Melodic Canvas

After coming to Goudhurst as a hop picker at 19, Suzanne Stobbs knew she’d love to return one day to live in the village. Now Suzanne and her husband Tim have found their perfect family home in an idyllic position in the heart of Goudhurst...

St Mary's church in Goudhurst sits, a solid and steadfast beacon, at the top of the Weald, where it's been a reassuring presence for the past nine hundred years. Suzanne and Tim Stobbs's house is located very close to the church and benefits from the same panoramic views out across the countryside. The couple love walking, and from this location the Weald is virtually their oyster. "There's an amazing range of walks from here," says Suzanne, "You can wander down to Scotney on one side and to the vineyards on the other."

Suzanne and her husband Tim and their four children had lived in their previous house for twenty-one years, so moving was quite a wrench for some members of the family. "I hadn't realised quite how much it meant to my son Alexander especially to leave the old house - but he does like the fact that there's room for two pianos here. And we're so close to the church where Alexander regularly plays the organ." Alexander is their youngest son and a very gifted musician. He suffers from the devastating illness cystic fibrosis, but despite this has achieved an enormous amount. He also starred in the Channel 4 documentary 'A Boy Called Alex', which showed him winning scholarships to both Eton and Cambridge - and being a charming and remarkable person throughout. Alexander is full of determination and zest for life, but his life-limiting, and ultimately incurable illness, and the treatment regime involved in managing it, is very gruelling and means that Suzanne needs to travel up to hospital in London twice a week, so life needs to be organised in a different and flexible way.

Their last house was much larger than this one and had a very large garden needing considerable upkeep too, so the move was a practical step. It was the idyllic position that drew them to the property. "This was only the second house we saw. We hadn't planned to move into an old house at all. But it was the location, being so close to the church - and Goudhurst is a place that I've always wanted to live in." Suzanne's family all live further west, Tim's as far as you can get to the southwest - in Cornwall - so it would have made sense to move nearer to them, but for Suzanne, the attraction to Goudhurst runs deep. "I've loved Goudhurst ever since I was a student and came hop picking here one summer when I was 19," says Suzanne. "I had such a wonderful time then and said that one day I'd love to come back here to live. I was amazed to find that all those years later, there are even some of the original people that I met back then."

Built as three small cottages, the house dates from the seventeenth century and retains many original features. It has been extended, the previous owners building an annexe that could be sectioned off and rented out. "So we have three separate staircases, which can get rather confusing!" says Suzanne. There was a fair amount of work to be done when they first moved in. "We spent the first few months here making the house warmer - installing cosy wood burners and Tim has repaired the windows, repointed the walls and re-plastered inside." This is a very friendly warm house now and the nearby church provides a comforting presence, but in an old property, if you start peeling back the layers, you discover a many sided past and this house may hold a secret, darker history. There is a cellar under the floor of the sitting room that could have been used to store smugglers' 'booty'. "A cellar in a neighbouring property leads to the church," says Suzanne. "Smuggling was known to have gone on there."

The ceilings in this house are beamed and typically rather low, but thanks to the addition of a Velux window above one of the staircases and judicious use of white paint, the house doesn't feel especially dark and gloomy. This is helped by the addition of a pale Italian marble floor that replaces more traditional floorboards in much of the ground floor. It's an unusual touch, but one that Suzanne definitely approves of. "The floor was put in by the previous owners. It must have cost a fortune, but is very much appreciated by us, as it's lovely, and easy to maintain too," she says.

Plain white walls and the pale floor could have made the house a little stark, but warm, dark wood, bright coloured sofas in the sitting room and complementary rugs on the stone floors keep a cosy feel. "I love colour," says Suzanne, which can be seen in her extensive collections of china and other collectibles. The Sicilian pottery pieces are especially vibrant, in orange, blue and white, and there are many other colourful finds all over the house. Suzanne's love of making things is as evident as her quest for colour, especially in her paintings. Her output at the moment is quite prolific, and her uplifting, colourful paintings are everywhere.

It was while Alexander was in hospital as a child that Suzanne, a music teacher by profession, discovered her love for painting. "The Royal Brompton isn't like other hospitals - there are no set visiting hours and you can sleep in the room if you need to, or in one nearby. They held some art classes for the patients culminating in an exhibition to which family members were also invited to submit works." She was amazed when all her paintings sold. "They were kiddie paintings really and very naive - to say the least!" she laughs. That first experience has grown into a passion and since then she hasn't stopped, her style developing as her confidence has grown. Husband Tim is also very supportive, making frames for the artwork.

Suzanne's paintings are mainly local views through the seasons: "I love this time of the year," she says. "The fields are being harvested - so I sometimes have to be very quick, as the composition that I'm in the middle of can completely change overnight if the farmer harvests his crop, or moves the hay bales - which makes it a challenge sometimes." A case of seizing the moment and making sketches while the sun shines. "I try to get up at 6am and am able to go out and do an hour or two sketching before I come in for breakfast - or before I have to catch the train up to London," she says. This sounds quite exhausting to me, but exhilarating too.

As well as painting, Suzanne also finds time to craft things out of papier mâché and to knit and sew, often making items up from scraps. The appliqué tablecloth in the kitchen has been made from a plain old linen tablecloth from a hotel and upstairs on the beds there are some beautiful and intricate patchwork bedspreads. Much of the material for the things Suzanne makes is from Bell House Fabrics, but she enjoys recycling and creating new things from old, and any small leftover pieces are made into outfits for rag and peg dolls, and also small decorations for the simple birch twig hanging displays around the house.

Upstairs in her daughter's room, a sweetly simple, light filled room, we pause to look out of the window at the church and the view. "I did quite a lot of painting from this room, with the easel by the window looking out. You get such a good view and can also see people coming and going." She laughs, adding: "I'd be able to solve murder mysteries from up here, watching everyone as they go about their business - like an episode of Miss Marple!"

We go through the charming Jack and Jill bathroom and out through another bedroom into the adjoining annexe, where the light from the extra window floods through. This is where Suzanne has her studio. Downstairs there's a giant table containing a large number of Suzanne's paintings. "I have to spread them all out here like this," she says, "because I work on so many at once, and I paint in oils in a very textured way, using many layers that I apply quite thickly. It takes an age to dry, so laying them out like this works well."

The annexe is at right angles to the main house, making the small outdoor space into a courtyard garden. It was originally all paved, but Tim and Suzanne have removed some of the hardstanding and made a flower bed down one side. Suzanne also grows lots of plants in pots, and is particularly proud of a mimosa, recently bought from Great Dixter and awaiting a permanent home. She has managed to give the garden a colour injection, but it's hard to get used to a smaller space, and she misses the large garden from their old house, even if the upkeep is much less here. We've been here five years now and I do miss gardening. I would love to grow some veggies."

Living in a completely different style of property to the one you've lived in before is always going to require compromise and an adaptable nature. And often within a family, what suits one person won't be ideal for another. "Tim aspires to live in a minimalist house with no 'bric-a-brac' - as he calls my collections!" says Suzanne. But I sense that he can't mind too much. "Yes, he's very supportive and puts up with a lot," she laughs. The ability to compromise and adapt is something that this family are familiar with, having had to face many challenges over the years. It's testament to their strength and faith that they're continuing to live and grow, as steadfast and sure as the church that sits opposite.

Address Book:

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming & Helen Barton