Heart of the Home

Oast conversions are not uncommon in Kent, but few have been as skilfully updated for modern family life as well as Claire Horrell's. The box edged front garden and sparkling white weatherboard façade hint at a sophisticated approach to country living and a rejection of any chocolate box stereotypes that is perhaps explained when Claire admits that she was reluctant to take on an oast when she first heard about it. "I sold my house in Tenterden and was looking for a new one when a friend's husband, who is a builder, said that he had an oast that I might like," says Claire. "I wasn't keen because I didn't want the problem of circular rooms, but this one's a square oast so I rather reluctantly came along to see it. I liked it because it was in a great location for me to get to my shop in Cranbrook and now the new one in Sevenoaks and it has plenty of space for me to keep my horses, but it was pretty derelict so it was like buying offplan and was a bit of a leap of faith. I guess one of the good things about that was that I was able to make adjustments to the conversion plans that suited me, so I changed the bathrooms and the kitchen where, for instance, there were no plans to install an Aga, but I insisted and so I was able to organise the space in the kitchen to suit me and the way my family and I live." The prized rich cream enamel Aga has been given a commanding position in a huge aperture with a deep shelf above that displays a collection of white earthenware heart-shaped dishes. The kitchen also features an industrial-sized stainless steel larder refrigerator, a wine cooler and a restaurant kitchen-style tap, so it is obviously designed for someone who likes to cook and entertain, although Claire is currently rather busy with her new six-month-old baby, Ralph. The room is light and warm in tone, with ivory painted kitchen units and a pale limestone floor. The walls are painted pebble grey and there are panels of a flamboyant, Cole & Son pink flamingo wallpaper. A long scrubbed and limed wooden dining table is surrounded by Lloyd Loom chairs and at the far end of the room there is a dove grey linen covered sofa with a collection of cushions in natural white and pale rose pink or soft grey and white stripes. An island unit with a glossy black granite worktop has an unusual light fitting in the shape of an iron globe with entwined laurel leaves hanging low over it and there are pieces of vintage and new handpainted china in shades of pink and green.

As we talk, I can't help noticing a rather odd, low, continuous rumbling sound that abruptly stops when a toy black poodle comes to investigate me and is quickly joined by a very friendly pug. "That's Lulu and Violet," explains Claire, "Oh, and that's Coco," she adds as a full-size mink coloured French poodle also arrives for a sniff or two. "We have two cats as well, called Alfie and Tilly, so what with them and a new baby, I'm kept quite busy even when I'm not at the shops. Luckily, my mum helps me out at the shop in Cranbrook which is great. "The other good thing about this house is the fact that it's old, so it has some really nice period features, but because it is such a recent conversion, it is also incredibly well insulated, so it's lovely and warm and everything works properly. It's been lovely to decorate and furnish it too, so I can indulge my passion. I've always been interested in interiors and I started my first shop, Maisie K in 2003 and I've just opened another one in Sevenoaks. I love going on the buying trips to Belgium, France and Denmark and I like to source things that are a little different, so you won't find them on every high street, but they also have to be affordable. I suppose my shop reflects my style at home and vice versa." The luxurious treatment given to the hallway sets the tone for the rest of the house with attention paid to harmonising colour, pattern and texture. The wall facing the front door is papered in a smart bold stripe in taupe, old gold and French lilac. The other walls are decorated in a dense, dark taupe paint and elegantly curving wall light sconces, that softly illuminate the space, are topped with small, pleated silk shades. A painted dresser displays a pair of glass based lamps with linen shades and a collection of family photographs. The sense of space has been cleverly maximised by the use of an ornate, carved and painted mirror set just above the dresser. A pair of exquisitely carved medallion chairs in the French style stand either side of the dresser and have been covered with an extravagant-looking silk from Manuel Canovas that features wonderfully blowsy lilac coloured embroidered paeonies.

"These chairs have a fantastic tale to tell," says Claire as she turns one around to reveal a little engraved brass plaque on its back that reads: 'These chairs were sat upon by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, Albert when they returned from Edinburgh aboard the steam ship, Trident, 15th September 1848.' I love to think that I have chairs that Queen Victoria parked herself on in my house," she adds with a grin. Handsome contemporary oak panelled doors open onto the dining room, though Claire also refers to it as 'the snug'. "It's a lovely room for more formal entertaining, but I also use it for just reading and relaxing because it's so light and bright with these floor-to-ceiling windows. It's peaceful too, and a retreat from my office, next door, where I do all my admin," says Claire. The walls have been painted a pale duck egg blue and there is a pair of biscuit-coloured leather and linen sofas placed opposite each other. The windows are not only tall, but form almost one whole wall, and are shaded for privacy with broad-blade, white-painted wooden shutters. There is an oak-topped painted dresser displaying a collection of silver and Venetian glass, framedfamily photographs, glass candlesticks and silver-topped glass decanters. A painted French mirror with a laurel wreath motif above rests at the back of the dresser's surface and multiplies the effect of so much glass and silver. At the other end of the room a circular dining table, with a vase of faux white paeonies in the centre, is teamed with velvet-covered carver dining chairs that evoke the atmosphere of a smart London club. Across the hallway is the more formal reception room: the drawing room has been covered (almost entirely because it includes the ceiling) with a pale tea rose Designers Guild slubbed silk. The soft sheen of the fabric is enhanced by the light from the crystal drop chandelier hanging low from the ceiling and a pair of candelabra-style table top lights. A pair of ecru velvet sofas face each other across an eau de nil painted, French style coffee table, in the centre of which is a large pot of pale lilac coloured phalaenopsis orchids and an amethyst glass storm lantern.

Rose, white and charcoal printed silk curtains and blinds from Designers Guild surround a window and door to the terrace and garden where Claire has created curving raised beds filled with roses and wisteria that trail over sinuous wrought-iron supports. "It was just a field when I came here," says Claire, "so I worked with a garden designer to get the planting right. I knew what I wanted, lots of romantic roses, wisteria and lavender which all looks and smells amazing in the early summer." Upstairs, there is a change of tone in the first bedroom, where one wall is papered in a striking cream, gold and chocolate damask-style wallpaper. This is Claire's eldest son Josh's room. "He's 21 and so loves this bachelor pad style," she says with a smile, as we survey the bold striped bedcover and almost circular leather sofa. There's a stack of smart trunks, a campaign-style leather desk and in one corner, a boxing punch stand. Even the elegantly curving chest of drawers and matching armoire are painted in a striking combination of cream and dark chocolate and so add to the strong sense of youthful masculinity. The main part of the landing features the same sophisticated striped wallpaper as the entrance hall and a classic French chandelier with clear and amethyst coloured drop crystals catches the eye. There is a fine dapple-grey rocking horse against one wall that is slightly larger than one in the drawing room, both of which were bought from the Stevenson brothers in Bethersden. "I like to support local businesses, so although I buy a lot of my furniture in Europe, I have bought all the tiles for the house from the Tile Library in Goudhurst and Paul at Bell House Fabrics in Cranbrook has helped me to source all the wallpapers, fabrics and paints. We have some great independent shops in Cranbrook and I make sure that I buy as much of my food there as I can too - especially from Wilkes the butchers because they can always give good advice on how to cook things. It's much more of a personal service that you're getting and that's something I try to do at Maisie K too. I get to know my customers and their tastes so I know what they'll like when I do my buying."

The principal bedroom is a return to Claire's signature pale palette with a soft apple green and white striped Osborne & Little wallpaper along one wall. At the end of a huge bed with a buttoned unbleached linen headboard stands a dainty French sofa bought from Bentley's auction rooms in Cranbrook that has been covered in Manuel Canovas 'Thais' linen, featuring white magnolia blossoms on a fresh green background. A bombe style painted chest stands against the striped wall and supports a vase of faux white calla lilies and a set of antique washstand china with emerald green and gold stripes. A narrow oak staircase rises to a dressing room above. "Because this is an oast, we have amazing ceiling heights in the roundels, so I thought we should make the most of the available space," explains Claire. "It made sense to have a little staircase up here and I love having this separate area to get dressed." In the almost square room, there are fitted wardrobes along two walls and in the centre, a full-length triptych mirror as well as a mirror-topped dressing table. A chandelier hanging from the ceiling with long crystal beads like sparkling droplets of water adds to the unabashed sense of glamour. Just along the landing, the guest room has been papered with a stunning Manuel Canovas toile in a mauve and elephant grey. A silver chest has a pair of iron standard lamps on either side of it and a large circular mirror above. It is teamed with a pair of bedside tables that stand either side of an ornately carved bed. There is a charcoal grey toile bedcover, silver silk quilt and shimmering sequinned cushions. At the end of the bed, a vintage sofa (another find from Bentley's) has been cleverly updated and recovered in grey velvet and shocking pink piping and buttons.

On the top floor, in Claire's daughter, Maisie's room, centre stage is taken by an ornately carved and unusually shaped 18th century French bed that would hardly have looked out of place at Marie Antoinette's Versailles. It features swags of carved roses, musical horns and of course, cherubs, but it is painted a sober grey-green and simply upholstered in cream silk satin. There is a Designers Guild quilt that features huge pink paeonies that are echoed on the wall above, where roses have been painted in the same shades of candy, fuchsia and soft rose pink with emerald green leaves. An iron day bed by the window provides a good place to sit or recline and read and is covered with a silk cover and accessorised with textured moss green cushions. "Maisie's away at university now and feels that she's outgrown pink, so I'll have to have a think about it and get decorating again soon," shrugs Claire, though she smiles as she says this, acknowledging the fact that she knows she'll enjoy the challenge of devising a new scheme. Back downstairs, there are just a few moments to see a little more of the garden that Claire created virtually from nothing. There is a velvety lawn surrounded by herbaceous beds further along the terrace, steps up to a pool area where there are smart box and bay topiary lollipops and in the far corner stands a very pretty gazebo with trellis sides and a bell-shaped lead roof. In the raised brick beds Gertrude Jekyll roses are still bravely blooming despite the early autumn chill and a dozen wisteria have climbed up along the wrought-iron supports that have Claire's signature heart-shaped finials at the top. As I pop back into the kitchen to collect my belongings, the mysterious noise I heard earlier has resumed and its cause is now clear. Lulu and Violet are curled up around each other in their very smart basket and the deep rumbling is the sound of thoroughly contented snoring.

Address Book:

Branches of Claire’s shop, Maisie K, can be found in Cranbrook (01580 715123) and Sevenoaks (01732 743500). For more information visit www.maisiek.co.uk

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