It is said of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant who made their house, Charleston in Firle, a country home from home for the Bloomsbury Group, that they had only one rule as far as the decor and furnishings of the retreat were concerned: that wherever one's eye alighted it fell upon something of beauty or interest.
It's rare today to find even the most elegant private home where such a concept has succeeded but to find it in a small village B&B would be truly extraordinary. And yet this is exactly the case at Pelham Hall in Burwash, one of the Weald's prettiest villages.
Pelham Hall is so named because it is one third of a medieval hall house built by the Pelham family - who once held a large area of East Sussex including the manors of Laughton, Waldron, Burwash, Bivelham, and the rapes of Pevensey and Hastings - for the Burwash manor bailiff.
Strangely, it then vanishes from the pages of history until turning up as a butcher shop in Victorian times. In the 1950s it is bought by an exiled American shipping heiress fond of a tipple who names it, unfortunately, Chateaubriand. On her death, it fell gratefully into disrepair. In the 1970s, it was awoken, restored and over the next 40 years served first as an antiques arcade, then an antiques shop and B&B.
Cut to an elegant boutique hotel in Honduras where two young men are discussing their dreams for the future. They decide they should like to open an elegant boutique hotel. On returning to the UK, they find, however, that their bank has no intention of helping them to further their ambition. They decide on a B&B. "We didn't want to scrap our dream, so we decided to take a more modest first step," says Matthew Fox who gave up his job in marketing to work on the project while partner Chris continued as a management consultant, commuting to London. "We started looking, finally found Chateaubriand, as it was then called, and it just ticked all the boxes - a uniformly pretty village, the space for three en suite guestrooms, a lovely area with much of interest nearby - it had the potential for something really quite special."
The couple bought the Grade II* listed house three years ago and lost no time moving in. It then took 18 months for them to transform the place into the kind of B&B they wanted to run. "I have to admit that neither of us had ever stayed in a B&B but we had stayed in many boutique hotels and so we decided to go with what we knew and liked. I took as my mantra the Charleston concept that there would be nothing here that wasn't beautiful or interesting."
And so it has come to pass. What was Chateaubriand has become Pelham Hall and a place of beauty and interest. This is a house where you bypass nothing. Everywhere you look there is something to engage the eye and mind, something to pause and admire. "I wanted to furnish the place with pieces that you simply wouldn't see anywhere else," says Matthew. This does not mean that he has strayed for a moment into the quirky or bizarre. Such is his eye and judgement that he has not needed to. "Every piece was not only chosen because it was perfect for the space I had in mind but because it attracted me in itself."
Matthew admits to 'a touch of OCD' which, if true, is perhaps the source of his truly extraordinary attention to detail. Even the light pull in the downstairs loo is an old silk and brass Victorian bell pull. "There isn't an inch of Pelham Hall I don't know intimately and about which I've not made some kind of decision."
And Pelham Hall has been a success from the word go, attracting visitors from all over the UK, northern Europe and as far afield as the US. "The guests we are looking for are those who want to come down and enjoy the local area - we want to be part of a memorable weekend," he says, noting that he likes to maintain an air of exclusivity by consciously keeping occupancy rates well below demand.
The minute you step into Pelham Hall, you know you are somewhere out of the ordinary. For a start you step not into a small lobby area as in so many medieval/Tudor houses but a cool, high and spacious entrance hall. A stunning 19th century Continental scroll-armed settle takes pride of place and behind it stands, appropriately, a marble-topped Victorian butcher's table with a seriously chunky iron base.
The red Toile de Jouy curtains are by Manuel Canovas and against a far wall stand two elegant dining chairs upholstered in fabric by Svenskt Tenn, one of Matthew's favourite design houses. On one wall is a Venetian rococo mirror and on another are two gold corbels topped by Edwardian silver candlesticks. Overhead are two matching brass chandeliers.
Opposite the impressive double front door is a timbered Gothic arch leading through to the sitting room which gathers around a large inglenook fireplace and woodburner. It is the only room that boasts any mid century furniture - in the form of Scandinavian armchairs and an Italian sofa. Between the chairs is a great Matthew touch - a highly polished milk churn on top of which has been placed a piece of circular glass to make an unusual and attractive side table.
There is one guest room on the ground floor - the Phoenix Room - with French windows opening out onto the B&B's pretty winding garden. "This room was originally the café for the antiques arcade," says Matthew. "It isn't part of the old building but a later addition and when we moved in it was nothing more than a neglected storeroom." It certainly isn't now.
The room gets its name from two gold corbels on the wall either side of the French doors depicting mythical birds that might well be phoenixes. Across the windows are green-leaved Colefax & Fowler curtains and similar fabric has been used to upholster the headboard. Beside the bed are two white-painted Victorian iron pub tables whilst above it hang a lovely collection of small watercolours on silk depicting game birds. Opposite stand two black and gold lacquered Edwardian dining chairs and an Edwardian desk topped with a French ormolu lamp.
The adjoining bathroom didn't exist when the couple took over the property and Matthew created it from scratch. A major triumph came in the shape of a Georgian dresser which he bought at auction and which exactly fitted the space he'd earmarked for a contemporary basin. Another interesting and highly-effective touch is the way he has highlighted the room's tongue and groove by painting the boards alternately Farrow & Ball Pavilion Grey and French Grey.
Back through the Gothic arch and up the stairs is an Elizabethan style mural designed by Hastings artist Melissa White and painted by Alice Mason. On the upper floor are the Bantam and Labrador rooms, the former named after a brightly painted ceramic fowl on another corbel and the latter after a subtle doggy theme throughout.
In Bantam, Melissa and Alice have been at work again producing another lovely Elizabethan-style mural that runs the length of the wall above the bed and its Romo upholstered bedhead. The lighting is a particular feature in Bantam consisting of two big brass coach lights and, over the bed, two early American Anglepoise lamps fitted with Swiss Factorylux heritage bulbs from Urban Cottage Industries.
Bantam interconnects with Labrador where, over the bed, Matthew has gathered a superb collection of porcelain plates including a couple of impressive pieces of Herend which once belonged to his grandmother. Again, Melissa has woven her magic, covering the opposite wall with a Tudor-inspired wallpaper she designed for Zoffany.
Up a few stairs is the room's own sitting room. On a side table stand some pretty Victorian teacups although Matthew points out that all the B&B's breakfast teapots, cups and plates are by Lewes potter Topsy Jewell. In the bathroom, the tongue and groove has again been given the alternating colour treatment - this time in Farrow & Ball Cook's Blue and All White, inspired by South Coast beach huts.
Drifting around Pelham Hall it is very easy to admire Matthew's eye for the beautiful and interesting but a great deal more than aesthetics go into a conversion of this quality. The couple have taken what was essentially a shop and turned it into a luxury boutique hotel in all but name. A conversion like this takes commitment, vision and pure hard work merely to create the initial spaces that underpin all that follows.
The Hall's obvious popularity with its guests is also testament to the success of Matthew and Chris' new role as hosts and their understanding of what will make a truly memorable stay. It would be a very brave - or very rash - bank to turn them down the next time around.