Anyone who knows Tenterden will know The Tower House. One of the Georgian lovelies that line the east end of the High Street, the building was so named because the classically fronted square doll's house of a residence also sports a crenellated tower to one side. Built, according to legend, in 1904 for the homesick French wife of a former owner, the poor woman apparently pined so badly that her husband constructed the tower so that she could climb to the top and on a clear day, would be able to see the coast of her beloved France. It strikes one that it might have been quicker, cheaper and perhaps kinder, if the obliging husband had simply bought his wife a ticket for a channel ferry, but perhaps he was worried that she might not return if she set sail. The story does have a strong whiff of the fairy tale about it, but fact or fiction, it makes a memorable yarn.
Present owner, Pippa Carter, swings open her front door with a cheery greeting. She and her husband Mike run their house as an award-winning B&B, so she must go through such a routine often, but there is genuine warmth and enthusiasm in her welcome. "Come on in," she beams and the first impressions of her house are delightful. A huge French mirror is propped up against a wall in the entrance hall, which although already generous in size, is greatly magnified by the reflection in the looking glass. Hanging from the ceiling, above the elegant Regency staircase is a light made up of hundreds of globes of glass that together form an enormous bunch of sparkling grapes. Entering the kitchen, with its exposed brickwork and chunky timbers, it becomes clear that this part of the house, at least, is much older than the 18th century frontage. "It's a bit like walking back through time," Pippa acknowledges. "Like many of the buildings in Tenterden, it's not quite what it seems. Lots of the houses and shops in the town were ‘smartened up' in the 18th century and quite humble, medieval structures were given the elegant Georgian facades that the town is so famous for."
Mike is sitting at the kitchen table and quickly sets aside his work to chat. Besides their roles as hosts, the couple are renowned in Tenterden as movers and shakers of the most dynamic kind. Mike is a Town Councillor and President of the Chamber of Commerce, but they are perhaps best known for creating and organising ‘Tentertainment', a free family event staged over the course of a long weekend every summer. Held on the Recreation Ground, the festival attracts huge crowds to its unique mix of live music, local food and entertainment. "The idea for it began with the Tour de France in 2007. When we heard that the race would be coming through the town, we thought that we should do something to mark the event," says Pippa. "So we asked some of the business people of the town, and they just pitched in and helped to get things going. It was wonderful and I think really brought the town together. It's just grown from there and now we have a fantastic team of volunteers."
"Yeah," agrees Mike. "It's hard work, but it's also great fun, and I think it's getting better every year. This summer, lots of the local restaurants wanted to get involved, so we had Chinese, Indian and vegetarian food as well as a great tea tent and cake stall. It meant that people could just turn up with a rug and stay all day and all evening!"
"We loved Tenterden when we moved here," adds Pippa. "We're both Kent born and bred, and we had lived in a very beautiful rural spot, but when the kids left home, I wanted to be somewhere a bit more buzzy, like Hastings or Tunbridge Wells. They were a step too far for Mike though, so Tenterden was the place that we agreed upon. Now, there is a town website and Tentertainment is just one of many events that take place throughout the year – and there are more planned. There are so many talented people around here that it's great to create something together."
The site of many a creation, the kitchen is evidently the hub of the house. Simple in tone, it is very much a working environment, with a black enamel Aga and a deeply scored butcher's block in the centre. There is a dresser and painted wooden cupboards made by Wesley, a young carpenter working from Appledore Forge. "There was a rather heavy-looking, ‘fitted' kitchen here before," explains Pippa, "and a big, 1960s plate-glass window, but the room was quite dark, so we created a larger aperture for the French windows and then added the balcony, so that we could take advantage of the view across the Weald. Fortunately, Mike is a property developer, so he knows how to build and we did all the work ourselves. I opted for shelves on the walls because that way I can see exactly what I have at a glance. I do a lot of baking and preserving, so I need plenty of space to store everything." French embroidered shelf fringing is used on the dresser where flours and sugar are neatly organized in glass jars. Slate roofing tiles form a splashback around the butler's sink, while a blackboard is used for shopping lists and reminders.
I follow Pippa into the dining room. Painted in pale, Dior grey and white, it is bathed in warm sunlight from the south-facing bay window. A circular table has been dressed with a vintage damask cloth and set for breakfast. An old shop counter serves as a buffet table and is covered with more tablecloths, neatly pressed linen napkins, porcelain tureens, cake stands and serving dishes. A corner cabinet houses dainty china teacups, saucers and plates. "I run ‘Happy Hampers' with my friend, Stella Wilson. We sell picnic hampers and gift baskets with vintage china and linens, so I'm always collecting porcelain and I'm afraid I can't let everything go!"
Across the hallway, the drawing room has been painted a dramatic mocha. "It's Flamant paint from Belgium," says Pippa. "Their colours are really intense and I think this one's called Lune de Noir." An antique crystal chandelier reflects the sunlight around the room. Linen-covered sofas are scattered with needlepoint and crewelwork cushions and a wingback chair offers a dignified seat in front of the woodburning stove. On the wall opposite hangs a picture of Mike and Pippa's goddaughters, Lily and Poppy, painted by the couple's nephew. Behind the other sofa is a pair of double doors that Pippa draws back to reveal the private sitting room that overlooks the garden. Bookshelves line one wall and sofas are ranged around the fireplace. "This is a great place to read or sew," says Pippa. "Our guests can use the drawing room, but it's nice to have somewhere that we can retreat to now and then." Black and white photographs are displayed on almost every surface. "My grandfather was official photographer to King George V, so I'm really lucky to have so many photographs from a time when very few people had a camera. It's a fascinating record of the fashions and lifestyle of that era."
Upstairs, Pippa shows me the bedrooms reserved for her B&B guests. ‘La Salle des Roses' is, as you might expect, wallpapered with a classic rose print. Situated at the back of the house, it overlooks the garden and with its matchboarded anteroom, feels cosy and private. Along the corridor is the ‘Chambre Jolie'. Inspired by the French former owner, this room is unashamedly romantic and papered in ‘Birdcage Walk' by Nina Campbell. A French 18th century style sofa occupies the space in the bay window and is framed on either side by cafe au lait-coloured silk curtains. White painted furniture maintains the feeling of light and the iron bed is dressed with a handstitched eau de nil silk quilt. Just across the corridor, behind a sliding door and tucked away in the tower, is a small wood-panelled bedroom that's very popular with visiting children. There is an iron daybed and the wall behind it is papered with jolly, striped red and white roses. Across the window, Pippa has hung a blind made from an antique French pillowcase, trimmed with red and white ribbon.
Further along the landing towards the front of the house we pass a capacious housekeeper's trolley piled high with freshly laundered bedlinen and vintage table covers. "I just loved this when I found it," says Pippa, "but funnily enough, I couldn't think what to do with it until Mike said I should use it for some of the many linens I collect, and of course, it's perfect for when I change the beds in the guests' rooms." A pair of French shutters has been hung either side of the landing window where a delicate birdcage sits on an old wooden chest. A dressmaker's mannequin stands to one side, draped with pearls and sporting an extravagant hat and chic little handbag. Next to it, another bedroom is being refurbished. Already papered in an elegant grey and white pattern, there are cutwork lace curtains at the window and white painted floorboards, but the furniture is yet to be arranged. "It's good to spruce things up now and then," says Pippa, "and it's really important that the bedrooms should look fresh for guests. It's meant to be a luxurious treat to stay here, so things like clean décor, good bedlinen and thick, fluffy towels are vital."
On our way downstairs we pass an enormous framed poster advertising Biarritz. "My daughter Rebecca lives there. She designs for a big fashion company and absolutely loves it. And of course, it's very nice for us to go to visit her too!"
The garden offers yet more opportunities for entertaining and is still decorated with bunting from a recent crafts fair that Pippa staged in aid of a local hospice. A stone terrace overlooks the lawn and to one side is a new studio building, one wall of which comprises of full-length glass doors that fold back to open the space to the elements. The floor is tiled in grey-blue slate and there is a long refectory table in the centre. A wirework auricular theatre supports pots of scented geraniums and the room is lit from above by a pair of massive zinc lamps – formerly used as street lamps in Berlin. Down more steps and across the lawn, we pass flowerbeds planted with blousy roses, iris and lilacs. A trelliswork wooden gazebo makes a perfect shelter from the sun in summertime. "My friend's daughter is planning to have her wedding celebrations here in the garden," says Pippa, "so I think I'd better do some weeding soon!" Through a wrought-iron gate, we come to the potager where Mike and Pippa grow much of the produce that they cook for their guests. An enchanting old glasshouse that is almost overtaken by ferns and grapevines stands to one side, while on another, wooden steps lead up to a weatherboarded barn that Mike built as an office/studio.
"Mmm," grins Pippa. "Poor Mike, this was really supposed to be his space, but it's almost completely taken over by Happy Hampers stuff. We've been nominated for the Country Homes & Interiors Rural Business Award, which is absolutely thrilling, especially as Stella and I just started it because we wanted to share our passion for vintage stuff." There's an interesting piece of symmetry here. At the beginning of the 20th century, one woman had a tower built for her by her husband, the purpose of which was for her to stand and gaze at her heart's desire. In the first decade of the 21st, Pippa and her husband renovated their house and built new structures where they can both indulge their passions.
To find out more about The Tower House B&B call 01580 761920 or visit
Happy Hampers 01580 292684 www.happy-hampers.com
Appledore Forge 01233 758585 www.oldforgeantiques.co.uk
Flamant Paint +32 53 76 80 21 www.flamantpaint.com
Nina Campbell 0207 225 1011 www.ninacampbell.com