OK, I'll admit it, I'm a Downton Abbey fan. So what a treat it was to visit this splendid house near Wadhurst, that still has many of the relics of its illustrious upstairs-downstairs past.
Turning off the public road you dip down through the most picture perfect parkland - sheep grazing under huge oak trees, fields fenced in by old estate iron railings - and eventually happen across the magnificent house. It's quite breathtaking and not surprising that when Jamie and Becky Gunning first drove up to the house, before even getting out of the car they were quite sure they would be buying it!
They had originally lived in London but, like so many couples, they wanted more space for their two young boys and the country beckoned. Their first move was to a cottage near Lamberhurst but before too long this proved rather small and, being on a fairly busy road, ended up feeling noisier than their original London home.
Funnily enough Becky had looked at the other side of the house - which was divided in the 1980s - but it was over budget and seemed like too big a project. Then the other half came on the market and, looking to move on from Lamberhurst, she urged Jamie to go with her to take a look - the rest is history.
The house was built in 1586 but had extensive additions in the Georgian period and again in Victorian times. When they looked round, although all the interior furnishings were very pink and very eighties, the house still retained glimmers of its original grandeur and the Gunnings could see the potential for the most perfect family home.
Entering through the front door you step into a really magnificent hall, huge and fabulous - and as Becky says, the perfect room for Christmas. Many of the original features such as the oak panelling (which luckily avoided being painted pink), the stone fireplace, the light fittings and shutters remain but here, and throughout the house, Becky has carefully added colours, fabrics and pieces of furniture that cleverly combine a grand past with a distinctly contemporary present.
A beautiful table from Maison in Tunbridge Wells, which easily seats 14 people, sits in the middle of the room, complemented by button-backed chairs in two shades of soft grey linen. An imposing stag-horn chandelier (sourced from Georgia Lacey) hangs over the table and gives the room a real hunting-lodge feel - an idea that has been followed through with carefully placed vintage riding boots and trunks. The pictures on the walls are an interesting and eclectic mix of finds, gifts and treasures. Some lovely sketches and watercolours of the house were kindly left behind by previous owners who felt they should stay with the house. In a kitchen drawer the Gunnings came across an old picture of a former owner taken about a hundred years ago, standing by one of the old oak trees on the estate that is recorded in the Domesday Book.
A secret door in the wood panelling by the fireplace opens from the hall into what was a small and dark extension added to provide the Victorians with lavatories and sculleries. This whole area has been opened up and covered in jolly chicken wallpaper to create a wonderful bright and light laundry and cloakroom. Two original Victorian side-by-side loos (no one is quite sure why) each with its own cubicle have been kept, complete with beautiful elm seats, and not surprisingly the boys have each adopted one as their own.
An original dark and stained double sink turned out to be a very rare John Balding 'Trone' (gasps here from anyone who knows their antique sinks) and, following a complete renovation, it now looks spectacular in an upstairs bathroom.
Another secret door, this time a trap door carefully set in the wooden floor of the main hall, leads down to cavernous cellars that spread out like tentacles in all directions under the house. Old floor plans reveal the extent of the below-stairs activity with rooms marked as 'Knives and Boots', 'Brushing Room', 'Gun Room', 'Heating Chamber', 'Kitchen', 'Dairy' etc - you might expect Mrs Patmore to appear at any moment!
The other room that leads directly off the main hall is the drawing room - a very elegant room whose Georgian proportions are superb. It still has all the original plaster moulding although, when the Gunnings first saw the house it was covered by rather shocking pink and white wallpaper. Now the room is painted in a soft grey, Slaked Lime by Little Greene, which really opens it up to create a lovely light and spacious room. Having moved from a fairly small cottage to a house with large and grand rooms, more furniture was required in a fairly short time which has been sourced from all manner of places. Some has been given and some found - Becky is especially fond of an old card index chest, now used as a side table, which they came across on a pavement in Rye with a 'please take me' sign on it. Becky has stylishly mixed junk shop finds with contemporary pieces such as silver lamps from Georgia Lacey, some great finds from the Wealden Times Fairs and a huge mirror from Blooms in Tunbridge Wells.
What was originally the library, is now the kitchen. Many features from its heyday such as the panelling, under-window bench-seats and fabulous carved curtain rails dripping with fruit, still remain as a reminder of a grand past. Surprisingly, the eighties kitchen units and Aga are also still in place but with a lot of stripping, lifting the cream carpets and a great deal of Farrow & Ball Hardwick White paint the Gunnings have cleverly given them a new lease of life to create a really light, bright and very pretty kitchen.
Upstairs, all of the rooms have been redecorated and modernised with the work carried out by Oakover Contracting, a local company with a real passion and sensitivity when it comes to working with older buildings.
At the top of the stairs is the stunning guest bedroom that looks out across the beautiful parkland. The panels have been painted in Farrow & Ball Light Blue to create a very tranquil feel, perfectly complemented by stunning pale grey/green Colefax & Fowler crewelwork curtains. An old bed head was reupholstered by TJ Upholstery in Wadhurst and it must be a real treat for town-dwelling guests to lie in such a beautiful room gazing out over some of the best countryside East Sussex has to offer.
Getting the guest bathroom right was a complete nightmare, as the original cast-iron pipe work could not be moved, so everything else had to be designed around it. The floor had to be reinforced to support a magnificent cast-iron bath. Great slate grey wallpaper featuring squids and coral looks smart and funky set against green tiles and lighting from Olive & the Fox in Tunbridge Wells (who supplied most of the upstairs lighting).
The master bedroom and bathroom are raised a few stairs above the landing and other bedrooms, giving a sense of seclusion and privacy - though, with two small boys this is unlikely to be a reality. Huge windows face west with stunning views across to Wadhurst church. In such a light room, Becky has been able to paint the walls in Little Greene Dark Lead to really stunning effect. The en suite is home to the famous double Trone sink from downstairs, where it sits in magnificent splendour complemented by Farrow & Ball wallpaper and grey tiles.
What is now known as 'Granny's Room' is an adorable little secret annexe that occupies the first floor of the Victorian extension on the side of the house. Originally a dark corridor leading to a laundry room it was quite a challenge to know what to do. But Becky has very cleverly turned the corridor into a little anteroom using Capital to Coast 'Library' wallpaper which leads into a cosy bedroom with pretty strawberry toile curtains. The tiny bathroom, painted surprisingly in Farrow & Ball's Off Black works really well with Olive & the Fox lamps.
Both the boys have fun bedrooms decorated with interesting wallpapers and tones of blue - with, of course, a liberal smattering of Lego, cars, bats, balls and books to complete the look.
Set in extensive parkland, the house doesn't really need its own private garden but much of the original formal framework remains. Beautiful old York stone terraces surround the house, leading down through lawns to woodland beyond. And the views are breathtaking.
A sense of history pervades - horse and carriages, butlers, and balls - no doubt this house has seen it all over the years. Now with a stunning 21st century makeover it looks very well set for an equally imaginative and interesting future.