Picture Perfect

We have loved Rye for a long time," says Rosemary as she ushers the WT team into her home in the centre of the historic 'citadel'. "Every year for about 20 years my husband Richard and I came to stay at various hotels in the town at New Year and in the summer and every time we went home to Surrey, we really missed it. Every weekend there seems to be so much going on including the famous Arts and Scallop Festivals. We really wanted to be a part of these events. Then one winter day, we were staying at Jeake's House and as we walked down the hill we saw this house for sale. It had been on the market for a little while and although all the structural work had been done it was very empty and I think it was hard for some people to imagine how the rooms could be organised but I loved it. It has taken over two years to do, but it's been worth all the effort."

From the front step, the visitor steps straight into the main reception room, where, like the strata of rock, the walls seem to tell the story of centuries of change. Rounded grey, giant pebble-like stones form the lowest layer, then above there are narrow Tudor bricks, mixed with timbers and lath and plaster. The floor is constructed from broad, natural coloured timbers, but steps up to a stone mezzanine floor at the far end of the room show where the floor originally hung. There are supporting timbers set into the walls that cross the ceiling and if imagined without any of the furniture, one can almost picture this space as a kind of merchant's warehouse. "There are places for barrels down in the cellar," says Rosemary, so perhaps it's not such a fanciful notion. Being so close to what would have been Rye harbour before the sea retreated, this building could well have been used to store all sorts of goods, though Rosemary and her husband have decorated and furnished it so that it now very much feels like a home.

Rosemary has used the colours of the building materials as her basic palette and then added accents of stronger hues. "This house has almost 'told' me what to use," she says. "I didn't feel that I should impose an overall 'scheme' on it and so I looked at each room individually and tried to respond to what was already there. I used swatches of colours to gauge what might work and I was also very lucky because so many shopkeepers in Rye were really friendly.

They let me take pieces of furniture or fabrics to try them out here first, before I bought them, so I didn't have to worry about making huge mistakes. David Cutmore, a local craftsman, had already completed much of the detailing on the house during the renovation work. He mixed two or more shades of the same Farrow & Ball paints so that there are subtle differences that cater to the different areas of the living room. I tackled this sitting and dining room first and just camped out in the house while I got it done."

The dominant fabrics in the room on the sofa and chairs and in the window blinds were obviously inspired by the stone walls, being in charcoal grey and shades of ecru. Charcoal grey Roman blinds have been used on the windows at each end of the room and a charcoal and cream striped fabric has been used for cushions and a thickly lined door curtain that keeps out any winter draughts. A linen-covered sofa on the mezzanine level is accessorised with striped and patterned cushions along with some 'flower petal' cushions made from coral coloured felt and the same cushions have been used to unify the sofa with a pair of armchairs covered in a darker shade of taupe on the lower level.

A modern, more angular version of a bergère chair, this pair face a flatscreen television that has been mounted on the wall. On the floor in front of the screen is a large pine chest that cleverly hides all the other technological boxes and equipment that goes with it. The cables run up through a metal pipe that feeds into the wall. "We didn't want lots of electrical cables and wires trailing about and looking untidy, so we fed them through this plumbing pipe and it keeps everything so much neater.

My husband and son Laurence are passionate about their music - they both play the organ among other instruments, and they are very keen on new technology, but in this ancient building things like that could really jar, so we have speakers and controls hidden all over the place out of view. On the whole, we've tried to marry the old and new, so we've got things like ironwork wall lights and Indian temple lanterns as well as a big chrome floor lamp."

On the opposite wall and at right angles to the large window is the dining table. A long scrubbed pine refectory table with drawers at either end, there is a pine settle to one side and it is unadorned apart from a bowl of pine cones and cinnamon sticks. Set against the bare brick wall, it has an honest simplicity. The three stone steps that lead up to the mezzanine have a ship's rope handle on the wall, but crossing to them it seems that there is a panel in the floor. "Dave Cutmore did all the woodwork and made this door which is on a weighted pulley system so that we can get down to the cellar," says Rosemary. She presses on the panel and it slowly opens up to reveal a flight of stone steps descending to a large space where there are tins of carefully labelled paints and stacks of seasoned logs for the woodburning stoves.

"We have two woodburners, because the first one wasn't quite big enough for the sitting room. So we moved it into the kitchen and got another, larger one for here which kicks out an amazing amount of heat." The mezzanine level has been kept very simple with just the sofa and a wooden cupboard. "I was so pleased when I got that cupboard home, because inside it has all sorts of little compartments and I found a pair of very old dressmaker's scissors. My grandmother was a dressmaker, so it seemed fitting to have a dressmaker's cabinet here."

Through the door is the kitchen, where on one wall there is a vintage poster advertising Greatstone, East Sussex, where Rosemary spent many of her childhood holidays. A stainless steel range cooker has been placed in the wide fireplace and on the ceiling above, there is a Sheila Maid clothes airer. The worktops are made from oak and simple white wooden kitchen cabinets were from Howdens and were given brushed steel handles to echo the cooker. Grey tiles from Alpine Tiles at Rye harbour have been used on the floor and there is a long group of cabinets along one wall.

A wooden staircase partly divides the room and on the far side of it a low table with a pair of wooden chairs provides a warm spot for a cup of coffee. French windows lead into the sunny courtyard garden. With high walls covered in climbing roses and fragrant clematis armandii, it is wonderfully sheltered. Raised brick beds have been carefully planted with hydrangeas, camellias, lavender and pinks and there is even a pair of sturdy looking olive trees. It is so quiet and peaceful it seems hard to believe that this little walled oasis is in the heart of such a busy town.

Back through the sitting room, Rosemary leads the way up the main staircase to the landing where there is a classic 'Sunday School' poster of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' that Rosemary says was displayed in her primary school when she was an infant there, and where she later began her career as a primary school teacher.

The couple's bedroom is very much more glamorous, with an ivory carpet from Avalon Flooring in Tenterden and a bed dressed with cotton and satin bedclothes. The oversized buttoned headboard was made to order by the Chair Doctor of Rye and is set against a feature wall of Sanderson wallpaper. "We had to have two single beds that lock together, because the staircase is so narrow, we couldn't get a double up here in one piece," Rosemary explains.

A pair of bedside tables and the huge circular mirror on the opposite wall were some of the many items bought locally, from Mint Ideas. Plain muslin is draped across the window for privacy during the day and a pair of working shutters with louvred panels can be drawn across at night. In the ceiling the timbers and beams have been cleaned and left unstained. A small wooden door leads into the en-suite shower room that has been kept light and simple with a shower and bathroom fittings installed by Mark Appleton, a plumber from Rye.

Across the landing is the study where green French shutters have been used as cupboard doors. There is wooden matchboarding on one wall and where pipes have been 'boxed in' seats have been created. A large photograph, printed on canvas, is on another wall and shows a fruit cart against a painted building in the South of France that echoes the vivid purple and green soft furnishings that Rosemary has used in the room. The bathroom next door features black and white diamond floor tiles, a roll top bath and a Savoy style pedestal basin underneath a piano black framed and bevelled mirror. There is a small window that has a blind made from voile with a textured pattern that resembles pebbles. At the end of the bath an old locker style table that was bought at a second hand shop in Rye has been given a smart coat of brilliant white paint and its dish of lavender soaps scent the air.

Through another door is the music room, where Rosemary's husband and son sometimes practise. "Our son is at Trinity College, Cambridge, studying music. His main instrument is his voice, but he also plays the piano, organ, horn and trumpet, so I bought the music stand for the room at Concepts in Rye. And I mounted the old family pictures together, so it's also a reflective room in which to just sit and read or think. It was a difficult one to know what to do with at first, because it has the boiler in it, but a cabinet was made to hide it and then Dave used these lovely cutwork doors to create more storage. I managed to find some great ironwork handles from Glass Etc. in Rye. I love going there because the proprietor seems to find all sorts of interesting things and is always so friendly and knowledgable."

The last room up here is the guest bedroom that overlooks the garden. Again, the style is one of pared back simplicity, with pale walls and a bed dressed with white cotton and a charcoal grey blanket. Two white frosted glass pendant lamps hang from the ceiling beams and resemble giant nodding snowdrops. On the wall is a framed extract from a piece of music. "That's my son's audition piece when he auditioned to be a chorister at Westminster Abbey - well, the first few bars of it anyway. Emma Spencer, who lives close by, painted it for me. There are so many lovely people here in the town, with wonderful places to eat. It has been marvellous to find this place and I really feel that it is a truly peaceful retreat."

Address Book:

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming