Summer House

There are many adjectives that are easily associated with an English country cottage. Cottages are warm, charming, quaint, atmospheric. Light, bright, airy or spacious rarely make it into the top 10 - and yet these are exactly the descriptors that first come to mind as one steps into mi cottage. From the outside, it is very much the quintessential period cottage and one is expecting all the inglenooks and crannies of a traditional interior but instead one is greeted by a flood of natural light and the distinct feeling was of stepping into a brick and weatherboard Tardis.

"I can't say it was love at first sight when I first saw the cottage," says owner and interior designer, Melanie Marchant, "but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it could be given a new lease of life - could be something special."

When she first viewed the cottage, Melanie was greeted by a very tired 200 year old house that had not only been neglected but, worse, had been subjected to some very odd additions and modifications. The good news was that it wasn't listed and so she would have a relatively free hand. Finally, she bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line and set to work with architect friend and colleague Iain Humphries.

"We soon discovered that this wasn't going to be just a matter of selective renovation," she says. "We were going to have to tear out every ceiling and floor and start again." And so they did and as the drawing room ceiling came down so, with it, did a family of rats. Standing in her now gutted home, Melanie was seriously worried about what she'd taken on.

"I'd come from a much larger house so a priority was that mi cottage wouldn't feel small and pokey in comparison," she says. Inside this meant making the very best use of natural light, using white as her predominant colour and keeping furniture as slim and elegant as possible. Outside, it meant creating interesting spaces and artful planting.

Today, one gains entrance to the cottage through a magnificent reclaimed church door set in a secret garden-style wall of reclaimed brick and lime mortar. This leads into a small courtyard, again of reclaimed brick. All very pretty and traditional. Entrance to the house is via the kitchen - and suddenly one is in a totally different environment - an environment where white rules.

The all-white house is tricky and it takes more than a copy of Atlanta Bartlett's At Home With White under one's pillow to pull it off. Get it right and the all-white house is a triumph. Get it wrong and an interior can be sterile to the point that one feels one's arrived to have a kidney out on the dining room table. Melanie, however, has got it right in spades.

"I decided to use one paint throughout the whole house - Farrow & Ball's 'All White'," she says. A great choice and a fascinating paint - it never seems just to provide a bland uniform finish where every wall is a perfect match but instead seems to provide subtle variations of shade depending on the quality of the light and the angle it strikes wall or ceiling.

In the kitchen, the white of the wall is complemented by the white Carrara marble of the extra wide work surface custom made by Francis Tate Marbleworks in Worthing. The units were also custom made, by traditional joinery company, Plain English. The brushed steel range, a commercial Falcon unit, looks decidedly and intentionally industrial and this look is aided and abetted by the Dualit toaster and the classic KitchenAid mixer. The lighting by Marston & Langinger also has an industrial touch.

"I like the combination of the clear white interior and the industrial detail," says Melanie and the theme carries through the house in the shape of the lighting from either Marston & Langinger, Davey Lighting or Alex MacArthur. In the kitchen, too, we are introduced to the whitewashed railway sleeper windowsill - a great idea that Melanie has used throughout the house.

Across French windows opening into the garden stands virtually the only vestige of the cottage's former life: an unusual old pine table with elegant white-painted trestle-style legs. Another period piece is an elegant distressed French cupboard with chicken wire front that Melanie found at the Ardingly Fair. The floor is of standstone flagstones by Fired Earth.

Encountering the drawing room today, it's hard to imagine this lovely space once raining rats. Gone is the old corner fireplace and in its stead stands a woodburner. Two lovely bespoke sofas made by Jonathan Martin in Brighton frame a cutdown and distressed former kitchen pine table now given a new lease of life as a coffee table. Against a wall is a robustly distressed double cupboard built and painted by Iain and nearby is Melanie's chunky unusual and industrial PC desk, a piece which probably came originally from a factory and which she bought from i gigi in Hove. Beneath it is an old steel factory stool.

Gone are the old French doors and window which once opened onto the garden and in their place is a new pair of folding French doors which lead out onto a new brick terrace framed by railway sleepers.

Upstairs, Melanie has sacrificed one of the original three bedrooms to provide a large and dramatic bathroom with both shower and roll-top bath. The bath, however, is a modern take on an elegant old theme. Old cast-iron baths tend to loose heat and their weight often demands a reinforced floor. This range from the Albion Bath Company is made from an amalgam of a self-reinforced cast resin and mineral mixture - in short, reconstituted stone - with a chemical glaze. The result is a bath which retains heat and which is under half the weight of an original cast-iron bath.

In the master bedroom, there's more of Iain's butch distressing, this time the treatment given to the fitted cupboard doors that run the length of one wall. Gone is the original and truly hideous dormer that was once perched on top of the window in the hope of introducing more light - now unnecessary due to the new, cool and bright, all-white décor. The French-style bed is a Marie Antoinette by Loaf, the chic dressing table is from The White Company and the ethereal chair that complements it is a Louis Ghost by Philippe Starck. The couch which sits under the window Melanie brought back from her time in Spain. She has had it re-upholstered in linen by the maker of her drawing room sofas, Jonathan Martin.

The guest bedroom is a double aspect mirror of the master bedroom and again there is a Loaf bed (Coco) as its centrepiece. Instead of a couch under the window is an antique bench distressed by Iain.

When Melanie bought the cottage two ramshackle sheds stood in the garden, presumably the rats' summer quarters. These she razed to the ground and, after the predictable squabble over centimetres with the planning authorities, built an attractive long, low, weatherboard building she now calls 'the studio'. In fact, it's considerably more than merely a studio - it boasts a bedroom, chic spacious bathroom, vaulted central room and a lovely veranda overlooking the garden. Again, All White is the order of the day along with some serious chunky wall lighting by Alex MacArthur.

By the time the building work was complete, the garden looked like a bad day on the Somme. Not that one would know it today - it appears to have been established half a century. In the centre is a large natural pond now fed from the house gutters and brimming with pond-side flora. Disappearing round the pond and down the garden is a very clever little narrow brick path, almost a landscaping trompe-l'oeil which somehow makes the garden seem much bigger than it actually is. Against the brickwork sections of the house walls scramble a host of happy climbers.

mi cottage is a lovely example in how to take a building which has seen seriously better days and transform it into a home which, from the outside is indistinguishable from a traditional country idyll and yet on the inside provides an elegant 21st century home.

Working with Wealden Times photographer David Merewether is a masterclass in the successful use of space and natural light in interior design. In a well-designed house, all one hears is little purrs of pleasure as the camera moves joyfully from room to room. In others, batteries of lights and tripods are dragged laboriously hither and thither accompanied by a polite but increasingly desperate humming and hawing.

In mi cottage, he was like a kitten that had discovered a whole world made exclusively of cream.

Address Book:

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