Secret Escape


For twenty-six years Debbie Rix and her husband Tony have been evolving their generously proportioned Victorian home to suit the various stages of family life. Peaceful and calm, the beautiful gardens which surround the house now provide Debbie with the perfect spot in which to develop her plans for her latest novel...

Debbie Rix is best known as the original newsreader on Breakfast Time, the BBC's first foray into early morning television. She ditched the shoulder pads and Eighties hair years ago, and now runs a successful corporate events company and most recently has published her first novel (more of which later). In her 'spare' time she has created a house full of interesting treasures, decorated in a palette of gentle and faded colours that give an air of informal charm. Oh, and did I mention she's also a passionate gardener!

Debbie lives with her husband Tony and two grown-up children in a glorious late Victorian house on the Kent/Sussex borders. Tucked away down one of those winding lanes that leads from nowhere to nowhere, the original cottage was built in 1867, but by the time Debbie and Tony bought it 26 years ago it had already been 'got at' with two ugly extensions, one on either end.

But they could see the potential and before long set about designing two new wings, built using reclaimed materials to make them blend seamlessly with the original red brick cottage.

Entering through the side entrance - why don't we ever use our front doors? - you come into a part of the house created by knocking down a rambling mishmash of passages, utility rooms, pantries, stores and cupboards - once eight spaces in total! Now it's simply a hall filled with light from a glass conservatory roof. A large painted French armoire looks great, and also serves as useful storage for all those coats that seem to multiply over the years. A pretty little bergàre sofa and painted grey table - it was being thrown out, so Debbie got going with some Annie Sloan paint - provide a useful corner for pulling on boots.

The hall leads directly into a very sunny kitchen. The bones of the kitchen - a pale maple floor and the units - are not new, but a clever refresh and revamp of other parts gives the overall impression of a completely new kitchen. Out went the old wood-fuelled Rayburn (which must have pleased the local fire brigade, having been called out on at least three occasions) and in came an Everhot electric range oven. Debbie is a convert. "It's warm, it's clean, it doesn't lose any heat when you lift up the lids and the hotplates are big enough for several pans at once. I don't know why more people don't have Everhots." The almost translucent Fired Earth mosaic marble tiles behind the range look clean and contemporary and sit well with the Carrara marble worktops. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball Clunch and the units in Little Greene Pearl.

The bespoke central island unit rather ingeniously incorporates a hi-tech stainless steel drawer unit at one end. Debbie saw the unit at Ikea, loved the practicality of its wide, gliding drawers but felt it was too big and shiny for this fairly traditional kitchen. So she and Tony asked their joiner to build it into the island, so the only part you see is the flush front.

The almost translucent Fired Earth mosaic marble tiles behind the range look clean and contemporary and sit well with the Carrara marble worktops. The walls are painted in Farrow & Ball Clunch and the units in Little Greene Pearl...

Leading off from the kitchen is the breakfast room; with walls painted in Farrow & Ball Shaded White, and plain wooden floors softened with rugs and kilims the room has a simple and serene charm. A pretty pine fireplace picked up years ago in The Pantiles is decorated with a frieze of Kentish hops. Sitting opposite is a large and rather unusual Swedish chest, one of the first pieces of furniture Tony and Debbie ever bought. This room is also home to part of what is an extensive collection of blue and white pottery, a passion which Debbie has been indulging since she was eighteen.

At the other end of the house - with offices and stairs in between - the dining room is painted in a heavenly shade of Tuscan Red, the perfect backdrop for candle-lit dinner parties. A fascinating and eclectic selection of mainly black and white prints are hung around the room; both of Debbie's parents were architects and there are some of their drawings, plus some woodcuts given as a wedding present and several Italian prints that Tony bought when he lived in Florence studying Italian.

Carry on through the dining room and you come to the sitting room, painted and decorated in shades of pale apricot with splashes of a heavenly soft pale green - a colour Debbie has a real passion for. The fireplace has a wonderful plaster relief design on pine. Originally it would have been painted, but in its unadorned state it blends well into the generally faded and muted shades of this elegant room. In addition to more of the Blue & White collection - this time ginger jars bought in Hong Kong - the room is filled with interesting artefacts, mainly picked up at Ardingly Antiques Fairs where Debbie is a regular visitor. What particularly catches my eye is a small green Indian doll, one of a collection which, during the height of the Raj, were given by the British to their servants to overcome the language barrier and explain what job they were expected to do.

There's more of the Indian theme upstairs in the main bedroom with its lovely paisley throws and washed-out kilims. A faded old dressmaker's mannequin was previously used by Debbie and a friend when they ran a children's dressing-up business. They would go to London's East End to buy silks and saris and use these to create fabulous dressing-up clothes for little girls which they sold direct. "Great fun but not at all profitable, so all that remains now are some lovely fabric remnants and the redundant mannequin!" she says.

Growing up in a family of architects, much of Debbie's childhood was spent being dragged round baroque churches and ancient monuments. And while she has not followed in her parents' footsteps she has inevitably inherited a love of design...

The walls of the bedroom are painted in a restful shade of yellow - Roman Ochre from Fired Earth - with quite heavy tones of grey. It's the ideal colour to set off the beautiful quilt that was sent over from America by Debbie's sister. Intended to go on the bed, Debbie thought it was too special, so hung it behind the headboard as she pondered its next move... and it has been there ever since.

Further along the landing you pass through what was once the children's playroom - which has unsurprisingly morphed into something a little more sophisticated. And on to their bedrooms. Debbie is a great believer in reinventing rather then replacing, and we laugh as she remembers all the different incarnations the wardrobe doors were subjected to during the growing-up years, including a fairly lurid green that was obviously the business when Charlotte was a teenager.

Born into a family of architects, much of Debbie's childhood was spent being dragged round baroque churches and ancient monuments. And while she has not followed in her parents' footsteps she has inevitably inherited a love of design. In Debbie's world, structure and shape matter - and nowhere is this more evident than in the design of the garden. Originally this was just a large expanse of lawn with shrubs around the edge, but over the years it has been transformed into a series of inspiring and original garden rooms.

First we visit the recently revamped vegetable garden where the raised beds are divided by smart gravel paths. This leads to a more natural area where the blousy borders appear to blend seamlessly into glorious open countryside. And then we get to the white walled garden.

Debbie had always wanted a walled garden, and when the new wings of the house were being built, she spied her opportunity and asked the builders to keep going with the external wall - and thus her dream came true. Filled with roses, clematis and lupins and the occasional splash of blue, this is a special spot and a real sun trap.

...it was Tony who suggested using the rather neglected summerhouse tucked away in a corner of the garden. And not only did he suggest it but he then set about doing something about it...

There is a lovely bench under a Rambling Rector rose, which would be a perfect morning quiet spot, but that is not where Debbie squirrels off to when she wants some real peace and quiet. In order to write she knew she had to escape the constant emails, phone calls and faxes that are a fact of life in any busy office and it was Tony who suggested using the rather neglected summerhouse tucked away in a corner of the garden. And not only did he suggest it but he then set about doing something about it. Being quite a handy chap it wasn't long before the cobwebs and deckchairs were replaced with a smart tongue and groove clad sanctuary painted in a very restful pale blue, the perfect place to write a novel.

And in March this year Secrets of the Tower was published. Two women, centuries apart are bound together by the secrets of one of the most iconic buildings ever created - The Leaning Tower of Pisa. But of course it doesn't stop there. As I leave, Debbie tells me about plans for her next novel, about Ming china, and then turns to the terrace at the back of the house and proclaims it rather dull and in need of some more work. I have no doubt that this will get off the drawing board before too long!

Address Book:

  • More information concerning Debbie's writing and corporate events can be found at www.debbierix.com
  • Her novel Secrets of the Tower is published by Bookouture and is available as a paperback for £8.99 from Amazon.co.uk , and as a Kindle edition, too.
  • The next Ardingly International Antiques & Collectors Fair takes place on Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 September. For more info. visit www.iacf.co.uk .
  • words Jane Howard
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming & Helen Barton