Childhood memories and favourite holiday haunts are the inspiration
behind Karen and Rafe Easter’s charming family home.
It’s difficult to believe just how much of England’s green and pleasant land lies a mere hour’s train journey from the capital, and yet this breathtaking scenery with its rolling pastures and majestic woodlands really is but a stone’s throw from London. Meander off a main road pretty much anywhere in this deservedly labelled ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ and you’ll find yourself twisting and turning through narrow leafy lanes, and losing your bearings among mists of cow parsley and luxuriant hedgerows.
Somewhere between the historic village of Mayfield and the market town of Heathfield, down one such leafy lane, lies a collection of Arts & Crafts houses built in the 1930s by a local firm of architects by the name of The Lions Green Building Company.
These houses were intended as homes for retiring officers after the war. Quirkily, each house was either built with a clock concealed within an interior wall, or with an inscribed brick in the front wall. The houses on this acre plot were unique, each with interesting architectural details, including eyebrow windows, thatched roofs and even medieval-style turrets.
These substantially built and comfortable homes have stood the test of time, been loved and re-loved by families through the years, and still proudly bear the hallmarks of their original designs. And so it is with this Lions Green house. Look carefully and you can see the words ‘Built by the Lions Green Company 1936’ baked into one of the bricks, somewhere near the front door.
Stepping into the light, airy and generously proportioned hall, it’s difficult to imagine that this period house could be anything other than the stylish and relaxed home that invites you in. So, it’s interesting chatting to Karen and Rafe about what initially led them to this property and what changes they have made since 2010.
“We’d been living in a grotty bungalow which we’d wanted to totally redevelop,” explains Karen. “It was so damp, there was black mould growing up the walls and an army of slugs invaded the kitchen every night. We survived this for two years only to be told that planning permission for our project wouldn’t be granted.”
The couple decided it was time to move on, and things were at a pretty low ebb when Rafe spotted a house in the right area coming up for sale. Karen first glimpsed the house backlit against a meadow brimming with buttercups on a summer’s afternoon. “It was properly in the heart of the countryside,” she remembers, “and just what we wanted.”
This was a good 10 years ago and the pair have spent this time transforming the house into the perfect family home. They loved the solid build that often comes with 1930s architecture and have kept or adapted many of the original features, whilst bringing the house in line with today’s lifestyle.
Karen made the brave decision to start with the exterior, rather than giving in to the temptation to renovate the interior. “I was adamant that I wanted a lovely garden,” she explains. They completely re-levelled and drained the entire outside area, which is now landscaped to wrap comfortably around the house, allowing for a large and relaxed Yorkstone terrace which positively invites you to sit and relax with a gin and tonic. Most of the garden is a gloriously smooth picture postcard lawn, while a terrace of beautifully maintained beds step up beyond the kitchen to the pool area. She was right to follow the perceived wisdom: ‘always start with the garden’ as it does take years for the planting to mature to its full glory.
Inside, the house was a monument to the previous decades and, as Karen remembers, “very dark and poky”. Every ceiling, every wall, was covered in that old favourite Artex and studded with fake black beams, and every floor boasted swirly green carpets. The windows were the standard 1930s curved bays and the brick fireplaces were the traditional rainbow shape. “These were both original features,” says Karen, “but we really didn’t like them!”
The first major build got underway in 2012, when the kitchen was added to the back of the house and what was once the old kitchen became the dining room.
After living with a dark, poky kitchen for years, Karen was keen to have a large, light family space. She knew exactly what she was looking for and after visiting practically every showroom in the South East, finally chose Neptune for the supply and design. The white marble worktops blend beautifully with the soft grey units and dark walnut floor, which continues through the dining room to the hall. The stunning ceramic light from Heal’s and the white glossy range add a touch of glamour. It’s a very serene space and hardly surprising that their 12-year-old daughter spends most of her spare time here baking all sorts of delicious treats.
The two rooms which housed the old kitchen and the dining room became the dining area and at this point the curved window bays here and throughout were adapted to a classic rectangular shape, allowing the rooms to be flooded with light, and simultaneously creating the ever comfortable window seats. This room features some of the house’s original panelling and so the couple decided to keep this feature and continue it through into the hall, living room and library.
“We didn’t use interiors designers,” explains Rafe, but we had great input from our builders, Neil Hammond of AJ Hammond Builders Ltd, and also from Sabre Joinery in Burwash, who created beautiful interior doors to matching the existing originals, as well as all the panelling.”
It was during this phase of the build that the windows presented a major conundrum. Most were small with traditional diamond panes and Karen knew immediately she wanted these replaced with larger Sussex-style windows. However, some had already been updated with UPVC, so they had to decide between the two newer types of window. “In the end, we chose the Sussex-style windows,” says Karen. “It cost us a fortune, but we’ve never regretted it.”
In the dining room, as in the living room, the stately fireplaces, from The Fireplace Company in Crowborough, are handmade in limestone. “We have always loved spending time in the Cotswolds,” explains Rafe, “and wanted to evoke the mood of a Cotswolds country home.”
Sandstone sills and quoins to the exterior have also been added to the same effect, as well as the use of oak for the garage, porch and balcony.
The living room simply invites you to kick off your shoes and relax into a sumptuous chair. “The beach house in Jane Fonda’s Grace and Frankie really inspired us!” Explains Karen, “We loved the dark wooden floor with rugs and the New England-style shelving.”
Despite the muted colour scheme (Farrow & Ball’s palette has been used throughout) there are pops of colour here and there; fuchsia pink armchairs in the dining room and a fabulous acid yellow in some of the cushions and soft furnishings. In fact, Karen has chosen bold Osborne & Little yellow wallpaper through the hall both the downstairs and up. “I like a shock of colour every now and again,” she says.
The second build phase in 2017 added a spare bedroom with en suite, upstairs, while a library and snug completed downstairs. “Again, the library was designed with the help of our brilliant joiner Steve from Sabre, who indulged Rafe’s childhood love of secret doors. The library shelves completely disguise the door to the snug, to the delight of our children’s visiting school friends.”
Upstairs Karen and Rafe’s bedroom overlooks the buttercup field, which helped cement Karen’s decision to buy the house. The pièce de résistance is the fabulous oak balcony, designed and built by a local craftsman, “it’s the perfect place for a leisurely breakfast,” she says.
The understated elegance in both bedroom and bathroom was inspired by a beautiful hotel in the Italian lakes. “We loved the natural tones they used to create a calm but luxurious environment”.
Both the children’s bedrooms provide the perfect retreats. Their nine-year-old son’s room includes a cleverly crafted wooden staircase to a mezzanine level in the roof space, possibly another secret hideaway inspired by Rafe’s childhood memories. And the world map wallpaper, such an inspired choice, could keep any child transfixed for hours.
It’s easy to see that Karen has a background in fashion and design. Her creative touches, her paintings and her pottery, grace the shelves and mantelpieces, and the house flows naturally from room to room. ‘I like mixing things up though,” she says with reference to the bright shocks of colour here and there. “Tomorrow should never be another today.”
A real fire was top of Rafe’s list for establishing that basic sense of contentment and family wellbeing. They chose The Fireplace Company in Crowborough to supply and fit all the fireplaces and wood burning stoves.
An excellent joiner matched the existing panelling, oak doors and other design details throughout the house
One of Karen’s many animal paintings hangs above the hall table. The lamps are from OKA and the stag candelabra from one of her favourite shops, Flowerhouse and Hom
The old kitchen and dining rooms were combined to make one large room. Karen and Rafe made a feature of the panelling here on the ceilings as well as the walls
Another of Karen’s animal paintings feature above the dining room fireplace, along with some simply styled rustic ornaments from Rusdens Home Interiors and Flower House and Home. The shocking pink chairs are from Sweetpea & Willow
A cleverly disguised secret door leads from the library to the snug beyond, much to the delight of visiting children. The charming ceramic dog was made by potter Marie Prett
The white marble worktop and pale grey units are sleek and sophisticated, while the table and chairs add a homely touch for family dining
Karen knew she wanted her new kitchen to be light and spacious
A boot room really helps if you live in the country. Karen and Rafe chose easily wipeable Carrera marble for the floor
Karen chose Neptune for kitchen supply and design
The stunning ceramic light from Heal’s and the white glossy range add a touch of glamour
The hall is a mix of soft grey panelling and citrus yellow floral wallpaper from Osborne & Little
Simple opulence best describes this bedroom. The bed looks straight onto the charming oak balcony and the garden with the buttercup field beyond
The understated elegance in both bedroom and bathroom was inspired by a beautiful hotel in the Italian lakes
Freddie’s room benefits from one of the rectangular bay windows, which bring so much light into the room
The funky world map wallpaper is from Murals Wallpaper
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