Artful Seclusion

It's a steamy and umbelliferous (as in lots of floaty cow parsley) morning in the Weald as we arrive at Wendy's secluded house, which is tucked away from view down a narrow leafy lane. We're warmly greeted with a "Mind the dead rabbit!" As if in honour of our arrival Scout, one of her trio of cats, has just caught and is happily (and rather messily) eating a rabbit on the lawn. We politely avert our gaze and head for the house.

Wendy and her husband Rob escaped to this house six years ago, when Wendy was driven to a desperate internet search for a detached property by their previous (very loud and inconsiderate) neighbours. "I just keyed in 'rural location' and up it came as I refreshed the page," she says. "We moved into the house in September 2006 and it started to rain, and didn't stop for three months solid," Wendy sighs, adding "we're on heavy clay here." But obviously mud and rain were a small price to pay for the peace and quiet of this secluded idyll, far from the madding neighbours.

"This is our first detached house," says Wendy with a grin. "We're spoilt now though. The trouble is, once you've moved away from having any neighbours - and to a place like this - where you can go and garden, see to the chickens and generally potter around in your nightie, it would be hard to move back to a street."

Although Wendy and Rob own the house it is on National Trust land. It isn't a listed property, but there are strict rules attached to the lease about what can and can't be done. Some of the rules are rather bizarre, to say the least. They aren't allowed to hang washing out (but who would see in a place as hidden from view as this?) and they're only allowed to use Farrow & Ball paint colours "which is fine," says Wendy, "as I happen to like those colours and probably wouldn't use anything else anyway." The kitchen extension, a stunning, light filled room with a vaulted ceiling up to the roof, was put on by a previous owner and apparently would not have been permitted, but by the time the NT sent someone round to check the property, it was finished, and, as it was an obvious enhancement and in keeping with the rest of the house, it was allowed to stay.

The kitchen was already in place and no structural work was needed, but "the bathrooms were completely horrible," Wendy says, so they installed two new bathrooms and generally updated and decorated throughout. "There was a lovely big old model C Aga in the kitchen - an original dating back to the 1930s - but it was hugely inefficient so we really had to replace it. We opted for a more economical range, but it doesn't give off any heat," The previous owners had installed a wood burner in the sitting room, as there's no central heating in the house. So the wood burner must be a very efficient one? "Not especially," says Wendy blithely. "It's feet off the floor. It's jumpers and woolly blankets through the winter here!"

Wendy is a horticulturist by training: "so naturally I did the garden first," she says. "In fact there was no garden when we came here. It was all just lawn." Looking outside at the full, densely planted beds all around the house, they look so established and as if they've always been in place. The garden has two main aspects: an open, sunny side in front of the kitchen window that leads down to the vegetable patch and then on to a paddock (containing an old caravan that Wendy is looking after for her friend Lucy Williams, as she ran out of space at her place!) and a wonderful shady slope behind the house - "although it can sometimes get too wet for certain things," says Wendy. Today's conditions are perfect; the plants in this part of the garden have a vibrant and sappy fullness, that perfect lush look we only get in early summer.

It is a modest sized house, with two and a half bedrooms. "The third room isn't really big enough to be called a bedroom," says Wendy, but the couple are lucky enough to have not one, but two working spaces out in the garden. "We needed another workshop for me when Rob started working from home," she says. Rob's office is a handsome timber clad building, painted dark brown, which looks very effective amid the creams and greens of the surrounding plants. In another part of the garden Wendy has had a studio built for her by the carpenter, Paul Ferdinando. He has also made both the impressive wooden drainer for her sink and the bookcase that encompasses the wall of what was the original kitchen.

We walk down through the garden to Wendy's studio, past abundantly lush borders that have been planted in a tightly packed, but marvellously loose style. The light and airy look has been created using billowing drifts of umbelliferous plants - fabulous pink cow parsley, thalictrum, and bronze fennel. Light and airy is an apt description of Wendy's wonderful (windowful) workspace. "The studio is south facing, and with all the windows it does get rather hot in the summer," Wendy says. "I've put up nets, which helps, but I'll replace them soon with blinds, I think." Even with the net curtains in place the studio is filled with light and has become a great place for Wendy to work. Two impressive horticultural prints dominate the back wall. "They're from James Rourke's shop, Foxhole Antiques in Hurst Green." It's a very comfortable-looking workspace, with a divan bed in one corner and easy chair. "It's often warmer than the house in here in the winter," says Wendy.

Beside her studio and in front of an ironwork arbour from Cranbrook Iron is Wendy's latest gardening project - a large pond, just waiting for a liner and some water. It's ideally sited on view from both the house and studio. And perhaps by being so close to her studio, it will provide a cool respite when it gets too hot in there. Like many of the flowers this year, the pond project is running just a little behind. "I was hoping the roses might have been out by today - I do have some lovely ones," Wendy says wistfully, "but it's all so late this year." Wendy specialises in climbing roses, and undertakes rose pruning as a service.

Horticultural assistance isn't all that Wendy offers. Among what appears to be many other things, she helps out Robert Longley at Cranbrook Iron and also sells her own lino-cut prints and crochet animals through Winifred's Daughter in Hawkhurst. "I was taught printmaking by Tish Tunstall," she says. Wendy takes much of her inspiration from printmakers at work during the middle of the last century, mentioning the works of Edward Bawden and his son Richard, who created bold graphics and prints for the London Underground and Fortnum and Mason. "Mark Herald, Mark Hudson the women printmakers who reinvigorated the whole medium in the 30s and my many talented friends are also influences on my art," she explains. But Wendy has a talent for all sorts of crafts. "Crocheting is my first love. I was taught by Nancy Nicholson," she says, but it's obviously not her last: at present she is busy upholstering a chair in the studio. "I do like going on courses," she admits, "and have just done one in upholstery." She clearly puts the skills she learns to good purpose too - all around the house there's evidence of her fondness for making and collecting. She has made many of the soft furnishings and cushions around the house, and collects original Lloyd Loom chairs, artwork and 'SylvaC' pottery.

Outside Wendy has lit a fire in the barbecue down in the paddock, using olive oil to get it going! It makes an alluringly restful picnic scene, enhanced by the appetising 'cooking' aroma (unfortunately just the olive oil) drifting through the smoke. The old caravan is another of Wendy's projects and she has started repainting it. "I think this will be its last resting place, somehow," she says. "It's in need of a complete overhaul." It looks very cosy, though, nestling down in this corner by the trees. "It's called the 'Ace Diplomat'," she chuckles.

We're led back up through the garden into the orchard where her comely purebred hens - Buff Laced Wyandotte, Speckled Sussex and Silver-grey Dorking - amble contentedly around. One of them is broody and patiently sitting on an assortment of different eggs in an ark next to an architectural plant cloche from Cranbrook Iron. The shadier, damper side of the garden is planted with lush, moisture loving plants, including some magnificent 'Sum and Substance' hostas, shade-loving euphorbias and ferns. A couple of sculptural hares (rather than rabbits) are on display in the garden. There's a moon-gazing hare looking up through one border and a chicken wire running hare made for Wendy ("in no time at all", she says) by the artist Lucy Williams.

A particularly beautiful cat (named Bawden after the artists) has been strolling around the garden with us. "He knows he's handsome. Just look at me, he's saying," Wendy smiles. "We're not sure where he came from - he just appeared one day at the back door. I think he is part Bengal," (cat, not tiger) although he looks like he'd be quite at home in the jungle. As we take our leave from Wendy's lovely garden, it's sunny, although the atmosphere is still steamy; the remains of the cat feast are scattered on the grass. This is not so much a jungle as a very private paradise.

Address Book:

To find out more about Wendy's gardening services, including climbing rose pruning from November to March, call 07790 064327. Wendy's prints are available to buy at Winifred's Daughter in Hawkhurst 01580 755714 www.winifredsdaughter.co.uk Check out her blog at www.myredhen.co.uk/wp/ She also re-strings Deco jewellery for the The Design Gallery in Westerham www.designgallery.co.uk

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming