A Passion for Print

Part of the great attraction of a town like Rye is that with its ancient walls, cobbled streets and buildings, it seems almost suspended in time, but while many such towns can fall into the trap of becoming rather twee versions of an imagined rather than real past, Rye has managed to retain both its architectural treasures and a strongly beating mercantile heart. Perched on a hill, now some miles from the ever-retreating sea and seventy-odd miles from London, this fascinating seaside town still attracts an astonishing number of new businesses and creative types. Lion Street Store is one such enterprise that seems to perfectly capture that exciting mix of the old and new that Rye seems to carry off so well. Sarah Benton who owns it has such a passion for British arts and crafts that she cannot help but want to share her best finds. Sarah trained and worked as a theatre designer in London for several years and then having taken further training, worked in millinery for four or five more, but by then, she found that having to leave her children with childminders for so much of the time was too-heavy a price for such a job, so she hit upon the idea of opening a store where she could share her enthusiasms, selling stationery, jewellery, homewares and specialist prints alongside carefully selected vintage pieces. "When we bought the premises in Lion Street, it had been an accountants' office so we had to get permission for a change of use, but luckily, the other shopkeepers around us were really kind and supportive. Going into business was slightly daunting and the building has three storeys but wisely, the architect advised us to put in a holiday apartment on the upper two floors, so that we could really make the investment pay and take some of the pressure off the store in the early days. It's been great fun to be able to furnish the flat with some of the things which we stock for the store and people seem to really like coming to stay where they are right in the heart of the town and yet still close to the beach at Camber Sands and, of course, Winchelsea too. We used to live at Winchelsea Beach actually, and it was really lovely, wonderful to be so close to the sea, but here, we have all the advantages of being in the midst of the town and yet we still can see across gorgeous countryside down to the sea, which of course changes all the time.

"It's great, too, that instead of commuting, I can walk to work at the store, and the children can come along after school. Actually, it's turning into a real family business because my son recently did his first Saturday behind the counter and it went really well, so I hope he'll do more. We try to find unusual things and I especially love mid 20th century style, particularly the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. We have several contemporary artists and designers that marry that skill of craftsmanship with really original images and colour. Rob Ryan, the paper cut artist, created a print all about Rye especially for us and then even made it into tea towels so that it's really affordable. We're having an exhibition this month called 'Folk and Fire' which is in collaboration with Simon Costin of the British Museum of Folklore so we'll have framed prints and posters and homewares on sale too - it's bringing traditional British art to a wider audience. I love going to work because we have such lovely customers and we have plenty of visitors. It's great fun finding things for the store, and I especially love old schoolroom prints and pictures, though of course, some things are very hard to part with," Sarah says with a shrug as she slightly guiltily surveys the kitchen of her large Victorian home and adds, "so sometimes they er... make a bit of a detour to this house." The kitchen has a huge bay window with a small pine settle in the alcove. A verdigris coloured French rise and fall pulley light hangs from the very tall ceiling over a long, narrow, scrubbed wooden refectory table that has a collection of vintage school and bentwood chairs around it and a jug of simple English garden flowers at one end. There is an iconic Smeg 50s style refrigerator in peppermint green and a wooden armoire type cupboard that has been recently painted in Farrow & Ball's Oval Room Blue. A duck egg blue tiled alcove houses a woodburning stove and next to it is a series of hand-built kitchen cupboards that sport chunky rosewood knobs. Above the old-fashioned, porcelain sink, shelves that support a collection of Cornish creamware have been lined with newspaper with a precisely cut zigzag edge, so that it looks like bunting.

"I've been toying with the idea of putting in a fitted kitchen here, but I like to be able to move things around. In fact I have to keep painting things, or moving them to allay the urge to move house. We've lived in so many different houses, I find it quite hard, I suppose, to stick to one place for too long. We were very lucky with this house though, because our friends lived here before, so we knew it well and we had similar tastes, so they put in most of the wooden floors which we really like. It's fortunate too that we have so much space because I'm a third generation hoarder, and recently, my granny has moved to a smaller house, so I have taken on quite a few of her belongings, which I feel really privileged to have. Her father was a sea captain, so we now have quite a few sea chests with his initials on them and even one with his wife's initials which were painted on when my great grandmother was going to join him on a long voyage, but apparently, when she got aboard the ship she changed her mind about going, so she didn't use the trunk on board ship at all! "We've bought lots of items of furniture locally, from Michael and Mikey at Hunter Jones and it's really nice to feel that we're all supporting each other. There's really no need to go anywhere else for things like Christmas shopping because we have so many interesting independent shops here in Rye. At Lion Street Store, we get all our posters and printing done at Adams, Rye's traditional letterpress printers, because Ian Foster, who runs it, knows exactly what stock to use. When you walk through those doors to the printing press, it's like walking back in time, but it's back to an age of real skill and knowledge, so you don't end up making expensive mistakes. "We've been in Rye for about fourteen years now and it just gets better and better. There's The School Creative Centre in Rye where they have bands, choirs, cabaret and open studios. It's fantastic to see that there's so much going on for teenagers in Rye." Sarah moves on to point out the three little elementary school chairs that she has lined up in the entrance hall. "There's one for each child, but really, two of my kids are far too big for these now."

The entrance hall is a large, squarish space where Sarah has hung dusky coloured linen bunting - originally to celebrate a birthday, but having stayed, it now serves to welcome all visitors. There is a huge waxed map of the British Isles on one wall and an eclectic mix of posters and prints. Sarah's violin is also mounted on the wall and there is an upright piano as well as several accordions. "My husband bought the first one for me and I've collected some more since then. I bought him the bird artwork for his 40th birthday. It's by Len Shelley who has sadly since died, but we saw an exhibition of his work nineteen years ago, at the Booth Natural History Museum in Hove. A long time afterwards, I asked my husband what he would like if he could have the work of any artist and without hesitating he replied: Len Shelley. His work is a mix of the comic, real and surreal and he often used bird skeletons to create slightly unnerving tableaux like this one which I love too." Just off the entrance hall is the study. Painted in a powdery F&B Charleston Grey, the room invites quiet study. In front of a window that overlooks a pelargonium filled Victorian lean-to, a simple wooden desk has a classic library sign that exhorts: SILENCE PLEASE. This is where Sarah works and there is a pile of proofs of invitations and posters designed by Alice Pattullo and traditionally printed at Adams for Sarah to check and distribute from the store. On the wall to one side there is a waxed schoolroom map of France and the Low Countries and on the other walls, bookshelves with volumes arranged both vertically and horizontally in an effort to stuff as many books in as possible. "I absolutely love books, and especially old ones so I keep having to buy more bookshelves. We're lucky to have an independent bookseller in Rye, Martello Bookshop, which means that it's all too tempting for me to find more, and the people who run it are very good at getting to know what their customers might like."

A long sofa is covered with a vintage wool blanket and like many such places in this house, looks an inviting spot in which to curl up and read. The drawing room is painted in F&B's Light Blue, a blue-green that alters in tone as you move around the space so that it strongly resembles the English Channel that can be glimpsed on the horizon through the huge bay windows. A dark mushroom coloured, tweed covered corner sofa is dressed with pale chartreuse green and dark navy cushions and a striped blanket from the store. There is a wooden panelled fireplace and on the opposite wall, a riotous mix of oils, watercolours and pastel pictures and drawings. The stairs have the solidity and breadth so typical of the Victorian period but unusually, provide a pause with a small landing halfway up. At the top, the facing wall has been papered by Sarah's father in 'Woods' by Cole & Son and looks rather like a forest of bare birch trees. There is a comfy armchair and another set of full-to-bursting bookshelves. On one wall there is also a painting by Richard Adams that Sarah and her husband bought when they got married. "It's quite a strange thing really, because it shows us in a boat just out to sea in front of a walled town that looks very like Rye and on the shore in the foreground is a little beach cottage that is just like the one we had at Winchelsea Beach, and yet it was all done from his imagination, many years before we actually lived there." Along the landing, the main bedroom has a stack of vintage cases and boxes and a classic late 1930s oak wardrobe that belonged to Sarah's grandad. Bright, zinnia-like flowers pattern the Collier Campbell bedlinen and look quite Eastern European in style. On one wall there is another schoolroom picture of a village scene in orangey geranium reds and lime greens and on the opposite a set of school pegs has been utilised as hanging space for Sarah's costume jewellery. The couple's children have obviously inherited their parents' love of books and graphic art, too, because they all give books pride of place. In fact the youngest daughter's room is quite small, but contains the essentials: a bed with a homemade patchwork quilt, a basket of toys, some schoolroom prints by Kay Nixon and, of course, several shelves of books. There is a little sea green bedroom chair with a silk cushion featuring a map of the British Isles, and a table with a milky white rabbit nightlight to banish the dark. On the windowledge, a pair of china Fox terriers stand guard and serve as bookends to some more storybooks.

The elder daughter's room is similarly equipped, but also has evidence of her love of music, with certificates of achievement proudly displayed and a hanging music score sheet that can be chalked in and wiped clean. Wooden pelmets over both windows have been given a scalloped edge that sets a note of jollity echoed by a collection of colourful globes, shelves of books and a bedcover made by Sarah that is a patchwork of the children's old clothes. In their son's room, Sarah sadly reports that he feels that he has grown out of the Mini Moderns wallpaper that features an eccentric mix of French horns, drums, cockerels and badgers and so wants to paint over it, which seems a pity because it actually complements the rest of the room very well and rather neatly sets off the electric guitar that stands, waiting to be played in front of it. A tall shelving unit made especially for his godson by carpenter Rupert Walton fills the major part of one wall and is stuffed with an impressively tidy collection of books, CDs, DVDs and a few favourite toys. A chest of drawers has been painted with lettering and on the wall above, there is a framed print of a Tintin bookcover, another classic favourite of those who admire graphic design and illustration. On the wall opposite the simple iron bed, a sofa has been covered with a bright patchwork knitted blanket and the wall is almost completely smothered with photographs and postcards that are arranged in an eye-catching display. Across the landing, the bathroom has been painted F&B's Pigeon that neatly emphasises the handsome wooden wall panelling that reaches to chest height. There is a large walk-in shower where glossy flat brick tiles have been mounted with black grouting that echoes the black slate floor tiles. There is a smart hotel or club style upholstered chair that was another bargain from Hunter Jones. A Savoy style washbasin has a scallop edged 1940s mirror on the wall above it and a framed black and white photograph of a smiling sailor has been propped up on the edge of the panelling to cheer even the grumpiest visitor at their morning ablutions. A huge rolltop bath stands against the opposite wall, where Sarah has hung a picture of an ocean liner by Claire Fletcher that she bought for her eldest daughter from Made in Hastings.

Outside, the sun is making a rare late autumn appearance, so we seize the chance to look at the treehouse that Rupert Walton, the children's godfather, built for them. There is both a rustic ladder and a staircase to the deck and the little cabin has been beautifully constructed from reclaimed materials including a fine Regency style arched window. "Rupert managed to find all sorts of amazing things both at the Hastings and Bexhill Wood Recycling Project and Symonds Salvage," says Sarah. Inside there is a little narrow bed with a paisley eiderdown and a chair covered in a huge Union Jack flag. A painted cupboard makes a useful store for refreshments and there are piles of board games and books. It's a cosy den that is clearly the children's territory, but their parents also have an outdoor retreat of their own. "Yes, we have a shepherd's hut too, that we use quite a lot, though it's not just for my husband and me to relax in," Sarah adds, "the children use it too, and it's great when friends come to visit - especially in the summer. In the winter we can also gather round the woodburner to spend time together as a family."

Address Book:

For more information on Sarah's shop, Lion Street Store in Rye, call 01797 224007 or visit www.lionstreetstore.com

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