A Family Affair

It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values," once said poet Lawrence Durrell. "You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you - are you watching yourself in me?'

There are few houses in few landscapes I've visited where one can hear that whisper as clearly as that which falls away from Larkfield, a lovely Georgian farmhouse built in 1740 high on a steep ridge with truly magnificent views sweeping down over patchwork marshes to a silver sea. "I suppose you could say we bought the view and the house came as a sort of bonus," says owner Francesca Rowan. A bonus, however, that considerably more than holds its own in this exceptional setting. Restored beautifully by its previous owner, Larkfield is a generous house of large warm spaces, the perfect home for Francesca, her three young children and husband Piers. The couple lived originally at Henry James's home, Lamb House in Rye, but wanted a home of their own. James's home, however, was a hard act to follow and if they were going to move their children from this idyllic setting they were determined that their new home would be something special. "We first saw it on the internet and it just looked too small," she says. "The view was amazing but we thought there had to be something wrong. We decided to come and have a look and the minute we walked in and saw the dimensions of the rooms we knew we had found that special house. I got into the car and just burst into tears." Nervously, the couple introduced the house to the children and they loved it - Larkfield had its final seal of approval. It appeared to be the end of a long journey but the sale of Piers' London flat fell through and they thought they had lost the home that had taken so long to find. Unbelievably, when the flat finally sold, five months later, their perfect home was still on the market.

And so well was the property renovated that there was little to do but to make it their own which largely consisted of a lick of Farrow & Ball and the import of some cherished pieces either inherited from the couple's parents or collected from antique and junk shops over the years. The couple, who married last year, also put three Rye shops on their wedding list, so well represented around the house are Mccully & Crane, the Lion Street Store and Hunter Jones. Atlanta Bartlett and Dave Coote's Pale & Interesting website was also listed. An actress and founder of Rye's popular Lamb Players, established when she was curator of Lamb House, Francesca now works as a bridal consultant and fashion stylist but on the evidence of the interior of Larksfield, she could also tack on a career as interior designer any time the mood took her. "Nothing really goes together here but it does seem to come together somehow," she says modestly. "I don't really do matching things." The first thing one notices walking into the kitchen is the floor. Of beautiful, warm, old brick with a slightly marbled effect, it is on an angle, ambling gently down toward an outside wall. "I think it must originally have been some sort of accommodation for animals or a room that constantly needed washing down because the angle of the floor would have allowed the water to run away," she says.

A big, built-in dresser extends along one wall, its shelves displaying a stunning set of much-loved, green Jasper Conran Wedgwood. "I really designed the kitchen around the Wedgwood," she says, a wave encompassing walls of the purest Farrow & Ball Cooking Apple Green. In fact, Francesca's love of the colour is evident well beyond the kitchen. "Fifty shades of green," she quips. The green Aga in the inglenook came with the house and although Francesca had never used one before, peace has now broken out between the appliance and its new owner. "We had some rather late lunches to start with but I've finally got the hang of it," she says, noting that, alas, it can't hack stir-fries and so a more versatile hob is also now on her shopping list. Over the Aga is her collection of jugs and on the wall above a kitchen table overhung by a ceramic industrial light is a collection of favourite paintings all of which have a story and a special meaning to the couple. Among them is a family Christmas card designed by Laura Oakes, a beach scene by Chris Daynes, the resident artist at Rye's Swann Gallery, a landscape by Catherine Heard and a copper plate print by Rye artist Marina Kim.

French doors lead out into a truly stunning orangery with flagstone flooring, an ancient fig festooned with Vietnamese paper lanterns growing up the centre and jasmine climbing the walls. The views out over the marshes are, quite simply, to die for. In most houses, the utility room is an afterthought, if a thought at all, but Francesca's is a little haven. "I seem to spend so much time in here, I wanted it to be a pleasant space to work in," she says. The walls are a green Annie Sloan Chalk Paint and the print fabric of the blinds and the curtain which hides the washing machine was £25 - one of many of Francesca's bargain fabric finds, this time from Halcyon Days in Rye. "My mother was a textile designer and I've always collected fabrics," she says. "You can find some amazing pieces at really silly prices if you look around and they will always find the perfect home at some point." Focal point of the drawing room is a vast inglenook with an antique pine surround and an elegant stone fireplace set within. On the floor are kilim rugs over original terracotta tiles. "The previous owner took every tile up, numbered it, levelled the floor and then replaced them all perfectly," says Francesca. On the walls is an impressive collection of oils including one of Piers' grandfather looking particularly stern - a family note tucked in the frame bears the legend 'Don't worry, it may never happen.' Two of Piers' sofas flank an elegant ottoman while against a wall is a beautiful marbled-topped Empire secretaire in BraziIian mahogany with brass inlay.

Either side of the window - and the view - are two very pleasing General Trading Company terracotta table lamps. The children have found themselves in proud prossession of an equally generously proportioned room that Francesca describes as the 'playroom' but that hardly does it justice. "I tried to create a little corner for everything they wanted to do from gaming to homework," says Francesca, "and I tried to fill the room with nice things and good furniture." Dominating one wall is a striking piece of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang theatre set from Mccully & Crane. Beneath it is a sofa that once lived in Piers' elegant London flat and, opposite, a school desk - a wedding present sourced from the Lions Street Store. In a corner is a lamp made from an upside down chandelier that came from one of Lord Mountbatten's houses. Against another wall is a blue dresser from Rye's Halcyon Days. "The boys love colour," she says. The upstairs landing is Francesca's sanctuary. Her antique mahogany desk, once her grandmother's, is by the window and, of course, the view. "When I was a child we used to write to each other all the time and it's lovely to sit here and think of her writing to me at this desk," she says. The rich crewelwork curtains are another bargain - she bought four pairs for £180.

An old deeply distressed wicker chair with its bright Laura Oakes cushion stands nearby while on the glowing oak floorboards stretches a black and white cowhide rug. In the spacious bathroom is the original rolltop bath, superbly restored by the previous owner. Flanking the mirror from India Jane are two old French sconces from Station Antiques in Appledore. Pride of place in the boys' bedroom goes to a wonderful Hornby train track encircling a model village - complete with brewery - built for the boys by Francesca's father. In the master bedroom heavy Colefax & Fowler curtains are another witness to Francesca's fabric collecting and were remodelled for the Georgian windows by Annette at Daisy Chain Furnishings in Hastings who, in fact, made or adapted all the house's curtains. A lovely inlaid walnut chest of drawers is complemented by a pair of elegant walnut dining chairs. In the guest room hangs a 1930s silk evening dress bought by Francesca at Hope & Harlequin in Brighton for a recent wedding. "It was just too pretty to put away so I've just left it hanging outside the wardrobe."

The bedspread was made by Vietnamese children in Hoi An, where Francesca and Piers spent their honeymoon, and above the bedhead is an antique Japanese tablecloth. On one of two delicate chairs beside the bed is a trademark Mccully & Crane antique electrical instrument given a new lease of life as a table lamp. Its careful management of proportion and bright, generous living spaces have won the Georgian farmhouse a special place in English rural architecture. There is nothing organic about its uncompromising symmetry and yet it seems to complement any rural landscape it inhabits. And so it is with Larkfield on its hillside high between marsh and sky. It not only looks out over its landscape but welcomes the landscape itself into every room of the house. "We are the children of our landscape," also said Durrell. "It dictates behaviour and even thought." How lucky, then, are Francesca and her family to have their lives so influenced by somewhere so beautiful?

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For more information about Francesca's bridal, personal, and event styling, visit www.francescarowan.com

The Lamb Players will be performing A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lamb House from 26-28 July, featuring a cast of West End, RSC and TV stars. For more information see www.thelambplayers.co.uk

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