Hidden Treasure

Having downsized from a large Georgian property where they ran an award-winning bed and breakfast, Pippa and Mike Carter decided to move to a small cottage just down the road in order to buy a place in France. Having devoted their attention to transforming the house and garden over the last year, they now have plans to expand their modestly sized abode to create a home to fit around their creative lifestyle...

Despite years of passing through the traffic lights in Tenterden, I've never noticed the drive that leads down to Pippa and Mike Carter's house. "It's funny, but quite a few of my friends didn't even know where this drive was when we moved here," laughs Pippa. That makes me feel slightly better, but still, I'd have never guessed there'd be a pale pink fairy cottage down here, tucked away like a hidden iced gem, behind the high street.

Pippa and Mike have lived in the property for just over a year, having downsized from a larger house - the well known Tower House in Tenterden (a large Georgian property with attached tower) where Pippa ran an award-winning bed and breakfast business. The couple decided to move to a smaller home so that they could also buy a property in France - their daughter lives in Biarritz and Pippa's sister and several friends also live over there. "Now I'm thinking about it," jokes Pippa, "with so many people we know living in France, it might be easier just to stay with each of them in turn rather than buy somewhere." Has moving here from a much larger house been difficult? "We left quite a lot of the furniture in the Tower House when we moved here," she replies. "The new owner asked if she could buy some of it, so a few of the bedrooms there probably look just as they were, we just shut the doors on them and left."

The move has meant quite a big change for Pippa, as the Tower House was a business as well as a home. Does she miss it? "I just loved running the Tower House B&B. It's not easy to leave something that you've worked hard at and turned into a good business, but I got to the point where I'd had enough," she says. "I remember thinking - it was on a hot day when I was tired - I'd been running around all day and I came home and went into the garden to sit out on one of the recliners, and there was someone else sitting there. And I thought; that's just where I wanted to sit."

Sitting doesn't appear to be high on Pippa's list though - we're meeting on the day after Tentertainment, the town's free festival, that the couple organise each year and there's still a fair bit of clearing away to do. "Yes, it's quite a big thing now," she smiles. "We had the idea originally because we wanted to mark the Tour de France passing through Tenterden seven years ago and having some music and a bit of a party to celebrate the event seemed right." Their hard work and commitment to the event since then has certainly paid off. Tentertainment has gone from strength to strength each year and is now a permanent summer highlight for the town.

A Tenterden base was important and the couple were determined to buy a property within easy reach of the high street, but very few properties come up in such a sought after location. "It's very hard to find houses in the centre of town," says Pippa. "There aren't many for sale and when one does come up it's snapped up really quickly...

A Tenterden base was important and the couple were determined to buy a property within easy reach of the high street, but very few properties come up in such a sought after location. "It's very hard to find houses in the centre of town," says Pippa. "There aren't many for sale and when one does come up it's snapped up really quickly. This house had just sold for lots of money, but then unfortunately the owner died and it had to go to probate." Pippa was determined to keep an eye on it though, and for six months she tracked its progress, popping into the estate agent's every weeks or so. "They must have got really fed up with me," she laughs. Eventually the house went to tender again and they had a nerve-wracking moment working out how much to bid for it. Miraculously they won, but then the vendors increased the selling price. At this point the couple walked away and started looking at other properties. "Then suddenly they came back to us and offered it to us again and at a reduced price - lower than the original level we'd offered in the first place. I guess, in the words of the Kenny Rogers' song, 'you've got to know when to walk away...'"

It is an interesting cottage; Pippa says that it could have been a forge originally, "because of the size of the large inglenook fireplace in the living room." At present it's just a single storey with two bedrooms and an 'extension' of sorts, where the garage was joined on to the house. Pippa points out the guttering that runs along internally across the kitchen, which makes an interesting feature, especially when it rains and you can hear the water rushing across the ceiling. The couple have plans to convert this room into a large kitchen and eating room and also to extend outwards and upwards, adding on more living space and a further bedroom upstairs. Pippa shows us the line where the new extension will end. They've been working closely with their architect finalising the plans and Mike will use his building skills to undertake much of the work. Having lived in the house for a year, Pippa's ideas have changed a fair amount. "I originally wanted this to be a contemporary house, with big bi-fold doors, but now I want it to look like an old cricket pavilion. I've just bought some big old French gates to use out in the courtyard, but they're tucked away for now."

Pippa's business, Three French Hens, holds regular sales at Silcocks Farm. "We only sell things that we like and that we'd use ourselves. I do find it hard to sell some of the lovely items that I've found and when I do decide to keep one then something else will have to go."

This is where Pippa's latest enterprise comes in useful; she now runs a vintage furniture and accessories business, the Three French Hens, which specialises in French brocante pieces. It was a chance meeting with the other two 'hens', old school friends Mandi (who lives in France) and Linda (from up the road in Kilndown) that led to them setting up in business together and organising regular trips across to France sourcing collectables. "We all go in the 'Bertie bus'," says Pippa, which is named after Bertie the Fox Terrier, who, now he has his passport, always accompanies them on their trips. They hold regular sales at Silcocks Farm, the next being at the end of September. "We only sell things that we like and that we'd use ourselves," says Pippa. I would find it hard to sell lovely items that I'd found, but perhaps being in a smaller house helps? "Things sort of move on through." Pippa says. "I do occasionally keep things, but if I do decide to keep an item, then something else will have to go."

This sensible rule means that the cottage is definitely not cluttered, despite the assortment of (carefully positioned) finds around the place; in fact for a small property, it's surprisingly spacious. The feeling of space is enhanced by the enormous mirror in the sitting room, that despite its size - "People said we'd never get it in," Pippa laughs - works really well. The couple haven't let the dimensions of the house get in the way of entertaining either. "We had 16 here for Christmas this year!" laughs Pippa. They set up a huge table in the room that will one day be their kitchen, draping it with red velvet curtains and lots of festive greenery. There is also an extra bedroom on hand outside behind the house, in the shape of Hilda, a gorgeous old caravan that the couple have renovated and decked out in true vintage style.

While they've been deciding on the layout of the cottage, Mike and Pippa have also been busy outside. The garden has already been considerably changed, and despite the short amount of time the plants have had to settle in, it's all looking well established and full of cottage charm. Mike has cleared one side of the garden completely (to the relief of their neighbour) where there was once a huge tangle of ivy and foliage. He's planted a fast-growing hedge against the neighbour's wall and created a new flowerbed. There are also plans to make some steps up to a small seating area with a pergola, so they can sit and enjoy the evening sun.

As we sit in the peace of the sun-filled garden, it seems to me that Mike and Pippa have found a good balance - and not just between what to keep and what to sell. There's a lifestyle balance to be had here - and moving to this house has helped with that hard to achieve work/life equation and given Pippa some freedom. "There are wonderful views from the fields behind us and we just love taking a bottle of wine down the lane and out into the fields on a warm summer evening," Pippa says dreamily. "We're near to the shops still, and to our friends, and we can also escape up into the fields." They have the best of both worlds here; town and country life, and once they locate that special somewhere in France, Pippa and Mike may well find that they have not just the best of both, but the best of several.

Address Book:

  • The next Three French Hens sale takes place at Silcocks Farm, Tenterden, on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 September. For more information visit www.thethreefrenchhens.co.uk
  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming