Most people who build their own country houses take one of two approaches: either opting for high design and commissioning an architect to create a ‘statement' house which usually means that it is contemporary in style and quite unlike those around it, or they attempt something that they hope will ‘blend in' with its surroundings and look ‘old'. Sophia Wadsworth and her husband Andrew have pulled off the more unusual trick of marrying a traditional structure, materials and craftsmanship with a look that is not obviously from any particular period, but is still very definitely a country house, and a Kentish country house at that. Situated on a rolling hill just outside one of the county's prettiest villages, the Wadsworth's house is only two years old but looks very much at ease. With its white weatherboarding and honeyed oak frame, there are recognisable elements of Kentish vernacular, but it's no pastiche. In front of the house a gravel drive gives way to smartly clipped topiary and low box hedging. There is a formal rectangular pond and a Lutyens style bench behind it. White painted metal lanterns mark the path to the front door and give the first hint of Sophia's profession as an interior designer.
Sophia and Andrew bought the land in 2007. "We sold our house in Etchingham shockingly quickly so we rented while we looked for either the right house or a suitable plot of land to build on. Everyone told us we'd never find what we wanted and one agent even laughed when I told him what we were looking for, but that just made me even more determined. Funnily enough it was that same agent who came up with this site in the end. It was an equestrian centre with about five acres and a two-storey cottage. The previous owner had planning permission for a new house, but it wasn't right for us, so once we had bought the property, we spent almost a year getting the permission changed. Our first design was met by the council without much enthusiasm. So we looked at it again and this time we included the ‘footprint' of the old stables and decided to pick up on the equestrian theme and add elements of Kentish barns to the design. I spoke to Oakwrights of Herefordshire, who build oak-framed structures, and between us, we came up with a new design that was more sympathetic to the surrounding area and a little more original."
The couple got planning permission and decided to proceed without an architect, but with Sophia doing the project management after the initial groundworks and frame were in place. The lease on their rented house expired and so they decided to buy three old mobile homes so that they could live on site. "That really paid off," Sophia recalls. "It wasn't easy, as I'm not a camping kind of girl, but actually I really enjoyed it. I think I was just so excited about the build. It took a bit of adjusting to, but we had a lot of fun. We have photographs of Andrew and me leaving our caravan dressed in all our finery as we went off to a ball!
"Oakwrights managed the technical aspects of the build, but I had a great team of tradesmen and craftspeople that I have used for my interior design projects, so together, we got the job done to everyone's satisfaction. As a designer, one of the things that I am really keen on is planning every room as it will be used. It's a service that I offer to my clients and with a new build there's the opportunity to make sure that everything works exactly as it should, so I worked out where all the power points and lighting should be. In the family sitting room, for instance, I knew I wanted lamps either side of the sofa that would be freestanding in the centre of the floor. Instead of trying to hide cables under rugs, I could just have sockets sunk into the tiled floor. Similarly, in the dining room I had already bought a pair of lamps that I knew I wanted to place on the oak windowledges, so I had discreet sockets made from oak, set into each ledge."
Sophia set up her business 11 years ago and designs for clients in London, Kent and Sussex. "I mainly work on residential projects and although I do a lot of refurbishing of whole houses, I love to see the difference that can be made to people's homes and lifestyle just by the alteration of one room. The style that I use at home is obviously influenced by my Scandinavian heritage as my mother is Swedish and I just love that relaxed, light feel, but of course, I approach every commission differently and tailor the design to the client."
The kitchen is mainly comprised of hand-built cupboards and drawers. There is a black Aga whose colour is echoed in the granite worksurfaces. "This is honed granite, rather than the glossy type," adds Sophia. "I didn't want it to look too shiny, and I felt that the honed blended in better with all the other natural materials of the building, such as the oak and limestone floor throughout the downstairs. I wanted the big island unit with the stools so that it would be both a practical and sociable space as I love to cook and entertain. Now that my children are older, they love to ‘hang out' here with their friends too. In fact my daughter Georgie is a trained chef, so she's a real foodie. She's working for private clients in London and is currently helping run two ski chalets in the alps for the winter season. In the future, I'd like to offer cooking, gardening and interior design courses from here too, so having a space that can comfortably accommodate a group of people is really useful. They could learn to cook a lunch with produce from the garden and then eat it together in the dining room. Having the sitting room here is also great when we have guests and in the summer all the French windows open onto the decking so we can bring the outside in. It was the view across the fields and woods here that we really wanted to maximize, so having so many windows was essential, but we were also able to insulate the house properly too, so it never feels cold. It was so wonderful, being able to design everything from scratch. I'm very aware how lucky we are and it was never a chore. It's amazing how many things there are to consider, though. We installed a system for reusing rainwater and made sure that everything is set up to easily change the heating system to a ground source heat pump in the future, when the choice and technology has stabilised a little. Those are the major elements of a new-build, but you also have to think of all the little details like the ironmongery. What kind of handles do you have on your windows and doors? The builders recommended black iron, but I thought that would be too dark and heavy with the Scandi-inspired interiors, so I found a kind of pewter, or gun metal grey from Conquest Ironmongery in Battle."
The adjoining sitting room is furnished with linen-covered sofas and chairs. A scarlet and chalk white Ian Mankin stripe on the smaller sofa and red striped cushions punctuate the natural tone of the other. Painted metal tables stand at either end of the large sofa and feature a typically Swedish design that gently echoes the cross supports of the balustrades around the decking outside. "I got a lot of accessories locally, like the candlesticks and planters from Maisie K in Cranbrook though the wooden giraffe in the corner was brought home from a family holiday to South Africa. We all love to go there and my eldest son, Teddy spent his gap year working as a junior ranger in Kruger Park."
Stepping outside, one can see that there are ambitious plans for the garden. Andrew loves working in it and has built all the raised beds for the kitchen garden from timbers left over from the old stable block. Originally, the couple planned to have stone terraces on either side of the house, but once the house was built, its prolific use of timber led them towards decking, which they wrapped around three sides of the building. "It's useful too," adds Sophia, "as it creates a kind of bridge between the house and garden." The couple laid all the turf on the lawn and Andrew has made gravel paths and planted a hornbeam hedge to shelter a series of box-edged rose beds. Looking out from the dining room, one can see new beds ready for more roses, sweet peas and herbs as well as the kitchen garden with its arches for espaliered fruit, raised beds and greenhouse. "We will start excavations for a pool soon and a poolhouse that will double as a summerhouse. We have planted a little orchard on the other side of the house and a row of Sorbus along the drive. It will probably take five years until it has all matured, but I'm really excited and we are already enjoying plenty of our own produce."
We re-enter the house through the very smart boot room. There is a butler's sink and wooden worktop and a wall of floor-to-ceiling fitted cupboards painted in Farrow & Ball's Fawn. A potting bench with original wooden apple boxes for storage was found at Station Antiques in Appledore and a pine settle from Tenterden Antiques stands against one wall. Despite having a well-upholstered bed each, the two dogs Kiki and Rocco are curled up together in one.
The dining room is quite classically Scandinavian in tone. Light floods in from the windows on either side and from the glass ceiling. A long oval table seats 14 and is dressed with antique candelabras that belonged to Sophia's Swedish great-grandparents and pots of faux white Bellis perennis from Dee Martin in Tunbridge Wells. A painted, glazed armoire shows off the daintily sprigged Portuguese dinner service that is a much-loved wedding present. The chandelier above the table is from Cranbrook and the sconces from Maison in Tunbridge Wells. "I try to buy locally," says Sophia.
Across the hallway, a huge spotted cowhide from South Africa divides the open-plan floorspace. There is a long console table and a pair of dainty chairs painted in a very pale eau de nil with faded gold detailing. A few steps beyond, the drawing room has a Jøtul woodburner as its focal point. A simple Bath stone mantelpiece from Chesneys frames it and a pair of Knole sofas face each other across a mahogany coffee table. Again, the furnishings are predominantly pale and neutral in tone, with silk and velvet cushions in Tyrian purple, lilac and violet used as accents of colour. Antique tables, inherited by the couple, support a pair of lamps made from Georgian wallpaper rollers. Faux fur throws add to the sense of comfort and luxury. A tall painted bookcase was bought in Paris and there is a striking oil portrait of Sophia's great, great, great, great English grandfather, a prosperous-looking tea importer. "I've always liked his face as it's so full of character. I was lucky to be brought up with some wonderful pictures as my late father was a fine art restorer," recalls Sophia "so I suppose the visual arts have always been important to me."
A smart striped runner from Avalon Flooring in Tenterden draws the visitor up the stairs and past the huge windows that frame views of the rear garden. On the landing there is another painted armoire and three modest sized bedrooms for Sophia's two sons and daughter. Teddy's room displays masses of school, university and sports team pictures along with artefacts collected from South Africa, while his younger brother Patrick reveals his love of music in a room that is full of guitars and vintage posters. Georgie's ‘boudoir' pays homage to Audrey Hepburn in her incarnation as Holly Golightly and has flashes of shocking pink and dramatic black among the otherwise pale French furnishings.
A careful use of symmetry in the master bedroom creates a serene atmosphere. The carved and painted wooden bed was bought in Paris and is simply dressed with Portuguese piqué cotton. On a pair of bedside tables stand candle-style lamps with monogrammed linen shades bought from Charlotte Casadejus at the Wealden Times Christmas Fair. The simplicity of the scheme shows off the pale honey coloured oak beams to great effect. Each beam was signed with the craftsman's carved initials in traditional style, and Sophia left the wooden pegs untrimmed as she liked the way that they emphasised the structure of the joinery. The vaulted ceiling soars overhead and leads the eye up to the dressing room above. "We pinched a bit of Georgie's ceiling space to create that," grins Sophia. "In return she got a bit more floor space, but it made a huge difference to this room as it means that the sleeping area can be kept clutter free and feels all the more luxurious for it. For the same reason, we decided to do away with a dividing wall for our bathroom and to make a feature of the enormous bath. It's made of a stone resin and has an insulating layer inside so it retains the heat much better than solid stone." Travertine marble has been used on the walls and floor and adds to the sense of understated glamour. The vast window overlooking the pond and orchard features a set of broad-bladed shutters from Shutter Frontier in East Sussex. "You can see that our house is sort of bottom heavy," says Sophia. "We like the intimate spaces up here, but wanted much larger proportions for entertaining downstairs. Several location agencies have been interested in the house because there's so much room for cameras and equipment. It would be fun to have some shoots or filming here. I feel that I'm so fortunate to have this house and the process of building was so enjoyable and worthwhile, I'd like to think that it might inspire more people to create something original too."