Room with a View

Finding the right house has never been easy. Typically, it means kissing swampfuls of frogs before one finally compromises, moves in and, with a little or a great deal of TLC, ultimately coaxes out the promised prince. On rare occasion, though, there is a house that has waited patiently, perhaps through the centuries, for one fairytale owner – and suddenly it's mutual love at first sight. Such a house is Downs View.

When Veronica and her husband parted company, she was looking not only for a home for herself and her five children, but also for a large and much-loved painting of the Annunciation she'd bought from Spencer Swaffer in Arundel. She went to see Downs View and no sooner had she walked through the door than she was confronted with a much smaller painting of the Annunciation. As she walked around the house, she saw another and then another. She went into the sitting room and there was the perfect wall for her own five-foot-by-five-foot work.

"Of course, you don't buy a house just because there's the perfect wall for a painting but there was just something about the house – it seemed as if we were meant for each other. There was just one problem," she says, "I couldn't afford it."

But all good fairytales have a Fairy Godmother and Veronica's appeared in the perhaps slightly unlikely guise of her estate agent who managed to sell the original family home for considerably more than she was expecting. Downs View was hers.

"It wasn't only the house that was perfect but the location," says Veronica. "We're in the depth of the country here, surrounded by fields but only ten minutes from Lewes with its wealth of cultural life and Bloomsbury associations. Glyndebourne is just down the road and, of course, we have the South Downs on our doorstep."

"There was nothing very much I really needed to change apart from the décor," she says. "When I bought Downs View six years ago, it was a blizzard of Artex – walls, ceilings, everything. It was also painted in some pretty interesting colours – deep purple, I remember, was particularly popular with the previous owners."

Originally, Downs View was two cottages and together they now give Veronica five and a half bedrooms, two bathrooms and a drawing room, TV snug and kitchen/dining room. Not huge accommodation but this is a generous house in every sense of the word. Never does it feel cramped and light seems to flood in from almost everywhere.

"It's a bit of a Tardis really," says Veronica. " You never expect it to offer quite as much as it does. You suddenly turn a corner and find a room of a size you simply wouldn't expect in a cottage."

From the outset, Veronica wanted somewhere where her family could relax and feel truly at home and this meant keeping precious breakables to a minimum. Certainly there are some lovely pieces of furniture in every room and some truly wonderful paintings but she has resisted anything the family would have to pussyfoot around or would compromise the general impression of light and space.

The kitchen has a traditional feel with fitted units, made by talented local cabinetmaker Toby Hall, running under the window while the remaining pieces are free-standing and of varying ages and provenance. An old French zinc-topped garden potting table makes a superb six-foot preparation table and a distressed French cupboard stands nearby. The deep blue Aga is complemented by a modern electric cooker.

Standing sentinel over the large pine dining table is an old glass-fronted and seriously distressed English oak cabinet with shelves so thick and strong it would appear to have been built to store cannonballs. French doors open out onto the garden through which struts Margaret, the sole survivor of Veronica's four hens, the others having gone, via the local fox, to the great roost in the sky. They are all, however, immortalised in a painting on the kitchen wall.

The floor throughout the kitchen and dining areas is one of Veronica's few major works. "The tiles that were here were simply too badly damaged to save," she says. "So I replaced them with handmade Mexican tiles in a herringbone pattern."

From the dining room, the eye carries on through the hallway to the drawing room and Veronica has been careful to ensure that the colour shades are complementary. "I like the way one room leads the eye into another but it just wouldn't work if one decided to style each room individually and in isolation from the others," she says. "In a house like this every room is part of the whole."

The drawing room itself certainly underlines her Tardis comparison. It seems to have somehow been taken from a much larger, grander property and magically made to fit within the walls of Downs View. At one end of the room is the Annunciation, not for a moment looking too large for its setting.

"When I bought it, I didn't even know if I would ever have the space to hang it, but it's perfect here with the space to really stand back and look at it properly," says Veronica. Nearby hangs a small but beautiful icon echoing the religious theme but providing a pleasing contrast. "You can see it from the front door and it's always the first thing that catches my eye, welcoming me in."

The fireplace sports a wood burner and is flanked by two six-foot classical plaster columns. "OK, they're a bit camp," admits Veronica, "but I love them and I think they work." They, and a number of other lovely pieces around the house, came from Diana Kelly Interiors in Alfriston. "I'd recommend her to anyone – she has a wonderful eye," says Veronica.

Before the fireplace is a huge and welcoming sofa. The two old armchairs closest to the Annunciation have been re-covered in a fabric that draws out the pastels in the painting. Another two armchairs have a fun theme of pugs. In one corner by the French doors there is an oak corner cupboard with walnut inlay and in the opposite corner a magnificent medieval English oak cupboard. The only other piece in this warm and spacious room is an English elm chest of drawers, home to a few hundred of Veronica's music CDs.

When Veronica bought the property, the hall and drawing room floors had been relaid in modern parquet. "I kept it in the hallway but it was too much in the drawing room so I covered it with seagrass." The walls are a bespoke Farrow & Ball mix created by Diana Kelly, who also works as an interior designer.

Next door, the TV snug is home not only to the family television but to a superb seascape by Lewes painter Jessica Zoob, an impressionist Highland landscape Veronica found at the Edinburgh and Glasgow Degree Show and a Scottish bothy by Dorothy Stirling. The original fireplace left a serious amount to be desired so Veronica has replaced it with a small and elegant French black cast-iron fireplace. Here the garden light again floods in, this time through a wall-to-wall bay.

And so upstairs and onto a spacious landing where a tiny secret bedroom is hidden behind a curtain. To one side is a bathroom and four pretty children's bedrooms, one complete with a perfectly-proportioned Singalese four-poster, and to the other, Veronica's anteroom-cum-dressing-room-cum-office, centrepiece of which is a terrific, perhaps French dressing table with flower motifs. In the corner stands an antique screen. The walls are a plaster mix just left raw after being coated in PVA glue.

And then another Tardis moment as we step up into Veronica's own bedroom. Light pours into this lovely space from windows on two sides. The walls are Farrow & Ball's Light Blue and the light brown and white unglazed curtains Veronica found in St Tropez. At the foot of the sea of white linen that is the bed, by the window, stands an elegant white sofa and covering the wall at the head of the bed is an old Hungarian linen hanging supported on its pole by Veronica's children's school name tabs.

Complementing the cool of the décor is an impressionist canvas of Worthing beach by Barry Holt. Warmth is provided by natural stripped floorboards and a beautiful little Welsh glass-fronted dresser, home to Veronica's collection of seashells. "I do love this room," says Veronica. "The windows look out over the garden and fields and seasons almost seem to become part of the room."

The garden itself has something of Secret Walled Garden about it with a shady maple in pride of place and beyond it the lawn rolls down to willows weeping over a stream. A busy vegetable patch, fenced against the voracious local bunnies, brims with produce. The only sound is the bees and the breeze gently sifting through the maple leaves.

Not many owners find their fairytale house, and fewer houses their fairytale owner, but one has the distinct feeling that this is one of those rare stories where everyone concerned does, indeed, live happily ever after.

Address Book:

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming