to walls and painting them in two tones up to this unexpected height is a way of adding interest that isn’t twee, or obvious, like having one colour up to a dado rail can be, it’s more contemporary.”

The table is an example of the sustainable theme – antique fair furniture finds. “Only the beds and sofas are new in the whole house – and I got the L-shaped sofas from Made. I already knew they worked for this kind of shared space. All the other furniture are finds from antique fairs, ensuring the design remains eco-friendly.”

The great source was the legendary Ardingly antiques fair at Haywards Heath, which is a vintage furniture treasure trove beloved of home designers in the South East – what made this difference was that Francesca took Georgina and Gareth with her on the shopping expeditions for the house. “I like to take clients with me to antique fairs, to be involved with choices, because it’s more efficient – and it means we don’t come back with anything they might not like. That’s not to say that Georgina and Gareth weren’t sure about some of the things I chose at Ardingly, but when they saw them in the house, they got it. So that really helps to build trust.”

One of the items even Francesca wasn’t sure about at first has turned out to be an anchor piece for the whole scheme – a large chest of drawers painted such a distinctive bright blue, I assumed she’d bought something bland and repainted it for effect. “It was that colour when we bought it,” she says. “I thought it might be a bit much, but it works so well.”

With two striking vases on the top and a round mirror over it, as well as providing very useful storage for linens, the chest gives the landing instant impact and character. And is also the first sight of what then became another of Francesca’s themes for the scheme as a whole. There are three more blue-painted chests of drawers in the bedrooms. “I just happened to find three more blue chests of drawers! They were perfect and I didn’t paint any of them.”

It makes a tour of the house very satisfying, as you keep seeing these lovely blue chests, with interesting gatherings of objects atop them – and usually a round mirror somewhere in the vicinity. 

Walking around Elmley Cottage, it almost became a game for me, to spot Francesca’s clever themes and notice how they popped up and changed between each room. Round mirrors, bamboo frames, valances, Roman blinds, ticking, linen, wall hooks, glug jugs, framed bird prints, mustard yellow velvet… With ticking blinds and linen headboard in one room, linen blinds and ticking valance in another. Another theme is a wonderful striking pink, as Farrow & Balls’s Setting Plaster in one bedroom, popping up elsewhere as cushions and chair covers. “Having a simple palate and some themes as a running thread, makes a house flow and makes it seem bigger,” says Francesca.

Put like that, it sounds simple, but the total effect is much greater than the sum of the parts and creates a sense of stimulating harmony – the perfect complement to this unique setting.

  • words:
  • pictures: David Merewether
  • styling: Holly Levett

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