The Woolpack Hotel in Tenterden is one of the great Wealden success stories of recent years. Taken over by Rob Cowan three years ago, it has swiftly made the transition from "rat-infested hell-hole" to one of the most popular hostelries in the area, winning praise for its service and atmosphere as well as scoring an outstanding 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor for its cuisine.
Rob, Caroline and family brought the Woolpack to life and since then, it has also won plaudits for its décor, which is no real surprise - Rob originally trained as an interior designer. So, with such obvious talents in creating attractive, welcoming environments, one might very reasonably expect his own home - Brick House Farm in High Halden - to be something really rather special. And you'd be right - it is. There is only one slight problem and that's the assumption that he is responsible for both home and hotel.
"With Rob's background and talents, it was natural that he would have great ideas for the farm when we took it over," says Rob's wife, Caroline. "But I decided that this was one home we would do my way. Rob's natural inclination would probably be to go for a more contemporary feel than I would but I really wanted a traditional, country farm feel and I hope this is what we have achieved."
It certainly is. Rarely have I walked into a warmer, more relaxing environment. I immediately kicked off my shoes, threw myself on the sofa in front of the inglenook and demanded tea and hot, buttered scones. That's a complete lie - but should any strange journalist ever walk in and do just that, Caroline has only herself to blame. This really is a lovely home.
Not that her previous home was at all shabby, of course. It's just that it was time for not only a change of home but a change in the way the couple lived. "We had had our niece, Holly's wedding at home and began thinking that we'd like to start a business running a venue for other people's weddings," she says. "Our then home wasn't really suitable, so we began looking and found Brick House Farm almost immediately. We fell for it the minute we saw it."
The farmhouse has the date of 1799 chiselled into a stone over the front door but its finest hour was probably during the Second World War, when a crashing Messerschmitt clipped the corner of the house leaving an honourable scar to this date. However, the couple believe that the farm holding predates the house by many years. Its big barn, for instance, has the date 1756 carved into the woodwork. Previous owners had used the farm for arable and dairy cows but Caroline and Rob now use it as a smallholding providing a mixture of pork, lamb and vegetables.
In addition to the main barn, that has now been converted to host a variety of events from weddings to corporate gatherings, the farm also boasts a variety of traditional outbuildings including a smaller barn which has been converted into a one bedroom studio and a former dairy which is now a three-bedroom unit. As part of their business the couple also offer 'glamping' in a variety of structures from an Alaskan storage tent to a superb fishing shack. The latter was built by The Shack Company, another of Rob's ventures.
When the couple took over the farm, Rob concentrated on converting the dairy and building the fishing shack, promising not to interfere in the house, which was to be strictly Caroline's domain. The house had been well kept but the couple wanted an extension to the kitchen. However, planning permission wasn't forthcoming so, instead of going out they went up, creating a fine part-vaulted ceiling.
Either side of the range are units created by splitting an old dresser, keeping the base as a lower unit and raising the shelves and putting on reclaimed and glazed doors. Add a touch of Shaker, French Grey, beech work surfaces, a double butler sink and a wonderful old ship's lantern from Corfu and you've a space which, though not vast, is light, bright and in keeping with the intimate but uncluttered feel of the rest of the property. At the end of the kitchen is a cosy little breakfast area which Caroline created by losing the ground floor bathroom.
The drawing/dining room runs the length of the building. Gathering around an ottoman and the hop-bedecked inglenook with its woodburner are two sofas, grey, and white and pink, from sofa.com and Caroline's mother respectively. In the corner sits a TV on a cabinet with a chicken wire front, like many nice pieces in the house, from Rising Star in Tenterden.
Standing sentry between the two parts of the room is a dresser the couple have had ever since they got together, 30 years ago. The superb dining table is from an Italian farmhouse by way of Caroline Zoob and its elegant high-backed bench from France. In the corner stands my favourite piece, a huge and chunky distressed oak bureau and on the wall nearby is a painting of one of the couple's daughter's pet goats.
Up an almost secret staircase, the master bedroom would be unrecognisable to the former owners. Once the wealth of beams were painted a gloomy black which brought lower a ceiling already not the highest. Now the entire room, including all the woodwork and the exposed chimney brickwork, is a pristine white, almost visually lifting the ceiling and creating a space of freedom and light. On the Victorian-style bed is a lovely handmade spread from Love Lane Vintage. "There was really no room for wardrobes so I used a big old shutter and a screen - both from Three French Hens - to hide the clothes," says Caroline. Next door, daughter Maisie's room is a delicate blizzard of pink, from the walls to the pretty patchwork spread and quilt. Her Victorian style bed is particularly pleasing, one of the more unusual I've seen. It comes, of course, from Ikea.
Although many period properties boast contemporary bathrooms, even here Caroline has resisted and gone for a traditional touch. Seriously clever use of space has meant that a modest-sized room now accommodates an elegant free-standing roll top bath, basin and loo, all surrounded by Rob's tongue-and-groove panelling, while never for a moment feeling pokey.
Outside, both the dairy and barn/studio conversions are outstanding, with beautiful use of exposed brickwork and age-old timbering. But perhaps the most romantic structure on the farm is the Fishing Shack on its perfect pond brimming with roach and wily carp. Personally, my interest in pitting my wits against an animal with a brain the size of a Liquorice Allsort is limited but just relaxing here for a couple of days with a good book or somebody who's read one would be a serious joy.
But then everything about Brick House Farm is a joy. This is a beautiful home that is living proof, if any was needed, that you don't have to have a degree in interior design to create something that is truly special and that will bring years of joy to you and your family.