Set the Stage

There must be those among you that occasionally, in a quiet moment, stroll through your homes and think that, yes, after all the planning, plotting and hard work, you've at last got it right - on a good day this place could easily feature in an elegant period drama, a cool fashion shoot, a glossy advert.

For most of us, alas, that's as far as it goes. An idle thought before the children and their friends come crashing in, throwing coats, boots and sundry possessions in all directions and hauling us back to reality. However, for one couple on the Kent Sussex border, the thought of their home doubling as a film set is considerably more than a frivolous fantasy - it's serious business.

Nick and Bella moved from London to the countryside primarily for all the usual and obvious family reasons but when it came to choosing a house, they were looking well beyond its suitability as a family home. Both photographers themselves, they knew the value of atmospheric, versatile locations for shoots and they viewed each property they saw with this in mind.

"We had friends in London who regularly let out their properties for still and film shoots and we were more than aware of the considerable income these shoots can generate," says Nick. "So what we were looking for was not only the perfect family home for ourselves and our two children but a potential source of income - a property that we could develop into an attractive rustic location for a wide variety of shoots. We weren't looking just to dabble and host an occasional client - we wanted it to be a professional business that made a real financial contribution."

The property they finally settled on was Walnuts Farm, a modest-sized farmhouse that probably dates from the 17th century with a couple of seamless 18th century additions and set in about six acres of semi-derelict farmland planted with the usual attractive crop of rusting ironmongery

"This certainly was not the property that most people would walk into and say, 'wow - this is just the place for a Vogue shoot' but we could see it had the potential," says Nick. "It was just a matter of a lot of hard work.

" The result of all this hard work is not only a lovely, warm and welcoming family home but a shoot location that has not only attracted not just Vogue but also Vogue Italia with a sizeable party of crew and models travelling all the way from Rome for the privilege

"The place was a sea of mud and the models had to be carried from their vehicles to the front door," remembers Nick. "But they seemed very happy with what they got."

And they have not been the only crews that have been happy customers. Country Living, OK, Daily Mail, John Lewis, Homes and Gardens, Rowan, Sony, Sirdar, Sainsbury's, Uomo, Mamas & Papas, White Stuff, Xacus - even Emma B and the boy band JLS have all been guests at Walnuts Farm. In fact, so successful have the couple been that the income from the farm now more than pays their mortgage and household bills.

'We're very pleased with the level of business we now have," says Nick. "It's partly due to the property and the way we've furnished it but also knowing what creative directors are looking for and how to market it."

One might think that these tricks of the trade Nick would like to keep quietly to himself but he and Bella have just launched a new side to their shoot business - providing courses for home owners who see location potential in their own properties.

"We plan to have groups of a maximum of twelve people and give talks here on how to set up a business from scratch covering everything they need to know to make a success of their own homes," he says.

The courses run from 10am to 3pm and include how to attract the top location agencies and their A-list clients, what to expect from shoot days, how to keep shoot crews happy, how to encourage repeat business and styling and photographic tips.

They cost £150 and run from July through to October with more planned for the winter months and next year. Putting that fee into perspective, home owners can generally expect rates from magazines of around £500 per day, advertising photographic rates of around £1000 a day and big production TV and film from around £1500 a day. These fees would be for 9am to 5pm with overtime payable outside of these hours. Owners can also earn extra by providing catering or special prop hire such as vehicles and animals.

So what has been the secret of Nick and Bella's - and Walnuts Farm's - success? Perhaps more than anything it has been its versatility. For exterior shots there is the farm itself - gone are the skip-loads of abandoned farm equipment left by previous occupants and in its place is the most rustic of rustic scenes, a traditional 17th-19th century farm. Or rather what today's fashion photographers would like a traditional farm to be.

"It's really rather the Marie Antoinette school of farming," says Nick while noting that although it has been created with the camera in mind, it is still very much a productive smallholding. "It does supply us with a considerable amount of fresh produce.

" Resident stars of the show are the wild turkey, guinea fowl, Welsummer and Cotswold and Cream Legbar chickens, the pigs - Oxford Sandy and Blacks - not to mention the honey bees flitting between the pretty vegetable garden, the perfect meadow of wild flowers and their beautifully distressed hive. Running a smallholding is never a part-time occupation but the input that is required not only to run it successfully, but keep it looking as pretty as a picture, is truly mind-boggling.

The farmhouse itself is designed as something of a chameleon, able to appeal to a wide variety of potential clients. "One of the key rules of a successful home location is that it is neutral without being bland and, above all, no identifiable brands other than SMEG and Land Rover - for some reason these two seem acceptable to everybody," says Nick. So as soon as the couple took over the house, out came the Farrow & Ball but although the whites were the tins that emptied the most quickly, the couple were careful to offer clients options with a dark grey ('Down Pipe') the choice for the sitting room and natural unplastered brickwork well represented. "It's all about giving clients options," he said, "which is why, for instance, we have made sure we offer photographers a choice of dark and light throughout the house.

" The largest single room in the house is the kitchen that runs the full width of the property and was probably a later addition, made as the original farming family became more prosperous. It's a glorious room of white-on-white with warmth provided by glowing timbers and bare brick. The white-topped pine table has, over the years, been "naturally distressed by Weetabix" and beside it are two pieces from Nick's father's office - a lovely old wooden chair, an arm fetchingly chewed by one of the family dogs and a superb brass-handled cupboard topped with limestone from Stone Age in Parsons Green, run by Nick's cousins, Jo and Richard O'Grady.

Nearby stands an old distressed pale blue carpenter's chest, one of a number the couple found at a Lambert & Foster Rural Bygones sale. Originally it had no handles so Nick's remedy was two old door handles from a Series III Defender. Other pieces include a particularly attractive chair - a prop from a Rachel Weisz shoot - and white glass-fronted cabinet brimming with books and jugs.

The only fixed pieces in the kitchen are the 1970s Rayburn in the inglenook and the butler sink unit. "Photographers may use your furniture or it must be easy for them to use their own which means they will clear and store yours for you for the duration of the shoot," says Nick.

Ever-mindful of through-views, Nick and Bella have opened up a new entrance from the kitchen to the drawing room which gathers around an inglenook and an old but elegant Jotul woodburner.

Either side are chairs from Bella's family and on the overmantle a collection of abandoned bird's nests collected from the trees and hedgerows around the farm jostle for pride of position with a stone cannonball.

Books climb either side of the fireplace while across the room, above the sofa, is a huge gilded French overmantle mirror flanked by two strangely comical painted goat skulls from Foxhole Antiques in Hurst Green. On the garden wall is a head of a roe deer above a Victorian case of butterflies. Against the opposite wall stands a delicate Georgian desk. The doorstops are vast corbels of gilded gesso, elegant refugees from Bella's London flat.

The beams, walls and floor here are all painted Farrow & Ball 'James White' - in contrast to those in the next door sitting room. "Again, it's all about giving photographers options," says Nick.

It's also about having an eye for detail. Light switches are an unavoidable feature unless you plan to live your life by candlelight. So Nick has compromised and gone for the least intrusive style - the Bakelite switch, some original and some replacement retro versions.

Centrepiece of the sitting room is also an impressive inglenook and woodburner opposite which is a truly wonderful French roll-top-armed sofa for which Bella gets the finder's prize. Before it is an aged ottoman and complementing oriental rug and by the window a Hepplewhite demilune table with pretty added floral paintwork. The walls of the staircase up through the centre of the property are of attractive accidentally distressed plasterwork.

"We started to strip them down to repair and re-skim them," says Nick, "but we liked the effect and just decided to leave them as they were." On the landing at the top of the stairs is a venerable glass-fronted cabinet displaying Nick's old fly fishing kit while beneath it is another survivor from Nick's father's office, a cupboard which now serves as a shoe rack. Nick and Bella's bedroom is the one room in the house that is virtually unchanged from the day they walked in, still boasting the window frame and fireplace in the tobacco yellow gloss that once adorned all the cottage's windows and doors. "We've just never got around to changing the colour and, yet, surprisingly, it's the one room that has been used by crews perhaps more than any other."

Pièce de résistance in the bedroom is the ancient Gustavian mirror bought in Liverpool and hung with old bunting from Foxhole Antiques. Lovely diminutive and delicate balloon-backed chairs flank the fireplace. "Definitely for ornamentation only and not for sitting on," noted Nick. By the window stands an oak coffer with a relief of a monk squeezing grapes, the oldest item in the house.

The guestroom is a blizzard of white. In the window stands an old wrought-iron cot which came from Bella's side of the family. On the wall is a huge wooden horse the couple found in Richmond, Surrey. It's a Suffolk Punch horse, and used to be a pub sign, but now comfortably retired it's keeping its past to itself.

Daughter Flora's room has been largely seconded by an imposing dark maroon Black Forest bed with its date, 1855, proudly painted at its foot. "We had to have a mattress made to fit it," observes Nick. Daughter Peggy's room is the only room at Walnuts Farm not set up with shoots in mind but, even so, one can see the superb old brick chimney playing a supporting role sooner or later.

There is no doubt that Nick and Bella have, with great skill, created a highly successful shoot location. But their real achievement is not only to have created an environment in which some of Britain's top brands want to be seen but, at the same time, never to have lost sight of the fact that, first and foremost, Walnuts Farm is family home - a home of which they can be justifiably proud and in which their daughters will enjoy a truly magical childhood.

Address Book:

If you think your house has the potential for stardom and would like to know more about Nick and Bella's location courses, call them on 01435 863691, email bella@walnutsfarm.co.uk, or visit www.walnutsfarm.co.uk

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