Renovating a period cottage is always a challenge. The lives we lead are very different both from those of the 17th century villagers and farm workers for whom these homes were originally built and from the families who have updated them over the years. Somehow we have gently to separate the wheat from the chaff and from somewhere find the wisdom to know the difference.
Easier, of course, said than done. Renovation and remodelling of an older property is a voyage of discovery with the wastepaper basket rapidly filling with carefully thought-through initial plans and new ideas presenting themselves at every turn. It's a Pandora's Box with all sorts of goodies and baddies emerging together and whizzing around the site. Whether the project is a triumph or disaster depends on vision and flexibility in equal measure.
When Holly and Chris found their new home, the house was something of a secondary consideration. The main object was to have enough land for the Holly's horses. They had first lived in a house they renovated in Cranbrook and then they rented in Goudhurst while they looked around.
"It wasn't easy to find the right property," says Holly. "There are few affordable houses in the area with a reasonable amount of land." And when the right house came up – four bedrooms and seven acres – the timing couldn't have been more tricky. The For Sale sign went up the day Holly and Chris were leaving for their honeymoon in the Maldives. "Basically, we ended up buying it over the telephone from the other side of the world."
It was obvious that both the house and the land needed a considerable amount of work. All the original timbers were covered so the couple could only guess what they would find if they started tearing down ceilings. "At first we thought we'd just redecorate throughout but it didn't quite work out that way."
The couple bought the property in July and moved in with Chris's parents while they and their builders launched into the new project. "Our builder, Tony Palmer and his team were just great," says Holly. The couple knew Tony and his Harlequin Building Company well from major projects they had undertaken for Chris's family, one of which was the development of Monkey Puzzle day nursery at Hartley Dyke along with the renovation of the family farmhouse.
That the entire project was finished by the end of August is testament both to the skills of Harlequin and the sheer hard work put in by Holly and Chris. "We were just going to run a paintbrush through but as the possibilities presented themselves we just couldn't stop and we were here every night for a month ripping out walls and plaster."
The drawing room is an obvious example. Its brick fireplace and woodburner were the only real character features the house still had so the couple decided to keep the fireplace wall's brickwork bare. Having done this they couldn't resist having a look at the beams and a look was all they needed – down came the sitting room ceiling. "It wasn't planned or budgeted," she says but when we look at the space today, we know it was well worth it."
The room is also now witness to the fact that the couple's talents extend well beyond chopping plaster and splashing paint. Chris not only helps his father run the family farm but is also a talented worker of wood. His mature oak coffee table is superb, as is his wine rack made from a four-foot high solid oak block, the beautiful wood supplied by local tree surgeon Gary Bridgland. He also made all the cottage's new oak doors.
Holly was originally a brand manager but gave that up to be a mother and now juggles the care of her two young sons with the running of her online homeware business Duck & Dog. "I suppose you could call the style of our furnishings a contemporary take on traditional country," she says. Ninety per cent of her supplies are from British companies and she recently won ‘Best Stand' at Wealden Times Midwinter Fair at Bedgebury Pinetum.
Needless to say, a goodly number of the items she has used to furnish her own home are also available through Duck & Dog. In the sitting room this includes two large reclaimed oak table lamps that stand on the distressed French grey sideboard. By the fireplace stands a delicate French grey desk from one of Holly's favourite Cranbrook shops, Maisie K.
On the desk stands the family Apple Mac, about the only computer that looks good wherever it stands. It is, however, completely outgunned when it comes to size by the family's wall mounted TV. If you are going to have a TV in the sitting room, this is the way to do it. The elegant sofas beneath it are from a boutique in Knightsbridge and the blue and white striped sofa at the end of the room from Balmain & Balmain. "I saw the sofa at the CLA Game Fair," says Holly. "Quite a bit in the house comes from the Fair."
Holly also likes to mix contemporary and country and a prime example are the Perspex tables from Luminati that stand either end of one of the sitting room sofas and the Louis Ghost chair in the hallway. On the hallway wall is a large picture of happy hounds – the couple met out hunting and both are keen country sports enthusiasts.
Just around the corner, light pours into the spacious kitchen/conservatory but it was not always so. "When we first saw it, the dining room had a small entrance into the conservatory," says Holly. "The kitchen was next door in what is now a utility room. We moved it in here and took down the wall into the conservatory."
The result is a wonderfully light, bright space that is perfect for entertaining. The solid contemporary oak dining table in the conservatory is another Game Fair find. Beside it is a huge candle lantern, as practical as it is elegant, from Woodcocks in Tenterden.
Centrepiece of the kitchen is a contemporary butcher's block – a birthday present to Chris who is the family chef. Gathered around are Howdens Shaker units and, underfoot, larger than normal travertine tiles from Topps Tiles. On the walls are black and white photographs of the couple's sons, George (two and a half) and Henry (four months) framed by Wealden Framing Services in Hawkhurst. "They're brilliant," says Holly.
And so upstairs to Holly and Chris's bedroom, scene of the real renovation challenge. "The plasterwork wasn't in great condition and we decided we'd take it off to expose the studwork underneath," says Holly. "But the studwork was even worse and we ended up using the original wood to rebuild the whole wall. Again, though, it was well worth the trouble."
The bedroom furniture is all OKA including the lovely white rattan headed and footed bed and rattan and bamboo wardrobe and chest of drawers. The window shutters were made by Shutter Frontier in Flimwell. The en suite shower room could not be cooler – a lovely stone basin supported by a block of Chris's oak, a marvellous mirror from Woodcocks, tiny mother of pearl mosaic tiles from Fired Earth and travertine flooring.
Walking into George's room it's immediately evident that he's a very lucky little boy. There in pride of place is a Stevenson Brothers rocking horse with a little fox and hounds running beneath it. On the wall over his bed is his name in bunting from Bunting Bee in Hawkhurst and at the window an elephant blind in Designers Guild fabric from Bell House Fabrics in Cranbrook.
Henry, too, is a lucky lad. He also has his own Stevenson rocking horse – this time a zebra – and thereby hangs a tale. The zebra's tail is made from that of one of Holly's much loved horses that sadly passed away recently. Also, like his brother, Henry has his Bunting Bee bunting beneath which stands a giraffe skin trunk from the Fine English Company. In the window is a Moses basket from Mamas and Papas.
When Holly and Chris first saw the bathroom there was an immediate decision that everything was headed for the skip, including the three layers of tiles and wooden cladding that graced the walls. "We gutted the whole room and started from scratch," says Holly. They opted for a contemporary roll top bath supported on a couple of unpolished oak plinths and a stone bowl basin supported by a polished oak table with chrome legs, again made by Chris.
The guest bedroom up on the top floor is a truly lovely room, made by its barrelled ceiling and curved beams that may well have come from a ship. This is a considerably rarer occurrence than generally believed. References made to ship's timber used in domestic buildings tend to be in the context of quality control – a bit like the old BSI kite mark. Certain woodlands were designated as producing ship's timbers even though many of these timbers would never go to sea.
The couple sand-blasted the chimney breast to glowing brickwork and opted for a white sleigh bed from eBay that Holly stripped back and painted in Farrow & Ball. The oak bedside lamps are, again, from Duck & Dog.
That Holly and Chris have brought this cottage so successfully and sensitively into the 21st century is a tribute both to their initial vision and their ability to adapt their original plans creatively when they encountered either problem or opportunity. One might expect them now to sit back, put their feet up and enjoy the considerable fruits of their labours. One would be sorely mistaken. They have already bought the land for another project, an oak-framed build, and can't wait to get started...