Creative Space

Arriving at Alli Williams's home on the Kent-Sussex border, it's almost impossible to remember that you've come to write about a house and not merely draw up a garden chair, pour yourself a glass of something crisp and white and settle down for a gentle hour or two to enjoy a view that makes utter rubbish of Genesis. No one, absolutely no one, could have created this in just a single day.

Away south over one valley, hills roll into the distance, an autumn palette of golds, browns and fifty shades of green. It's a stunning spot but like the Almighty, we're on a schedule and tear ourselves away from the view, turn about and there is a lovely traditional farmhouse, glowing fish-scale Kent peg tiles cascading down its upper elevation. Its interior is obviously going to be a little dark but cosy, welcoming and seriously beamed.

It is, of course, nothing of the sort. Stepping through its gothic front door one finds oneself standing in the hallway of a Georgian manor complete with a large fireplace and glowing woodburner, soaring ceiling, light flooding in from apparently all directions and not a beam in sight. We were, however, right about the welcoming bit both as regards the house and its owner. As we sit down to fresh coffee and homemade lemon drizzle cake, Alli explains.

Far from being a farmhouse, her home was once the coach house belonging to the nearby manor and was built to accommodate the landowner's grand carriages so when it came to converting it there was plenty of headroom to play with. The result is that all the rooms on the ground floor are almost twice the height of the average Tudor farmhouse. Add a generous number of windows and you have some wonderful light, bright spaces.

"The house itself wasn't love at first sight," says Alli, "but the view was. When we first saw it I was pretty uncertain – at that point the house just wasn't what I wanted but the view was and ultimately the view won." It was husband Andy who convinced her that the house had the potential to be just what she had been looking for – a bright and airy family home with, perhaps above all, the kitchen of her dreams. Alli is a keen and highly accomplished cook – as her lemon drizzle and the Oliveswood range of chutneys and preserves she sells at farmer's markets and Wealden Times Fairs testifies.

What is now the kitchen was the original kitchen/dining room which means it's a great space not only for cooking but entertaining, too. There was an Aga but it simply did not have the power and flexibility that Alli needed, so it has been replaced with a French Lacanche range. Through her professional life as a make-up artist she met chef Jean-Christophe Novelli and he raved about his Lacanche and Alli was sold. "It's just great," she says.

The business part of the kitchen and its oak work surfaces extend down a single wall and, instead of the ubiquitous island, she has a large antique pine dining table from Bentley's Fine Art Auctioneers in Cranbrook. At the end of the table is a Dutch bread cupboard that was originally pine and which Alli has painted. It now houses her collection of vintage china. Against the wall opposite the working area is a magnificent and huge three-seater bruised leather sofa that, amazingly, cost nothing from Freecycle (uk.freecycle.org).

"Some of our furniture is from our parents but most has either come from places like Freecycle or Hospice in the Weald's furniture shop in Cranbrook," she says. The latter pieces Alli re-upholsters and paints herself. Her favourite for this work is Annie Sloan's Chalk Paint, and another example of its effectiveness is the kitchen dresser and, above it, the vast mirror which was once gilt and the star of a Def Leppard video. The walls, woodwork and units are in Dulux Potters Clay 4.

The garden end of the kitchen adjoins a large south-facing conservatory, another good entertaining space and one that comes with a great view. However, its days are numbered. "Yes, it's a good space and the view is lovely but it's freezing in winter and baking in summer," she says. "One day we plan to turn it into an orangery with a proper ceiling."

Alli and Andy have already undertaken some remodelling in the hallway: moving the original door to the drawing room to its current position opposite the door to the kitchen, providing a view through the three spaces literally the length of the house. Hanging high on the hall ceiling is a great 1930s three-bowl light and, running almost the length of the wall opposite the fireplace, is a nine-foot oak-framed mirror. The walls are in Dulux Chalky Downs.

"I know a lot of people favour Farrow & Ball and I have used it here and there," says Alli, "but personally I think Dulux is a better paint so I've tended to stay with that along with Little Greene." The curtains and blinds were made by Alli with fabric from another favourite – The Fabric Shop in Horam.

The drawing room is elegant, high and bright with walls in Dulux Chiltern White and a superb limestone fireplace put in by Alli and Andy and sourced from Kristel Fireplaces in Hawkhurst. They also put in a woodburner because, despite central heating and an open fire, the room always seemed cold. "I also originally wanted a sisal carpet, but was worried about keeping it clean, so we went for a wool-sisal weave from the Solent Carpet Company and I'm glad we did," she says.

Two large brown leather sofas from the Sofa Workshop contrast with fabric covered pieces, among them a Victorian nursing chair re-upholstered by Alli. The room is clean and uncluttered and yet everywhere there is interest – a 17th century chest, two superb Deco Louis Icart prints, a beautiful old treadle Singer sewing machine which once belong to Alli's grandmother and on which Alli used to make her doll's clothes, Andy's gleaming saxophone, a fallow deer antler that looks for all the world like a driftwood sculpture, a bronze nude, a shipwright's pine tool chest which belonged to Andy's father, metal lantern-style lights from Maison in Tunbridge Wells and books, lots of lovely books.

Upstairs the couple's latest project is complete – the knocking through of the bathroom to the double-aspect master bedroom to create a spacious suite. The bathroom has been completely remodelled, complete with roll-top bath strategically placed by the new, larger south-facing window that now matches the others on that floor. "A loo with a view," quips Alli.

In the bedroom, the couple have removed the ceiling and created a new and dramatic vaulted space, the perfect setting for the grand French bed from 'Tasha Interiors in Lamberhurst. The head- and tail boards are currently gold silk but Alli has plans to re-upholster these in a pale grey wool. The two high and elegant bedside tables are more of Alli's distress work as are the fitted cupboards that run virtually the length of the south wall. The colour scheme here is Little Greene French Grey for the walls and Little Greene Original for the woodwork.

When Alli is not slaving over a hot chutney, upholstering or distressing for England she also finds time for her original career as a make-up artist, working internationally for a wide range of clients in fashion, advertising, television, the music business. She also offers bridal make-up and one-on-one make-up lessons in her own glamorous make-up room.

The dressing table is an elegant old French desk from 'Tasha Interiors, again distressed by Alli. The walls are Little Greene Joanna 130, the woodwork is Little Greene Linen Wash 33 and the curtains are from one of her favourite fabric designers, Kate Foreman. On the floor is a large cow hide and, on a small table, an old leather bound Roberts portable radio.

The guest room is a real indulgence, her "homage to Biba": ostrich feathered bedside lamps and an acre or two of black lacquer including a black dressing table and an elegant bow legged chest of drawers that Alli painted herself. On the wall is an intriguing painting-cum-sculpture which looks like a wrinkled bed sheet but on closer examination is found to trace the outline of a woman sleeping.

Alli's 23-year-old stepdaughter Hannah has been responsible for the décor in her own room and reflects her love of ethnic fabrics, art and curios. The red bedspread is of Native American felt while on one wall is an Indian hanging and, across another, an unwound blue Moroccan turban, above which hangs Buddhist prayer flags. Along the shelving over the bed is a huge collection of favourite pieces including work by artist friends Presiana Shisheva and Laima Grigone – both members of the Salt Fox Collective.

And if all this wasn't enough there is always the annexe. Alli and Andy have developed the sizeable barn next to the house not only to provide garaging but a truly stunning 16-metre-long space which now serves as everything from a sewing room to a wonderful venue for their parties and dinners. Whilst most of the room is open beneath a vaulted and panelled ceiling, in one corner cosy seating surrounds a big woodburner.

It is always wonderful to see an old building which has served loyally in its original role be adapted and converted into a home. It is even more enjoyable to see the early potential of that home be exploited to the full to provide an outstanding 21st century living space. Where do Alli and Andy take their home from here? Who knows? One has the distinct feeling that, like Genesis, this is only an inspiring beginning...

Address Book:

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