When Jilly Sharpe left Peckham, south London, for Broadstairs, she needed a home and a way to make a living. Belvidere Place, a run-down and dilapidated Georgian building that had been neglected for 200 years, was to be her saviour – but only once she had carried out some serious salvation of her own.
In the latest film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, Miss Shepherd escapes her unconventional Camden existence to spend short spells by the sea in Broadstairs. Admittedly, she is far from your average holiday-maker but, nonetheless, her attraction to this unspoilt Victorian seaside town is something many of us can understand.
In 2007, Jilly Sharpe was also an escapee from London, but from Peckham in her case and, rather than living in a van, her former home was a large London townhouse. “I already had a house in Broadstairs, so knew the town, but moving here was a matter of survival. I was a single mum who needed to make a living – so it wasn’t just a case of escaping to the seaside.”
It should also be noted that the huge Georgian building she was about to buy, was not an entirely tempting holiday destination or home. “Nobody had repaired it in 200 years and it was rotten to the core,” says Jilly. “It had been run as a B&B, although initially I bought it simply as a home for my son Gus and me. It was horribly institutional, with fire doors and glass partitions everywhere and many of the original doorways were boarded up.”
In its current incarnation, this is difficult to imagine – and Jilly has had to put in an immense amount of work, and a certain amount of money, to get it to its current state. “It took every penny I’d got,” she says.
As funds dried up, Jilly decided that she would return it to being a B&B – but one that would attract people rather than repel them. Her background as a fine art and interiors photographer would stand her in good stead as far as decoration was concerned, as would a seemingly huge array of creative friends and contacts.
“At one point, I was at rock bottom financially but due to open in a matter of weeks. A huge parcel arrived and it was full of beautiful embroidered cushions made by my friend Charlene Mullen.” Charlene’s quirky, distinctive cushions are still dotted throughout Belvidere Place, adding a touch of Shoreditch cool – as well as London scenes – to this Kentish seaside home.
London is still a big influence here, and Jilly thrives amongst the creative crowd that has been attracted to Broadstairs in recent years, either as permanent residents or as guests at Belvidere Place boutique B&B.
“Some fantastic people live round here; there’s a great community and I feel surrounded by friends,” says Jilly. The paying guests obviously add to the family atmosphere too. “I love having people around me,” she adds.
As well as bringing many of her London friends with her, Jilly also brought the contents of her London home – items which fit perfectly with the pared-down, rustic interior of Belvidere Place. A characterful refectory table in the ‘breakfast room’ came from Gus’s paternal grandfather and a large circular pedestal dining table is equally fitting. Less ‘fitting’ and rather more funky is a giant representation of a Royal Mail stamp, made from buttons sewn on to cloth, which hangs over the fireplace.
It is another reminder of Jilly’s art-world connections and was made by the artist Ann Carrington, one of the ‘YBA’ who became well known at the same time as Damien Hirst, the Chapman Brothers and Tracey Emin. There is another Ann Carrington original, this time of a Union Jack, over the bedstead in one of the guest bedrooms.
Each bedroom has a very different feel, though none of them is named or numbered, thus keeping a sense of homeliness – and avoiding hints at the building’s former life as a rather unpleasant boarding house. Despite the size of the building and the huge windows, it stays remarkable cosy: “The sun shines on the front of the building all morning, so it acts like a giant radiator,” says Jilly. Each room has magnificent sash windows – sometimes three in a room – and gorgeous inviting beds, with a sensible number of cushions and cosy throws: “Despite setting up on a budget, the things I would not compromise on were mattresses and bed linen.”
Jilly also added simple, modern en suites to every room. Filling these five double rooms has never been a problem, despite a challenging start. “At the beginning, I was so short of money I didn’t have a business card, couldn’t afford advertising and didn’t even have a sign!” says Jilly. Fortunately, in her first week, a TV crew came to stay, and word spread: “In my third week, the BBC booked the place for six weeks solid.” So, as well as having a house full, she’s had some pretty special guests.
“We do seem to be a popular place with actors,” she says, though she’s careful not to name-drop, “and it makes a great party place.” She still doesn’t advertise and attracts almost all her business through word-of-mouth recommendation – and appearances in numerous glossy magazines.
Opposite the ground floor breakfast room and its roaring fire is a living room with retro wood-burner, comfy chairs and a distinctive ‘foosball’ or ‘babyfoot’ table – which, apparently, is often a focal point at parties. Jilly bought it on Columbia Road in London.
“It could tell a few stories!” says Jilly, though that is as much as she will say. I can’t help imagining Dame Maggie Smith – who plays Miss Shepherd in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play – playing a game or two of table football. (I am informed, sadly for me at least, that Dame Maggie has never in fact stayed at Belvidere Place.)
The living room has bare floorboards, blackboard paint on the chimney breast and, on closer inspection, brown wrapping paper on the walls – a surprisingly effective look. Against the wall is a large, glass-fronted ‘cupboard of curiosities’ which in a way reflects the eclectic contents of the building itself: in the breakfast room a vast mirror is in fact an old TV prop, there is an armchair from Claridge’s in one of the bedrooms and a stunning Japanese-style cabinet – which contains a kettle and other B&B goodies – in another. “There was no grand plan or design,” says Jilly.
It’s hard to imagine that the interior wasn’t carefully planned and curated, especially as the dark-grey walls and woodwork downstairs make such a bold statement. “It’s not a fancy Farrow & Ball colour. I was doing some woodwork and liked the colour of the grey undercoat I was using – then had a similar colour mixed especially. I’ve thought of trying other colours since, but few things go so well as they do with grey.”
Jilly also takes the same ‘unplanned’ approach with furniture: “I just buy what I like.” Sunbury Antiques Fair is one place she likes to visit, as well as Dolly Miller in Margate and Spitalfields Market in London.
Other sources include boot sales, a doctors’ surgery and even a skip: “A lamp upstairs was on its way to the tip, before I rescued it.” The furniture just seems to fit – rather like Jilly’s many happy guests.
“I don’t do internet bookings, only phone bookings, as I like to speak to my guests when they book,” she says. “I need to talk to them, to find out if this is the right place for them.”
One thing she makes clear straight away, is that there is no sea view – although the beach is only a short stroll away. “If it’s not right for them, I point them in the right direction. That way, everyone’s happy.”
Sea view, or no sea view, it’s clear that guests love the atmosphere at Belvidere Place, the homely touches and the romance of this majestic building in a quintessential English seaside town.
“We get loads of proposals here,” says Jilly, with a certain pride. “One was at breakfast time, and all the guests welled up.” She has also advised guests on a romantic, outdoor spot to pop the question. “Kingsgate Bay is gorgeous. I make up a little Champagne picnic basket for that kind of occasion – we’re not Claridge’s, but we’re homely and cosy.”
It’s clear that Jilly is in her element – working from home, surrounded by interesting, creative people and just a short walk from the beach:
“I didn’t come here thinking it would be some kind of goldmine. I came to enjoy life, make a living and be around to look after my son.”
This award-winning boutique B&B with clientele from across the world is just a rather wonderful spin-off. “I almost accepted an offer from someone who wanted to buy the place, but Gus persuaded me not to. Belvidere Place is our home after all, and not just a business.” I think this is eminently clear to anyone who is lucky enough to stay here.
Much of the furniture in Belvidere Place, such as this elegant pedestal dining table, came from Jilly’s former home in Peckham, south London. Jilly was inspired to paint the downstairs breakfast room in dark grey after using, and liking, the colour of a grey undercoat she had been using to paint woodwork
This ‘babyfoot’ table came from Columbia Road in east London and, according to Jilly, ‘it could tell some stories’
For vintage finds and quirky items, Jilly is a fan of the Sunbury Antiques Market as well as Dolly Miller in nearby Margate. “I just buy what I like,” says Jilly. “There is no grand plan.”
The living room has bare floorboards, blackboard paint on the chimney breast and, on closer inspection, brown wrapping paper on the walls – a surprisingly effective look
Each room has magnificent sash windows – sometimes three in a room – and gorgeous inviting beds, with a sensible number of cushions and cosy throws
As well as bringing many of her London friends with her, Jilly also brought the contents of her London home – items which fit perfectly with the pared-down, rustic interior of Belvidere Place
An armchair that originally came from Claridge’s and a lamp that was retrieved from a skip, complete the look in an upstairs bedroom
“Despite setting up on a budget, the things I would not compromise on were mattresses and bed linen.”
The embroidered cushions were made by Jilly’s friend, Charlene Mullen
An Ann Carrington original, this time of a Union Jack, hangs above the bed
Her background as a fine art and interiors photographer stood her in good stead as far as decoration was concerned, as did a seemingly huge array of creative friends and contacts
The carpets have been removed throughout, to leave characterful, marked floorboards which fit perfectly with the original panelling on the stairwell
The grey-painted hallway is naturally lit by an original fanlight window above the front door as well as more contemporary fairy lights and spots
Against the wall is a large, glass-fronted ‘cupboard of curiosities’ which in a way reflects the eclectic contents of the building itself
“It’s a great place for parties,” says Jilly. “We recently had a party out here, where we gathered around a brazier made from an old oil drum. It was a really fun evening.”
The courtyard garden at the back of the building is filled with potted plants, and is as appealing in winter as it is in summer
- Belvidere Place www.belvidereplace.co.uk Belvedere Road, Broadstairs, Kent, CT10 1PF 01843579850
- Ann Carrington www.anncarrington.co.uk
- Charlene Mullen www.charlenemullen.com Shoreditch
- Dolly Miller's 20 Market Place, Margate CT9 1ES
- Sunbury Antiques Market www.sunburyantiques.com Kempton Park Racecourse
- words: Jennifer Stuart-Smith
- pictures: David Merewether
- styling: Helen Barton
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