White Christmas

Steph Virgo's house is getting dressed early for Christmas and even from the outside, bathed in winter sunshine rather than snow, it looks appropriately festive. The handsome 18th century lodge house with its stucco walls rather resembles a giant Christmas cake covered with snowy royal icing and is embellished with a holly wreath studded with scarlet berries on the door. Stepping into the hallway, the scent of pine cones and woodsmoke greet the visitor and the light from so many candles forms a soft and welcoming glow. The table is set for a pre-Christmas supper and Steph is tidying up her kitchen as her friends help with the seasonal preparations. "Some of my friends describe this as a bit of a mad house - don't you?" laughs Steph, with a teasing look directed at her friend Nicky. "There's always something going on here, because we're a big family and we love to entertain. And this house just seems made for lots of people and good times. "My husband Jon and I have five children between us because we have joined together two families. Jon's late wife was my good friend, and it was terrible when she got ill, but gradually we have all got through it and now Jon and I also have a little 18 month old girl together. We moved to Langton Green from Sevenoaks because we wanted to be closer to the schools in Tunbridge Wells, and since arriving we have found such wonderful friends and neighbours. We have a fantastic social network and besides all the restaurants and cafes like Juliet's in Tunbridge Wells, we can also make use of the lovely pubs like the George & Dragon and The Hare on the Green near here that we can walk to and from across the fields so there's no need for a taxi. This house is very special to us because Jon and I got married here in the garden under the rose pergola and even signed the register in the drawing room. It is a happy place and now every 22 December we have a big Christmas party and this old house really rocks!

"The house was built in the 1800s, as the lodge for the great hall nearby, but we did need to make some alterations in order to make it into a proper family home. The first thing that needed sorting out was the kitchen and in order to create a family-friendly space we had to knock down a couple of walls. We put in the island unit, which is great when we're entertaining because I can carry on with my preparations and cook on the hob here while I chat and then we can all eat at the dining table. I like to decorate the whole house for Christmas and my friend Nicky here today is a really talented florist and stylist, so she helps me when we have a big party or special occasion. She makes the most amazing floral wreaths and swags and she just knows exactly how to create the right atmosphere with scented candles and lights. She's actually set up in business now, because so many friends have asked her to decorate for their parties and anniversaries, she's in demand and loves doing it. She even has a store of props that she can bring along." "Steph's house is always lovely anyway," confirms Nicky as she prepares another arrangement of flowers. "But I also de-clutter houses in preparation for parties and then do all the decorating. I'm teaming up with my friend Kitty too, who runs her own business making cards and decorations and so we can offer the full package of invitations, decorations, flowers and scene-setting for anything from Valentine's Day to weddings and christenings; we're naming our business Kitty & Todd. There's an amazing group of creatives in Tunbridge Wells - lots of them women who have started their own businesses from home so we've got a really good network of contacts." "Ooh, including the lady who makes these amazing cakes," adds Steph, pointing to a plate of four jewel-coloured square cakes decorated with the letters L O V E iced in gold. "Her name's Angharad Llywelyn and she mainly makes wedding cakes, but I love these ones too, which can really be used for almost any occasion, and in these rich colours, they look especially good on the Christmas table.

"I was really lucky with the kitchen when we were redesigning it. I went to Fox Linton at Chelsea Harbour and quizzed one of the design consultants there who very kindly gave me an hour's worth of advice. So on the basis of that, I tried to create a style that was both sympathetic to the house and all the period features, but I also wanted to make sure that it had a contemporary feel and that it avoided being twee. I chose the grey floor and kept the colours really light, using Clay 1 and 2 from the Paint & Paper Library in here and Clay 3, 4 and 5 in the drawing room. I opted for a cream Aga and kept the wooden cupboards very simple but decided not to have any wall cupboards, which I think also helps to make it feel less cluttered and more airy. This room really floods with sunlight, even in the winter and so it's great for cooking in but with the open fireplace by the dining table and the dressers I can add candles and flowers and make it really homely and welcoming." The dining table stands at the other end of the kitchen along with a set of Gustavian style chairs. Both were bought in Tunbridge Wells and painted white to maintain the sense of light and space. Today, Steph and her friend Nicky have dressed the table with a snow white cloth and fluted white porcelain plates have been set on mirrored glass placemats. There are cut crystal glasses and cranberry glass goblets and a Champagne bath for keeping the essential bottles of bubbly well chilled. A simple arrangement of winter greenery surrounds a large church candle at one end of the table and dinner candles in tall glass candlesticks throw a soft glow across the other. The logs are roaring away in the open fire and all looks set for the festive season. Through the open door a Christmas tree can be glimpsed, so Steph leads the way down a few steps into the drawing room.

Generously proportioned, it forms a large bay at one end where three huge windows overlook the terrace and garden beyond. A marble fireplace has been adorned with a swag of berried holly, dark evergreen leaves and white stargazer lilies that have scented the air with an intoxicating perfume. Tea lights in clear and amethyst coloured glass are arranged along the mantelpiece, their effect magnified by the large overmantel mirror behind them. The Christmas tree has been decorated with gently sparkling purple hanging ornaments and gold baubles, while there are more purple accents in the form of cushions on the ecru linen sofas and an upholstered footstool. A glossy piano black coffee table stands in the centre between the three sofas and there is a further touch of luxury in the form of a mink stole, casually thrown across the top of one of the sofas. With the combination of linen, silk, velvet and fur, there has obviously been some thought given to texture as well as form and colour and while in general the shades and patterns are quite subtle, it combines to create a restful and harmonious whole. It is a welcoming but fairly formal room, so Steph is keen to show the more informal 'snug' that is tucked away at the other end of the house, beyond the kitchen. This time, a neutral shade on the wall has been rejected in favour of a rich, dark and opulent aubergine. "It's actually called Pelt and its made by Farrow & Ball," says Steph. I went to an evening talk at their shop in Tunbridge Wells where I met Joa Studholme who is one of their top designers. I told her that I wanted something different and vibrant and she suggested this. Jo Malone uses it in all her shops, but instead of putting it against harsh white woodwork, Joa recommended Elephant's Breath, and Skimming Stone for the ceiling and I think we also used Joa's white, which is named after her of course. We use this room for reading and talking and even for homework. It has a lovely, cosy feel and we all like to spend time in here."

There is another open fire and a mantelpiece with candles on it and stockings hanging from it in anticipation of Santa's arrival. A gilt-edged mirror reflects the candlelight around the room and from the sparkling crystal drops on the Mister Smith chandelier that hangs from the centre of the ceiling. A leather Knole sofa has cushions from both Laura Ashley and Fox Linton and at the window, charcoal grey and cream linen curtains that came from a previous house have been cleverly lengthened with the aid of some smart Nina Campbell braiding and black velvet. A square ottoman stool stands in the centre of the room on top of a pale wool rug from Mary Ensor that has the texture of astrakhan fur. A smart little chair has been upholstered in a textured fabric from Mulberry and faces the fireplace and the graceful Chippendale style chair beside it. "We came here, as two families that had joined together and it was quite a difficult thing to combine two households of furniture. Gillie, Jon's late wife and my friend had great taste and loved to buy furniture, and at first I tried to hang onto everything, but it was all so crowded and really, we had to make a new home for all of us. I got Justine at Barker Bourne Design in Tunbridge Wells to come in and look at the house and she was brilliant; because I felt too overwhelmed by all the 'things', we had to be able to see clearly what we should keep and what should go. She looked at everything, even what we had stored in the attic and she went around editing it, sticking post-it notes on each piece that said either 'stay' or 'go'. We are thinking of moving again - to a slightly smaller place now that some of the children are going off to university and I'm actually looking forward to the process of re-editing. Justine is going to put everything into floorplans on her computer and so we will know exactly where everything should go as we move in."

Steph then leads the way upstairs to the master bedroom where the dressing area has been decorated in a gloriously exuberant Designer's Guild floral paper. There is a glamorous mirrored dressing table with black silk shaded 1930s style table lamps on either side of a Venetian looking glass. A door to one side leads into a wet room with limestone floor and tiles and bespoke made cupboards. A window seat is upholstered in a duck egg blue GP & J Baker print and on the windowledge stand a pair of handsome turquoise coloured Chinese vases. Along the hallway is daughter Alice's bedroom. One wall features a Nina Campbell wallpaper with a lotus blossom design drawn in silver. There is a silver silk Roman blind and silver silk cushions on a bed dressed with crisp white cotton and a turquoise throw. There is a huge bevelled mirror and a bookshelf on top of which an unframed canvas rests. It says: Alice likes... and then goes on to list her favourite things. "I commissioned it from Louise Sabine Dean and made sure that she displayed it at a Christmas fair that I took Alice to," recalls Steph, "Alice wandered over to the stall and started to read what it said and couldn't understand at first why it listed all the things she loves. She was really pleased when I told her it was hers."

Younger daughter, Emily's room next door is smaller, but cleverly thought out to maximise the space. The bed has been built into a kind of panelled cabin at one end and the walls around it have been papered in Osborne & Little's 'Walk in the Park' flock wallpaper that features strong black silhouettes of playful looking dogs. A desk has been built in along another wall and opposite this, is a set of well-stocked bookshelves. "Charlie is about to embark upon his gap year, so his room will not be fully occupied for a while," says Steph as she opens the door of a boy who, judging by all the certificates and trophies on display, has clearly had a happy sporting career at school. The room is painted Bubblegum Blue, from the Paint & Paper Library. "Actually, this colour seems to have worked well, because it has seen Charlie through quite a few stages and he hasn't yet outgrown it. It makes a good foil for the Victorian iron fireplace with its picture of the Statue of Liberty and Stars and Stripes above. There is a brass and iron bed dressed with piqué white cotton and a plaid woollen throw. Lastly, on this upper floor we peep into Layla's nursery where she has just woken from her nap. The room is papered in a Sanderson design of pink almond blossom on a primrose yellow background. "It's a kind of retro design and I love it because it's so pretty." says Steph. Looking more closely, it is possible to spot tiny songbirds in the design too, and it seems a wonderfully cheery pattern for a child to wake up to. Above Layla's cot is a white canvas with an 'L' painted on it in the same design as the wallpaper. "Layla's godmother had this done for her," explains Steph. "She asked me for a little sample of the wallpaper and it was specially done by Claire Witz, who is based in Tunbridge Wells and calls her company Painted with Love because everything is tailor made for special presents."

There's another floor to see, a door from the kitchen leads to some steps down to the basement where Charlie has ensconced himself on a comfy looking sofa in a very cosy den. He is playing a computer game but what might be an exclusively teenage space is happily shared by Layla, who now busies herself with her toy pram and doll's house. Through an archway is a butler's pantry that is surprisingly kitted out with a stove and sink along with masses of shelves and all kinds of cooking equipment. "Alice likes to bake a lot, so she has everything she needs down here because baking tends to take over the whole kitchen upstairs otherwise and being quite a big family, I need to be able to prepare meals without all the paraphernalia of mixing bowls and flour etc. Laura, who's 21 and away at university also has her bedroom down here, so the kids have really made this space their own. It's a great house because it seems to address everyone's needs and it's been a wonderful place for us all to grow together."

Address Book:

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