When it comes to finding a new place to live I'm a great believer that just as people find houses, houses find people and so it was with Pennybridge, now home to Jilly and Peter Burnet.
Some twenty years ago the Burnets were looking to move to accommodate a bunch of growing offspring but they wanted to stay in and around Bayham where they already lived and had lots of friends. One morning after the school run Peter dropped by at the newsagents and, although already registered, he also decided to poke his head in at the local estate agents. Serendipitously they had that very morning taken on a new property - Pennybridge Farm - and while there were no photos or details, Peter decided to take matters into his own hands and take a sneak preview.
What happened next was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, as he realized he'd seen and indeed tried to buy the house many years before but was beaten to it. This time there were to be no such shenanigans, he returned straight away with Jilly for whom it was just as much love at first sight and before anyone else could even get a look in the deal was struck. However, it was not until they moved in that they spied a huge PB picked out in dark mosaic tiles at the bottom of the pool. Meant, of course, to stand for Pennybridge it hasn't stopped Peter spinning yarns about bespoke pools for many a summer!
Pennybridge, first appears on a map in 1485 and little has changed over the years. It is as though time has stood still as you leave the road near Wadhurst and drop down a wooded drive into the most idyllic private valley that faces south west towards Mayfield. The house, a glorious black and white timbered affair, sits comfortably in the middle of a rambling cottage garden with an old stone path leading up to the original heavy oak front door... I can't wait to go in.
Expecting it to be quite dark with low ceilings, typical of such old houses, Pennybridge surprises. In the 1920s it was owned by a particularly tall gentleman, and as you do, he decided to raise all the ceilings on the ground floor to accommodate his height. And then Peter and Jilly completed the transformation by inviting an artist friend to paint the blackened beams using a clever trompe l'oeil technique so that they appear sandblasted and the whole house is much lighter and brighter than you would imagine.
The front door opens straight into a central hallway dominated by a huge inglenook fireplace, with big comfy sofas either side of the fire, perfect for flopping when you return from a long winter walk. All the walls and surfaces are filled with an eclectic mix of paintings and treasures like the huge china dog and obelisk in the alcove, bought from Conran in the 70s when Peter had an all white house. However, maritime (his) and horses (hers) seem to be recurring themes as you pass from room to room, all of which lead off from this hallway.
The sitting room stretches the entire depth of the house with leaded windows on three sides - probably installed when the ceilings were raised - lending the room an arts-and-crafts feel. Painted in subtle tones of pale blue and yellow, and housing a magnificent baby grand piano it is a really light, elegant and quite formal room and perfect when the house is full of people but not otherwise much used.
The Garden Room however - which also leads off from the hall - is where Jilly and Peter spend a great deal of their time. With underfloor heating and a southwest aspect it's a warm and cosy place to soak up the winter sunshine and in the summer they simply throw open the full width French windows and it becomes a perfect place to sit inside but also outside in the evening. Peter and Jilly are obviously great party givers and one can't help but feel that the Garden Room has seen some action over the years so I ask about the guitars in the corner. Peter explains he only picks one up if it's been a particularly good evening and then Jilly adds that he only knows one song - Stand by Me - so no one has to suffer too long.
Also leading from the hall is the traditional farmhouse kitchen, which is in the oldest and original part of the house. When the Burnets bought Pennybridge this was two rooms, a kitchen painted blue and black with wall to wall 1950s cupboards and a separate dining room, but discovering the partition to be a flimsy new addition it is now one really expansive open-plan room.
The kitchen end is much larger than most kitchens with lots of useful cupboards and island, an Aga - of course - and enough work space for a team of cooks and bottle washers, should one have them, which evidently Pennybridge once did. On the wall is the original, and still working Servants Bell Box - used to summon staff to whatever room 'rang'. I am much amused when Jilly tells me they still use it…Peter is an early riser, especially in the summer when he likes to be in the garden soon after the sun is up and so when Jilly wakes a little later she rings the bell and if she's lucky a cup of tea arrives. Everyone should have one!
A splendid old oak table that easily seats 14 fills the other half of the room which then opens out into a seating area around the fireplace that is the back of the chimney in the hallway. Two captain's chairs, a ship's light, riding boots and lots of teapots which Jilly has collected since she was fifteen form an interesting display.
Beyond the kitchen is Jilly's office from where she and her friend Van Keeling run JV Productions, a company that regularly brings the best of comedy from the Edinburgh festival to London and deepest Sussex - now resident at The Bell in Ticehurst. It's a very peaceful room, painted in pale green with lots of treasured objects picked up in her travels to Tibet, India and Morocco interspersed with paintings from local artists and some of Jilly's own work.
And then it's up the stairs to discover what Pennybridge has to offer on two further floors. The master bedroom at the south end of the house has a wonderful colonial feel with lots of old mahogany furniture bought off the set of Room with a View on which Jilly worked as a location manager. Simple linen mushroom coloured curtains look fabulous and with big windows to the east the bedroom gets bathed in morning sunshine - that cup of tea must be pretty perfect!
The Burnets have not changed any of the bathrooms since they moved in and as seventies timepieces they have now come into their own as desirable retro designs. The bath and basins in the en suite off the master bedroom are a very relaxing oyster pearl hue but much more notable is the Rose bathroom that leads off the guest bedroom. Here everything, including the loo, is covered with roses and one of their guests gave up after counting 3,000. It would certainly fetch a bit on e-bay.
There are two other bedrooms on this floor, all adorable with whitewashed walls and beams, brass beds and vintage bedspreads creating a warren of cosy bolt holes for their now grown-up offspring and visitors alike.
And then there's another staircase leading up to the top deck with two more bedrooms. Up on this level the first thing you come to is a little alcove or 'theatre' where the children used to perform puppet shows. Painted in a cool turquoise green, a striking painting by well known Ugandan artist Ronex now hangs in the alcove which has become a restful place to escape and read a book though one rather suspects when the grandchildren arrive this whole floor will be reclaimed and the puppet theatre might well reopen!
Pennybridge has 55 rolling acres of grass pasture but the house is set in a beautiful, blowsy cottage garden looking across the lawns to the swimming pool and an old farm building that was a dairy and stable.
In this old barn many of the original features remain like the doors and old iron stall dividers, and it has been sensitively restored to create additional living space. A tree felled on the estate was milled and kiln dried to make the floor boards, a chunky old Danish woodburner chucks out the heat and the artworks - such as a wonderful sculpture created by Jilly using her father's Second World War RAF tools - create a really rustic ambience. This is where we had our comedy nights says Jilly and we especially love using it at Christmas when we cover all the rafters with holly and ivy from the farm and often have 100 people here singing carols in the candlelight!
Sounds amazing but all good things must come to an end, and after 20 happy years of family life teaming with kids, parties, dogs, ponies, church fêtes, family chaos and gardening, Jilly and Peter have decided the time has come to pack their toothbrushes and travel.