Ways with Words

Over a relatively short period of time, Sandra Dowse has grown her idea of creating personalised homewares and accessories into an incredibly successful online business with orders coming from all over the world. John Graham-Hart finds out how she and her husband Richard juggle working from home alongside raising their young family...

Quite recently I was honoured enough to receive a personal, signed letter from the Chief Executive of the AA who had taken the time out of his no doubt busy day to inform me that my annual subscription was now due. A nice touch you might think and considerably more welcome than the personal, signed letter from my bank manager delivered in the same post. What was particularly pleasing was the news it contained of my ennoblement. It was addressed to "The Duke of John Graham-Hart."

Needless to say I was at first speechless. My elevation has come of a complete surprise despite many of my friends feeling it long-overdue recognition of my 24 years of loyal and selfless service as deputy treasurer of the Cranbrook Stickleback and Ferret Grooming Society. My life rushed to the Wealden Times property pages in search of a little something with a moat and I lost no time in replying, thanking said CEO fervently for the news and graciously inviting him to a cuppa on the Westminster Terrace.

It was all, of course, complete horse poo and yet another example of Mankind setting out with the best intentions only to be stuffed by technology. It was, however, based on a very simple and valid truth - in a world where we are so often reduced to mere numbers, we are placing increasing value on our individual identities, guarding them jealously and expressing them by whatever means possible.

And it is this simple truth that is driving the extraordinary success of Sandra Dowse and her team of seven Kent mums. Sandra's company is called Pickle Pie Gifts and it is now one of Not On The High Street's top Gold Award winners. The concept was simple - to offer people the chance to express a little of themselves in a fun way through a host of everyday items from phone and iPad cases to mugs, oven mittens, wedding memory boxes, pillowcases, aprons, lunch boxes and even a bucket with the customer's own bucket list on it.

One major contributory factor to their success is that each item does not merely have a name on it but with it a list of their favourite things. Very simple and very effective - particularly as presents from friends or family.

So where did Pickle Pie Gifts suddenly spring from? Well, its genesis was a small scrap of totally absorbing life called William. When the couple had their first child three years ago Sandra gave up her job as a marketing director for a business development company in London and began to think about a business of her own that would allow her to work from home.

"I wanted to work with a fun product that I myself would like to buy or be given," she says. A year passed while Pickle Pie Gifts began to grow with Sandra working from her last home in Keston. At one point, Sandra was approached by John Lewis but just didn't think the relationship would work and decided to sell exclusively through NOTHS, having grown her team to include seven mums who mostly work from their own homes.

Last month was the company's best month to date. "Mother's Day and Father's Day are always good for us," she says, "but Christmas is the big one - in the eight weeks running up to the big day we do as much business as the rest of the year put together." So it would, of course, make considerable sense to have a new baby at just this time. Sandra is nothing if not up for a challenge and just as her peak season hit last November, second son Max arrived. "OK, so perhaps the timing wasn't the best," she says.

Possibily, but Sandra is a multi-tasker on a scale that makes a male head spin. Two years ago, with Pickle Pie Gifts growing rapidly, she and husband Richard decided to move from Keston to Smarden. With the move came a massive renovation and building programme and, just to make it a little more interesting, the couple opted to move into the property and live virtually out of two rooms with work hammering on around themselves and their one-year-old.

You name it, the property needed it. Not only did it require completely remodelling with rooms changing function and walls being torn out and relocated but it was too small and would need a serious two floor extension added. "It certainly needed a lot of work, but my father, Bev Drawbridge, lives nearby and he's a carpenter and builder so we couldn't have had anyone better to help guide us through it," she says. "He's been amazing."

What was the sitting room and dining room has now been knocked into one glorious double aspect kitchen/breakfast room which sweeps from the front of the house through to bi-fold doors leading out into the garden. The units are from Howdens in Hawkhurst and anything with a plug on it courtesy of Bosch, Smeg or Apple Mac - the latter providing a truly 21st century TV and sound system that extends wirelessly through every major room in the house. The floor is in grey city Limestone complemented by Farrow amp; Ball Elephant's Breath walls. Over the dining table from the Simply Oak range from House of Oak are glass-shaded lights from John Lewis that look uniform but take on individual characteristics when lit.

What was the old kitchen is now Richard's office complete with a seriously huge and cool glass desk and a superb Herman Miller swivel Aeron chair. Next door is a loo that used to be a larder and a utility room that was once a bathroom.

The new kitchen takes up about a third of the ground floor of the extension and the drawing room the other two thirds which means it's large enough to accommodate with ease some serious indulgence including the largest sofa I have ever seen. Huge, leather and L-shaped, it would accommodate not only Sandra and Richard's family but an occasional passing rugby team. On the wall opposite is a massive 55-inch flat-screen TV. The walls are papered in Cole amp; Son's Wood range that nicely welcomes in the garden beyond.

In one corner stands a distressed French armoire with chicken wire front and at the other end of the room a reclaimed brick fireplace with oak bressumer - both the bricks and wood sourced from Symonds Salvage in Bethersden. In it stands a woodburner and beside it a circular wattle basket full of logs.

Upstairs, in the older part of the house is William's room which was totally remodelled to show the attractive vaulted ceiling to its best advantage and now has one wall totally covered in old maps, sourced from antiques shops and fairs and expertly applied to the wall courtesy of Sandra's father. Next door is Max's room but at two weeks old when we visited he was not yet in residence.

Also in the older part of the house was the former master bedroom which has now become the guest bedroom. The new master and its smart en suite shower room are accommodated in the upstairs section of the property and two great touches here are three pieces of fabric by Alison Hullyer cleverly displayed in gilt frames and a standard lamp Sandra found at the Hospice in the Weald in Cranbrook, which she gilded before adding a bright pink and purple bobble trim to its shade. A brilliant idea in the shower room is a large mirror above the basin that is heated from behind to ensure it doesn't mist up.

Outside, in a neatly converted garage lives Pickle Pie Gifts along with two of its team and some very hi-tech heat printing technology.

A morning with Sandra leaves one truly in awe of her, not only because of her commercial vision and business acumen but also of her ability to juggle the personal and professional with such obvious enthusiasm, style and success. Not only have she and Richard, in two short years, cared for their young first born and added a new and delightful son to their family but also built a highly successful business and great family home.

I have no doubt whatever about her ability to do an equally outstanding job on the printing of my family's iPhone covers with my new coat of arms...

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming