Keeping it natural


In an area famed for its atmospheric, timber houses, Mark and Tara were hard-pushed to find one that provided the light-filled home they were after. After a year of searching and a year of negotiating, they finally moved into this magnificent farmhouse in Grafty Green where a liberal application of white paint has helped make the most of the natural light...

Many of the pronouncements of the great American architect Louis Khan could be, shall we say, a little opaque but the one I rarely enter an impressive space without remembering is simple enough. "A room," he once said, "is not a room without natural light."

"Architects in planning rooms today have forgotten their faith in natural light," said Khan. "Depending on the touch of a finger to a switch, they are satisfied with static light and forget the endlessly changing qualities of natural light, in which a room is a different room every second of the day."

In the Weald, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to outstanding examples of period architecture, particularly Tudor and Jacobean; times when the wool trade was at its height and both farmers and merchants prospered. One-room medieval hall houses were converted into comfortable multi-room, multi-floor homes, elegant new purpose-built properties went up and villages and towns expanded at an impressive rate.

So if you're looking for a period property - and to many escaping London for the good life, a period property is often seen as an essential part of the country idyll - there are few better starting points for your journey than the Weald. My family was no exception and when we abandoned the rus in urbe of leafy Clapham for the real thing, our first home was a pretty 17th Century cottage on a vineyard.

"This place is driving me nuts," said my wife, a week into the idyll. "It's like living in a tomb. I can't see a thing." And it was hard not to appreciate her irritation. After the light that used to pour in through Victorian sashes, the dribble that the leaded lights grudging allowed through probably meant that after a month we'd all be suffering from myopia and a dash of vitamin D deficiency.

Low ceilings, heavy beams, small windows, ancient glass - all conspired to ensure that there was hardly a single human activity in which one could engage without the assistance of a head torch. Try as we might, it was difficult not to conclude that we'd spent a not insignificant amount of wonga on a gloom with a view.

Losing the leaded lights would have been sacrilege and we'd never get planning to increase their size or add more so the only option was to make better use of what light they allowed us. Accordingly, we ordered a tanker-full of white paint and hired a sandblaster. Anything that wasn't wood and couldn't move fast enough was painted white and the timbers were blasted back to lovely clean oak. The cottage was all but transformed and divorce was put on the back-burner.

Tara and Mark's farmhouse is considerably larger than our first cottage and its supply of light considerably greater but they, too, were moving from a town property to a period country home and for them, too, light was a priority.

Mark was the driving force behind the move with Tara a little more sceptical. It took a year to find the right property but when they saw their farmhouse they both knew it was the one. The course of true love, however, often has a habit of not running quite as smoothly as one hopes.

"We fell in love with it but we had to fight for a year to get it," she says. "We kept losing our buyers but Mark was like a dog with a bone. It was the setting that was so perfect and the house had so much character." And it's very hard to disagree with either. It was truly a real find.

Like us, Tara set to work with the white paint, the only difference being that hers was posh white paint - Farrow & Ball's Strong White whereas ours merely said 'white' on the tin and left the manufacturer and all else to one's imagination. I'd love to say there was absolutely no difference and that they both did exactly the same job but they didn't and don't.

Farrow & Ball's Strong White shares the characteristic of so many of their colours: depending on the time of day and the angle at which light strikes it, there is a subtle difference in colour and shade

Tara's Strong White shares the characteristic of so many F&B colours - depending on the time of day and the angle at which the light strikes it, there is a subtle difference in colour and shade. This means that no two walls are ever identical which, in turn, means there is never any danger of producing a bland, monochrome space.

From waist to ceiling, the lathe and plaster had already been removed from the wall separating the hallway and dining room - maximizing the light from the latter room's two sets of French windows.

The previous owners had already made a good job of renovating the property, which meant that we haven't had to touch the structure of the building, says Tara

"The previous owners had already made a good job of renovating the property, which meant that we haven't had to touch the structure of the building," says Tara.

Apart from the painting and sandblasting, the only other major job the couple have undertaken has been the replacement of the kitchen, hallway and dining room floors with pale Limestone, which again helps spread the light and interconnects the three spaces. In the drawing room they have renovated the existing oak flooring and elsewhere carpeted in natural linen.

The only other major work that has been done is the garden. In the front there is a formal area of box hedging and at the back, a large area of lawn, a lovely natural pond and, the star of the show, Mark's Koi carp pond.

"The reason we knew this area was because we came down to visit a local garden centre to look at the Koi," says Tara. "Mark has always been determined to have his own Koi pond - so this was a priority."

Tara's priority was the kitchen which, when they moved in, comprised of sombre oak units which hoovered up the light - so she painted them all in Strong White eggshell. The very slight difference in which the eggshell and emulsion handle the light, gives the units a pleasingly effective identity of their own

One of Tara's priorities was the kitchen, which when they moved in was a sombre oak which hoovered up light, so she painted all the units F&B Strong White eggshell. The very slight difference in the way the eggshell and emulsion each handle the light gives the units with a pleasingly effective identity of their own and contrast nicely with the cream Aga. Above is a lovely, vaulted timbered ceiling.

On the bressumer above the Aga is an old clock which once belonged to Mark's parents. It was once natural wood but is now, by Tara's hand, a distressed white. The kitchen table once belonged to her aunt Colleen and was about to be thrown on the bonfire but Tara saved it and white-distressed the legs. Surrounding it are a set of elegant Lloyd Loom chairs by Neptune, bought from John Lewis.

Tara and Mark used to run a business importing Swedish chandeliers - and examples now hang over the dining room table and in the drawing room

The oak-topped dining room table was also a wonderful rescue - this time from eBay - and Tara has again given it the white-distressed treatment. She and Mark used to run a business importing Swedish chandeliers - and examples now hang over the dining room table and in the drawing room.

The drawing room is the oldest part of the house, dating back to the 1650s. It's now a blizzard of light with visual warmth provided by honey-coloured beams

The drawing room is the oldest part of the house, dating back to the 1650s. It's now a blizzard of light with the warmth provided by the honeyed beams and a superb Scottish bow-fronted chest of drawers the couple found in a Maidstone antiques shop. The huge and beautiful gilt mirror came from an antique shop in Dorking and the lovely candelabras from Kaizen in Rochester, the wall lights from Krebs. The two grey sofas are Kingston by Laura Ashley.

The fireplace was something of a mess when they inherited it, and so has been completely renovated gaining a new slate hearth and a white Jotul woodburner. Mark sandblasted all the old dirty brickwork and renovated the oak flooring, stripping off years and layers of dark varnish. He also remodelled the windowsills in Limestone.

When moving from their town property, to a period country home, finding a house with bountiful natural light was a priority for the couple

Tara points out a heart cut in the drawing room door. "We had a heart knocker on the front door of our last house so we took it as something of a sign," she says.

In the hallway is a beautiful watercolour of the couple's children, Miles and Imogen, painted by Mark's father, artist Michael Leedham. Off the hallway, in the downstairs loo, is a treasured sewing box made by Tara's great grandfather Arnold Melen, for Tara's great grandmother.

The master bedroom is white but warmed by natural wood in the shape of items such as a stunning pine wardrobe with a superb oval mirror renovated by the couple who stripped away all the existing black paint, a pine dome-lidded chest at the foot of the bed and an oak dressing table. All the furniture in the room came from antique shops in Rochester apart from the elegant Hypnos bed and a pretty little chair they picked up in a bric-a-brac shop in Hythe and reupholstered.

There isn't a single space in this house that isn't bright, clean, crisp and, above, all, elegant. It is the perfect canvas upon which to paint the couple's new country lifestyle. It's a masterclass in how to renovate a 350-year-old period property, bring it up to the minute and still retain all the essential period features and character which attracts so many when considering a country home.

Above all, though, Tara & Mark's house is a triumph of light. Every scrap that enters is employed to the full. Khan would have been delighted and so the last word must be his. "A man's creation, the making of a room, is nothing short of a miracle," he said. "Just think - a man can claim a slice of the sun."

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