Come with me, and mind your head as we duck down through the tiny front door (think of it as a portal into another realm), to enter the 'Christmas' house and discover a magical story about some elves and a baker. Wait a minute, wasn't it elves and a shoemaker? Hmm, something's going on here, I sense a re-telling of a well-known story, a small tweak, some sleight of hand - but more of that later on. Let's just enjoy the moment of stepping out of the gloom of a winter's day and into, well, the atmospheric gloom of this wonderfully ancient house. The wooden shutters at the windows are closed, perhaps to keep out glimpses of bright and modern from the street outside, to soften the edges of the pared back, essential interior, but also to weave an enchantment over us, to suck us back through time into a fascinating alter-history.
It is an alter-history, because Alastair Hendy, chef, writer, photographer and owner of the Christmas house in Hastings (and of nearby A G Hendy & Co Home Store) has peeled back centuries of updating and home 'improvement' within this house and painstakingly reinstated what might have been, but not necessarily what actually was. "It's been more of a re-creation than restoration project," says Alastair, something that's possibly even harder to achieve, because much of what had to be removed was late twentieth century, and had unwittingly become integral to the house, to the point where it had become protected under the Grade II listing as part of the evolution of the building. It's a complicated process, and one that was started in the 1970s by a previous owner, Paul Lewis, who took the brave step of "de-Georgianising" the property, reinstating the ground floor window at the front and even putting the front door back into the front of the property, rather than where a previous owner had left it - halfway down a side passage to the right of the house. The passage, or twitten (as narrow alleys between buildings were called), was blocked off and re-incorporated into the house, extending the front room back to its original Tudor proportions.
More changes followed with subsequent owners, who actually did more harm than good, modernising in a pedestrian and thoughtless way, adding carpets and curtains and other urbane fixtures and fripperies. Under the weight of surface 'improvements', and also as a consequence of once being in a terrace and then having the prop of the building next door removed, the house was in dire structural straits, needing major help and attention. It was at this point that Alastair arrived on the scene. Had restoring an ancient property been a dream he held? "Not at all," he says. "In fact I had no intention of buying such an old house. I came across it by chance. My grandparents lived in a house between Battle and Hastings, so I knew the area well. I was looking for a second home and had seen this property from the outside. I liked the fact that it hadn't been painted black, unlike so many other Tudor houses." His curiosity led to a casual viewing, followed by, well, perhaps this is where buying a property is like embarking on a relationship - sometimes you just can't help falling for a project. Roll forward across five gruelling years of unravelling and re-constructing, or "putting back the years, the years have taken away" as it says in the visitor's hand-out. How blithely that poetic phrase glides over the many frustrations, extra costs and maddeningly picky visits from the listed building inspector. As Alastair shows me around, I begin to glimpse just how much vision and hard work have gone into creating a house so interesting and atmospheric that it's turned into a tourist attraction.
"It was originally quite a humble house," Alastair says, "although some of the changes that Paul Lewis made were a bit flamboyant and grand." But now there is a pared down, utilitarian look throughout the house and even the fixtures and fittings look as they might have done when they were first installed. Sleight of hand at work here, as mod cons like plumbing and lighting are cunningly concealed out of sight. The floor in the back room looks completely original, but has in fact only been recently laid. It's constructed from chunky slabs of groyne oak reclaimed from the beach, worn smooth and hard, and made beautiful by the sea and the weather. Hints of the house's seaside location are also found outside at the back, where there's a small courtyard containing a fisherman's net shed, or, rather, a cleverly crafted domestic version of one that doubles up as a workshop and outdoor bathroom, complete with alfresco shower. Growing in an old water tank and looming over the courtyard like a huge bird is the most enormous Gunnera plant that makes a cool and contemporary statement.
Back inside the fires have been lit in the inglenooks and candles are flaming, casting warm flickering light and rich shadows through the rooms. The kitchen and dining room are situated in the rear wing, in what was once a completely separate dwelling, added after the house was built. It is very old, dating back to the 1400s and was used - and how's this for an added frisson - as a mortuary, right up until the 1950s. These two rooms have a cold, damp feel, which must have been just perfect for the laying out of bodies. "Visitors have been known to ask if this dining table was used as a mortuary slab." Alastair laughs. An appetising thought. I gaze around in awe at Alastair's remarkable and imaginative conversion of the kitchen area, once apparently a 'snug' little tv room, but now completely stripped back to its bones. It all looks original, especially the rough-hewn slab and brick floor, but once it's pointed out to me, I can see where the floor has been lowered and the ‘new' staircase carefully slotted into an original beam.
Upstairs there's a large bathroom (didn't the Tudors just pee out of windows and never bath?) with a very original, but uncomfortable-looking, bathtub. In fact it's more boat than bath (ideal for a baker and a couple of friends) and lined with lead, which meant that the floor has had to be re-enforced to support it. It all gets a bit European and a touch Hans Christian Andersen in the bedrooms. Alastair spent many of his childhood holidays in Germany (his father was in the army) and has also been inspired by his travels through Italy and in other parts of northern Europe. The bed in the main bedroom is particularly interesting, enclosed by wood panelling and shutters - like a snug cubicle, a room within a room. I'm especially taken by the beds tucked into the eaves of the roof in the attic room - such a brilliant use of space and so cosy - "It makes much more space in the room that would otherwise be wasted," says Alastair. "Building the beds into the eaves just made sense." There's even a small shelf within each bunk for a book or a nightcap. Adorable. This room would be perfect as a children's room, but unfortunately wouldn't be suitable for real children, as it's galleried, with a sheer drop on one side of the room down to the floor below, with just a single beautiful, but insubstantial, wooden rail across it.
The decorations throughout the house are subtle and understated, and also have a European feel. There are branches of blue fir, simple gingerbread hearts hung with red ribbon and pine nut studded 'trees' propped on shelves. These biscuit decorations tie into Alastair's fairytale theme, where the elves have baked wondrous cakes and pastries in the night while the baker sleeps. It's an appealing touch, this spin on the classic elves and shoemaker tale and, after all, baked goods are more tasty and festive than shoes (most of the time) and so appropriate for a 'Christmas' house. "Somehow that's how I see it, as a Christmas house, with the fires and the candlelight," says Alastair. "I tend to stay here much more often in the winter."
An instinctive storyteller, Alastair is also trained in theatre and costume design, and at times, authentic though all the additions are, and meticulously executed, you do get the feeling that you've walked onto the set of an elaborate production. Opening the house to the public, especially throughout December, seems like a natural extension of what's been created here. Alastair has re-interpreted his house with a rustic minimalism, using reclaimed materials and ancient techniques. The bones are Tudor and the furnishings are from many different countries and periods, but they all share the same raw simplicity and all have been chosen with a discerning contemporary eye, so that everything comes together to make a very effective whole. It is a remarkable achievement.
A house is so often just the backdrop to the stories we tell, the setting for our human dramas, but this house has taken centre stage and become the story itself. So if you're looking for an ages-old, unique, and slightly spooky treat, where elves and bakers creep festively about, do visit Alastair Hendy's Christmas house.