Hastings shook off its archetypal image - a sleepy seaside town full of retirees - a while ago and is established as a vibrant and quirky place, with an eclectic blend of shops, restaurants and hotels (it's now more "died and gone to Hastings" than "gone to Hastings to die"). Added into the mix is a select band of boutique hotels and guest houses, that have helped put the town back on the map as a fashionable and characterful, but still very British holiday retreat.
Lionel Copley is among the forerunners in this area, having set up both The Old Rectory and Swan House bed and breakfasts. Today we're visiting him at home, deep in the heart of Hastings Old Town, where he lives at the top of a steeply paved street that can only be reached on foot (or perhaps sedan chair, please?).
Climbing the hill without a car in sight, it feels like we've been flung back in time - until, that is, we get to Lionel and his partner Martin Freeman's house, where old fashioned morphs into high fashion. I soon forget the trek - but wonder how they get their shopping home around here? - as we're greeted with coffee and delicious croissants in the kitchen and a wonderful view back down towards the sea. "It's great," says Lionel. "You can see everything, but no one can see you up here."
This is the latest in a clutch of properties Lionel has acquired in Hastings, the first being a little house in Tackleway, originally bought as a holiday retreat, but now rented out. "I loved being in that house," he says wistfully, "and, if everything fails" - from what I can see, by the way, there's no chance of that - "I'd be happy to just go back and live there." It was while Lionel and his then partner, Brendan McDonagh, were living in that first property that Swan House came on the market. Brendan wanted a change of career, so they decided to open a bed and breakfast. Built in 1490, Swan House is situated in the heart of Hastings Old Town and is now an award-winning, gold star rated guest house. Then, more recently came The Old Rectory, a larger, later (18th century) property, also not far away, in Harold Road. The Old Rectory is an elegant establishment, more hotel than B&B, but it seems there's an increasingly blurred line between the two and the term 'boutique' has been coined to describe this kind of stylish, intimate guest house. Lionel has been responsible for the interior design in both places, although he still lives part time in London where he used to work as creative director at Reiss. He is also about to launch a range of natural toiletries and homeware in an online business. "I used to come down to Hastings to relax," he laughs. "Now I feel like it's the other way around!"
The new range of toiletries and homewares that Lionel is launching in June, with business partner Stuart Macleod, (who is based in Sri Lanka) is also interiors driven. The idea for the range, named Copley Macleod was born a year ago, while Lionel was holidaying out in Sri Lanka. The homewares are made in Sri Lanka whilst the all-natural toiletries, called Copley, are made in Hastings. "It's an online range," he says, "but some of the products will be available at the guest houses - a sort of buy your guest experience."
Looking around the ground floor of the house I'm struck by the soft light that the muted colours on the walls create, as if a sea mist has come creeping up the hill and into the house. The paint is from the Little Greene Paint Company - "Old White?" Lionel can't remember the exact shade - I want it to be Rolling Mist? (Yes, there's one on the chart called just that). The floorboards, which are bare in the main, have had an interesting treatment. Two layers of flat oil paint, in different shades, have been used on the boards, which have then been distressed in a highly effective way, so that the bottom layer shows through. The work was done by London based Bill Barratt, a talented, but singular specialist in paint and interesting decorative techniques. "He helped me with the Rectory. He's a genius at distressing and gets involved with lots of my mini-makeover projects," says Lionel. "He's the one responsible for that stripy cupboard in the hall." Lionel gestures towards it, as if it might have gone unnoticed. "I didn't ask for a stripy cupboard and when I saw it, I wasn't sure that I liked it - if I want stripes, they have to be sharp, straight stripes. He adds: "But I'm mellowing towards it."
As part of the local business scene in Hastings, Lionel is also keen to support local suppliers and businesses. The wallpaper in the kitchen is by Deborah Bowness, a wallpaper maker originally hailing from Yorkshire, where Lionel was born. "She comes from the next village to mine," he laughs. "If she's designed a new wallpaper I get to showcase it. She has a great range of what I like to call 'illusional' wallpaper - that uses visual tricks." He points to the tiles in the kitchen, except that they're not tiles, they're wallpaper. The wallpaper in the living room upstairs is also by Deborah Bowness, this time featuring illustrations of kettles, pots and pans, which, on first glance, or in a certain light, look real - as if there are 3-dimensional objects on real shelves in the room. Design cross-fertilisation makes for interesting ideas within all creative industries and trompe l'oeil has also been a trend in the fashion world recently (has illusion ever been out of fashion in that world?) with figure flattering, wasp-waisted panels in the front of dresses.
"There's a cave in the garden," Lionel informs me, as we head upstairs to the living room. "I was going to make it into a grotto, but haven't got round to it yet." And that's not surprising, because he's succeeded in making a grotto out of the upstairs loo; it's been completely decorated in shards of mother of pearl shells and feels very 'under the sea' - any passing mermaid would feel comfortable stopping by if caught short. The theme has been carried on into the bathroom, with a very tactile, shell and pebble treatment of the walls around the bath. Intriguingly, in between these two rooms there's a large 'blackboard' wall and presumably somewhere nearby, some chalk. I'm thinking that many people have their best ideas in either of these two rooms, so guess it's potentially very useful to have a writing and drawing space to hand.
We come across WT's esteemed photographer busy on the landing, attempting, in the interests of art, to cajole Lucy, Lionel's gorgeous Jack Russell terrier into being a little dog with clogs on and stay there, there on the stair, right there. Poor Lucy's not sure and in the end waves a shaky, confused paw, "As if I haven't suffered enough." Lionel told us when we arrived that tragically his other Jack Russell, Ray, was killed in a car accident very recently. Fortunately Lucy's very photogenic and doesn't have to stay there long.
"We've changed the rooms around up here," says Lionel. "The lounge used to be the bedroom, but I missed the view. I like to sit up in bed doing my work and wanted to be able to look out to sea." This is a Georgian house, but the Georgian windows on the 'sea-view' side of the house have each had a Victorian window seat imposed within them. Lionel was going to re-instate the Georgian windows to match those in the rest of the street "but the seats were put in there for a reason," he says, "there's such a great view of the sea when you sit in them." He does have plans to make changes downstairs, however, and wants to open out the kitchen to make it more of a hub, creating a feature out of the fireplace and a larger space for entertaining.
It's important not to treat your home like a museum when you live in an old property. A house needs to live the story of its existence, and show the changes in occupation and lifestyles, the ups and downs in interior style. This house has certainly reached a high point since Lionel's arrival and it's hard not to fall in love with its latest look. The styling is pared down and uncluttered, but the effect isn't a stripped back one, more a gentle unpeeling. Lionel's treatment of each room is quietly theatrical, the furnishings playfully stylish; a beguilingly clever mix of over the top and understatement.
It's obvious from every detail in each room that Lionel has an enormous flair for interior design - had he ever thought of moving out of the fashion world and into interiors? "Well I guess I'm getting it out of my system with these houses," he laughs. Here's hoping that it stays in his system; Hastings has a reputation to keep up in creative design and I'd like to think that the talented Mr Copley is just getting into his stride.