Maggie Alderson takes a step through the looking glass into this Hastings writer’s home

Sally Gardner writes award-winning children’s books of extraordinary imagination – and has the house to match. Some houses are family homes, some are private havens, others are works of art, displays of status, or expressions of lifelong dreams. Cuckoo Cottage is a fairy tale.

The sense of something special begins in finding it, tucked away in a central part of Hastings near the chain-store shopping hub, in what feels like a secret little row of Georgian cottages, that has somehow escaped 200 years of wrecking balls and bulldozers, up some steps and along.

Tucked windward of the castle, it has the air of a pocket of the town that you might stumble across by accident one day – then never be able to find again. Which is just the sort of thing that happens in one of Sally’s books. Her most recent release, Invisible In A Bright Light, is so intriguing and gripping, I was awake most of the night finishing it – and it’s aimed at ages 10 and up.

It’s set in a theatre in a city resembling Copenhagen, which has a huge crystal chandelier in the shape of a galleon hanging in the dome over the auditorium. When you walk into the sitting room of Cuckoo Cottage, there is just such a crystal galleon, but it’s inside a bottle on the mantelpiece. Any ship in a bottle is a thing of wonder – but a crystal galleon takes it to another level. It’s the kind of object that exerts a magnetic pull on the viewer. You have to go and have a closer look, to be sure you are seeing what you think you are. 

Sally grins at such a reaction. “There is a crystal galleon chandelier at the Royal Opera house in Copenhagen, which I discovered when I was designing The Mikado there in the late 1970s, when I was a theatre designer, which was my first career. I have always wanted to put it in a book. When I saw this one in the auction in Essex Road I had to have it.” Sally’s life in the theatre is as apparent in the house as her writer’s imagination. Starting with the red velvet curtain hung in the hallway to block draughts from the front door which is romantically hooked back against the wall, in a style reminiscent of stage curtains.

I’m sure that curtain wasn’t there the last time I visited Cuckoo Cottage and the hallway is one of many elements in the house that contribute to my feeling – and I am lucky to be a regular visitor here – that every time I come to the house, it’s a bit different.

In this case it’s because Sally is gradually studding the soft green hall walls with seven-point gold stars and a few more have been added each time I drop in. Another new development since my last visit are the wall hooks, used for hats and leads for Sally’s adorable Yorkshire terrier, Sparrow, which are in the shape of three classic chairs – a Thonet bentwood, a school chair and the Emeco 1006 Navy chair – in miniature. 

These objects of wonder turn out to be from IKEA, painted by Sally to match the walls. With a stand containing umbrellas and fox-headed walking canes worthy of Mary Poppins – and a feather duster for good measure – the tone of the house is set the moment you take two steps inside.

And two steps does take you quite a long way into this cottage, which really is very modest in size – Thumbelina would feel very much at home – but the Georgian proportions, combined with Sally’s wonderfully bold décor, stop it feeling in any way cramped. Thinking big, as she does with such aplomb, makes a space feel bigger. The sitting room – one of those very special rooms, which I never want to leave once I sit down there – is painted in a dark rich purple (Farrow & Ball’s Pelt), a colour so bold only someone with Sally’s professional design confidence might have dared to choose it for such a small room. Certainly, her painter and decorator tried to talk her out of it.

“The painter said: ‘I think you are making a big mistake painting with this colour. It’s going to make it very small and claustrophobic…’ Then he painted it and said, ‘Bloody hell! How did you know it was going to look this good?!’” It looks simply wonderful, creating a cocooning atmosphere and the perfect backdrop to set off all the fascinating objects in the room. Wherever your eye falls, it lights upon something which looks as though it could tell you a story.

To the side of the purple velvet-upholstered, cane-sided armchair that I sit in to chat to Sally is one of two side tables in the form of bear cubs holding up a slice of a tree trunk, complete with bark. They are from Graham & Green, but seem like something right out of the Brothers Grimm. Sally is delighted at the idea – fairy stories are her passion and the inspiration for her writing.

She collects volumes of them, along with other very specific and fascinating books about folklore in Transylvania and the like. The bookcase to the left of the fireplace – one of two glass-doored IKEA Billys, which she had painted dark blue – contains part of her book collection and another she inherited. It also displays a collection of china parrots that belonged to her mother. The symmetrical cupboard in the other recess contains a collection of Pollocks toy theatres and a chess set of Chinese figures.

Sitting on top of the bear table next to me, in his own little chair, is a wooden figure of a naked man, with articulated arms and legs, like one of those artist’s manikins, except this one has a very characterful face, with hair and a beard (and shoes). “He is Joseph from a church display in Italy. I bought it in an antique shop there and brought it home. I have to save these things.”

In a similar spirit there is a Dutch figure of the Madonna that Sally came across in France. “I brought her home on the plane.” From closer to home, the gilded mirror over the fireplace with ferns, candles in place, came from Norman Road in St Leonards, around the corner from the cottage Sally rented when she first moved down from London. “It was broken when I found it and I had it restored by people in St Leonards who do restoration for the V&A.” As for what prompted Sally to rent that first cottage – similar in feel, if slightly later in period, than the one she now lives in – I can claim a small part in it. I was coming down for a writers’ lunch club, which I was one of the organisers of, which made Sally think that St Leonards-on-Sea really was the place to be.

“I was living in a 1930s flat in Stoke Newington and the freeholders decided to renovate the building and there were suddenly massive fees, so I started to think about moving. I knew Hastings because I went to boarding school here for two and a half years. I hated the school, but every weekend I would run away to St Leonards beach and I still had happy memories of that.

“When I came down to that lunch I immediately thought, ‘I could live here’. I started browsing Rightmove, saw a house to rent in Burton St Leonards and took it on the spot. After that it was a no brainer.”

There was a brief sidestep to possibly moving to neighbouring Bexhill-on-Sea, when Sally took part in an episode of Homes by the Sea, with fellow author Jane Harris – who had also been at that now rather legendary writers’ lunch – and decided she wanted to move down too. The researchers found Sally a very nice house in Bexhill, but for various reasons it fell through and she decided it had to be St Leonards or Hastings.

“There are so many interesting people living here. People speak to you. I thought they might be snotty about Londoners ‘moving down here, taking our houses…’ but you couldn’t find nicer, kinder, genuinely pleasant people, once they know you are moving down to live here, not buying a place to Airbnb.” After a search, at times nail biting, Sally found her cottage – her next challenge was to find furniture to scale with it. “All my furniture was really big, this room would have died and I thought, ‘what have I done? I’ve bought a little mouse house…’”

But after finding the armchairs at Ben Southgate (formerly in Kings Road, St Leonards, now online) and a small sofa on eBay, she was set up. The finishing touch was to add a very large chandelier, from Norman Road. “Part of it is Georgian and it has the original crystals. It’s not connected to the electricity, it’s purely ornamental and pulls the whole room together. It’s magical with tea lights lit in it. I love chandeliers, they are like dreams.”

Stepping back through to the dining room – along classic woven plastic Swedish rugs, by Pappelina, in their bold geometric designs – there is another example of Sally’s skill with lighting, learned from her theatrical days. Multiple and varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose, over the round dining table, with bare bulbs hanging from hooks. It brilliantly brings together a space that is almost like a square corridor, with a door going off each corner, into the hall, pantry, courtyard and kitchen. “If you have good lighting you can get away with anything. I hate central ceiling lights.”

She has done the same dangling lights in the kitchen – a space for which the term ‘galley’ is almost an overstatement. Yet, with the sink and cooker on one side, looking out to the courtyard, and a dresser built on the back wall, it’s a brilliantly efficient space to cook in. However, even in such a compact area, Sally has found room to pack in plenty of her magical objects, including a witch’s ball, an angel hanging from the pan rack, some life-size wooden ducks and a large metal orange squeezer, that she brought back (in the cabin) from Mexico.

Also, in this spirit of not everything needing to have a purpose, apart from being interesting, on the end wall of the kitchen she had the carpenter build a kind of altar piece, that they have in houses in Romania. “It doesn’t do anything, but it provides a focal point, gives the space a personality.” Adding to that are the pillars on either side of the kitchen entrance – where she plans to add another theatrical curtain, currently drawn on the wall with pencil – and three working cuckoo clocks. “They are my new obsession. I’m writing a book about snow that has a cuckoo clock in it. I want more, at least five…” 

Upstairs, the fairy tale references continue, with the very large brass bed, in the very modestly-sized main bedroom, made up with Goldilocks bedding of red and white gingham (from Debenhams) and a black Afghan sequined bedspread from Shop in Norman Road. Keeping up Sally’s love of juggling scale, there is an oversized wall hanging of flowers behind the bed. “I think it looks like a Dutch still life,” says Sally. Which it does, but as seen by Tom Thumb.

The huge handkerchief light fitting over the bed is another of her IKEA finds – but it’s never turned on. The room is lit instead by more dangling light bulbs hanging from hooks on either side of the bed. “I like them, because you can move them around…” Heading back out onto the landing, the house seems to sprinkle a little magic of its own, in the wonderfully characterful steep staircase heading up to the attic guest room, its curved undercarriage creating lovely shapes at eye level, which Sally has emphasised by positioning a tiny wardrobe and a top hat on top of a cupboard beneath it. 

From this spot you step into Sally’s workroom, where again your eye hops from the teddy on his own chair, to a snow dome containing a crow, a pair of cornflower blue button boots and, on the desk itself, bookends in the shape of a little mermaid. All part of the fairy tale setting, where magical stories are made.

The gilded mirror over the fireplace with ferns, candles in place, came from Norman Road in St Leonards

The gilded mirror over the fireplace with ferns, candles in place, came from Norman Road in St Leonards

The bear cubs holding up a slice of a tree trunk are from Graham & Green

The bear cubs holding up a slice of a tree trunk are from Graham & Green

The sitting room is painted in a dark rich purple (Farrow & Ball’s Pelt)

The sitting room is painted in a dark rich purple (Farrow & Ball’s Pelt)

The classic woven plastic Swedish rugs in the dining room are by Pappelina

The classic woven plastic Swedish rugs in the dining room are by Pappelina

In the dining room, varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose with bare bulbs hanging from hooks

In the dining room, varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose with bare bulbs hanging from hooks

In the dining room, varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose with bare bulbs hanging from hooks

In the dining room, varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose with bare bulbs hanging from hooks

In the dining room, varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose with bare bulbs hanging from hooks

In the dining room, varied lengths of bright orange corded cable stretch out from the central ceiling rose with bare bulbs hanging from hooks

In the kitchen, Sally has found room to pack in plenty of her magical objects, including some lifesize wooden ducks and a large metal orange squeezer, that she brought back from Mexico

In the kitchen, Sally has found room to pack in plenty of her magical objects, including some lifesize wooden ducks and a large metal orange squeezer, that she brought back from Mexico

There are pillars on either side of the kitchen entrance – where Sally plans to add a theatrical curtain, currently drawn on the wall with pencil – and three working cuckoo clocks

There are pillars on either side of the kitchen entrance – where Sally plans to add a theatrical curtain, currently drawn on the wall with pencil – and three working cuckoo clocks

There are pillars on either side of the kitchen entrance – where Sally plans to add a theatrical curtain, currently drawn on the wall with pencil – and three working cuckoo clocks

There are pillars on either side of the kitchen entrance – where Sally plans to add a theatrical curtain, currently drawn on the wall with pencil – and three working cuckoo clocks

The Goldilocks bedding of red and white gingham is from Debenhams and the black Afghan sequined bedspread is from Shop in Norman Road

The Goldilocks bedding of red and white gingham is from Debenhams and the black Afghan sequined bedspread is from Shop in Norman Road

Sally’s bedroom. An oversized wall hanging of flowers, from which a swan protudes, adds to the fairytale feel

Sally’s bedroom. An oversized wall hanging of flowers, from which a swan protudes, adds to the fairytale feel

Sally’s bedroom. An oversized wall hanging of flowers, from which a swan protudes, adds to the fairytale feel

Sally’s bedroom. An oversized wall hanging of flowers, from which a swan protudes, adds to the fairytale feel

Sally’s workroom complete with teddy on his own chair, a crow in a snow dome and a pair of cornflower blue button boots

Sally’s workroom complete with teddy on his own chair, a crow in a snow dome and a pair of cornflower blue button boots

Sally’s workroom complete with teddy on his own chair, a crow in a snow dome and a pair of cornflower blue button boots

Sally’s workroom complete with teddy on his own chair, a crow in a snow dome and a pair of cornflower blue button boots

Sally is gradually studding the soft green hall walls with seven-point gold stars

Sally is gradually studding the soft green hall walls with seven-point gold stars

Sally has emphasised the steep staircase by positioning a tiny wardrobe and a top hat on top of a cupboard beneath it

Sally has emphasised the steep staircase by positioning a tiny wardrobe and a top hat on top of a cupboard beneath it

A large portrait of Lillie Langtry by Richard Jack hangs on the landing below another striking Ikea paper lampshade

A large portrait of Lillie Langtry by Richard Jack hangs on the landing below another striking Ikea paper lampshade

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