Not many of us ever get the chance to build our own homes, but if we were in that lucky position, beyond the obvious, what would be the one thing you would insist on having, however ditsy? When the Carsons - Helena, Julian and their two daughters Philippa and Katie - found themselves with a blank sheet of paper and a house to build, they all added their own 'must have'. So, when being shown round this fabulous house it was fascinating to see who had chosen what. You would never have guessed the girls' choices but in Julian's case it was probably what every man would choose if he could! More later.
When the girls were still young the Carsons had moved further from London to find a larger family home with a bigger garden. They found what they were looking for, outside a thriving village, but the garden backed on to another collection of houses. So, the dream of coming home from London on a summer's evening and sitting out in the garden with a glass of wine was slightly marred by the sight and sound of neighbours doing exactly the same. Before long the hunt was on for better views and more solitude.
Helena explains that at the time, the late 90s, Grand Designs had just arrived on our TV screens inspiring us all with fabulous and exotic buildings. By comparison, everything the estate agent showed them seemed rather pedestrian. Then they hit on the idea of building their own dream home and started looking for the ideal plot. It wasn't long before they found it.
What they found was a rather unloved 1920s house, sitting in a large plot of land with fabulous south-facing views over unspoilt farmland. They invited architect Stephen Langer to go take a look at the house and his report baldly stated: lovely drive, interesting front door and stunning views. In other words, the perfect plot for their own Grand Design. Working closely with the architect, the Carsons ended up building a symmetrical, classic house in the style of a Georgian rectory, with a central section of three floors flanked by two matching single-storey wings.
One of these is the kitchen and this is where we started the grand tour. It's a stunning light and airy space made all the more imposing by virtue of a double height ceiling creating a church-like effect. The walls are painted in gardenia and, because the scale of the room is so large, any regular kitchen furniture would have been swamped, so individual units - scaled up to fit the room - were made by Edmonson Interiors of Goudhurst using oak with granite surfaces in tones of chestnut and black. The slate floor tiles also had to be bigger, so worktop slabs were used to keep the room to scale. The chicken motif blinds - along with all the soft furnishings throughout the house - were made up by Mary Ensor. But, what really makes the room special, are the two fabulous wrought iron chandeliers hung in a stately fashion at either end of the room and supplied by Illuminations in Tunbridge Wells.
Leading from the kitchen is a passageway to the family room where the Carsons decided to break from the more formal theme found in the rest of the house. A Corbusier chaise longue covered in cowhide makes a striking statement, as does the birds' nest of a lamp made with tendrils of stainless steel and pearly shades. Bespoke American walnut units house the cinema system and there is even a fridge to chill the beers, when watching the rugby. Oh the joys of designing your own home!
Another corridor from the kitchen curves off towards the hall, with a study and cloakroom leading off it. All the joinery in the house was carried out by Westgate Joinery from Hailsham and it is impressive just how much effort they put into ensuring the proportions and detail so obsessed over by the Georgians were meticulously replicated in this modern house. All the skirting boards, architraves and door panels are completely correct and they even went to the effort of making the curved door to the cloakroom in the traditional fashion of bending it round a wooden barrel. The study is painted in Farrow & Ball Chinese Red, a striking colour that really works and is the perfect backdrop for the oak bookcases, dark leather chairs and period oil painting sourced from Phoenix Antiques.
Beyond the study you come to a wide entrance hall. As you enter the house from the front door, not only are you confronted by the magnificent view framed by the rear door but also the staircase. The oak staircase winds up through the first and second floors with a glass cupola at the top throwing down rays of natural light. From the hall we came to the room that was top of Helena's wish list: a beautiful sun-drenched morning room. Having fallen in love with some quite stunning Nina Campbell duck egg blue crewelwork curtains in a magazine, that was the starting point. When teamed up with ivory walls, a very pretty marble fireplace and a contemporary chandelier, she really has created an elegant and serene space.
A formal dining room also leads off the hall and is painted in Farrow & Ball Hay - a dark yellow teamed with blood red damask curtains. You can imagine how fabulous this room looks at night. Centre stage is a magnificent fireplace. All the fireplaces in the house were sourced from Chesney's in London. They worked hard to ensure all the fireplaces chosen were appropriate to the style of each room and then came down to oversee the installations. The made-to-measure over-mantle mirror is from Joseph McCarthy, a company in the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, that hand-makes frames copied from its archive of historically important pieces.
At the opposite end of the house to the kitchen is the equally imposing drawing room, another double-height room but this time with a barrel ceiling rather than a pitched one. The walls and the curtains - 82 metres were required for the drops and swags in this room alone - are all in neutral tones, so create a perfect backdrop for the interesting pieces Helena has added like the paintings, cushions and lamps. Making the biggest statement is the large oil painting by artist Bill Talbot of the two girls. Commissioned when they were young in bold vibrant colours, all the elements of the painting represent a personal story and a space has even been left to add more and so finish the painting when they are older.
At the other end of the room, two pretty Bergere chairs covered with a deep red and cream check provide a great spot to sit and look out over the rolling countryside that sweeps around the house. The first floor has an open landing looking up to the glass cupola and down to the hall from which all the bedrooms lead. The master bedroom works really well with its dark sand walls perfectly offsetting an old brass bed covered in a velour throw of the deepest bronze. Three sets of windows ensure this rich palette looks sumptuous rather than dark. At the other end of the bedroom is a seating area with comfortable sofas and chairs and an especially pretty Victorian writing desk given to Helena as a 40th birthday present. The guest bedroom is adorable. Painted in gardenia and with thick Colefax and Fowler floral curtains, the room has a really fresh and pretty feel that any visitor couldn't help but enjoy.
Across the landing are the girls' rooms - identical mirror images of each other and interconnected by a shared bathroom with pretty pearly pink and purple Fired Earth tiles. Top of Philippa's wish list was a window seat and a bedside table, while all Katie wanted was a secret hideaway. All wishes were met. As the girls have grown up, both rooms have been redecorated, Philippa's in cool shades of white and taupe and Katie's with splashes of purple. But the bedside tables - made by the joiners - and the window seats are still there. As are the walk-in cupboards which made perfect secret hideaways in their day and have now morphed into stylish walk-in wardrobes.
Although there is a wet room off the master bedroom, the master bathroom is on the second floor for the simple reason that Helena and Julian wanted to be able to lie in the bath and gaze up at the stars. Choosing the bath, which would be very much centre stage, was a big decision and after much research they opted for a classic Porcelanosa white bath which sits in magnificent splendour on a plinth in the middle of the room under a skylight. Everything else has been paired down to create a modern, minimalist feel. As bathrooms go, it really works.
Having finished building a house on this scale, most people would sit back and consider the job done, but there was one more project pending - a walled garden. So back came SEDAC, who built the house and of whom the Carsons can't speak highly enough, and the bones of the garden and greenhouse were built. Grant Brickell of The Wellingham Walled Herb Garden then came to sort out paths and beds. Today it looks like something that is hundreds of years old, an absolute pleasure to behold, and provides vegetables, fruit and flowers for the house.
Visiting the house today you would never imagine it was a new-build. Covered in creepers and roses it looks like it has been there a long time and has certainly met all the dreams and inspirations that the family drew up when they set out on their own Grand Design. Ah yes, Julian's 'must have'.
Finally, we went down some less-polished stairs at the back of the house to the most amazing wine cellar, built out of brick and stone with a dusty old table and chairs where Julian and his oeonophile friends will no doubt have spent many happy hours.