Love shack


A classic beach house, which is also a cosy winter retreat - Francesca Rowan-Plowden is just as at home rethinking the most relaxed of small-scale abodes as she is taking on a total refurbishment of a stately home. Is there nothing this woman can't do?

This issue sees something of a Wealden Times first - featuring two houses by the same interior designer. Why? Well, the simple answer is that the work of Ms Francesca Rowan-Plowden is in need of serious celebration.

Every month, when I walk into yet another breathtaking home, I am stunned by what extraordinary flair and talent so many owners have. Exposed to creativity on such a scale, I find myself struggling not to blurt out the opinion that they should do this for a living.

When I visited Francesca's Georgian farmhouse near Rye some years ago I remember totally losing this struggle. I doubt very much if my career advice was taken seriously but others considerably more qualified than I must have expressed exactly the same opinion because Francesca has since launched Rowan Plowden Design and become one of the best professional designers south of the Smoke.

Actress, TV presenter, mother of four young boys and founder of Rye's popular Lamb Players, established when she was curator of Lamb House, Francesca is currently being fêted for her work with Marcus Crane at Goodnestone, but one of her great strengths is versatility - and little demonstrates this versatility as dramatically as placing stately home alongside holiday home.

Field View, her own property on The Ridge at Winchelsea Beach, was always intended as a rental so, although she was the owner and would stay there as often as possible, it was not somewhere she could indulge herself. Rather than please one client - as she might on most projects - she was going to have to please a wide range of potential guests, none of whom she had ever even met.

Francesca and her husband, wine importer Piers Plowden, had always liked the idea of a beach property. "As a child I used to spend holidays with my aunt and uncle in Nantucket," she says. "Piers grew up in Bermuda and our favourite holiday spot is Île de Ré" (an island off the west coast of France.

"We saw the Winchelsea house advertised just before we went on holiday and thought it would be gone by the time we got back but it wasn't so we met the owner - a very sweet lady - and put in an offer," she says. "We then got gazumped but the lady very kindly turned down the better offer and went with us.

"We knew it was going to make an amazing beach house but we wanted to take it a step further and make it somewhere people would want to come and stay year round," she says. "It was not only going to have to have a cool bright summer feel but a warmth that would make it a cosy retreat in winter."

It was also going to need a considerable number of walls knocked down and a considerable number more put up. When the couple took possession the ground floor consisted of two rooms and a sunroom. These have now been knocked though into one large living area which opens out through matching glass doors onto new decking front and back made from old, black-painted scaffolding boards.

The sunroom remains a sunroom but is also now a dining/breakfast area with terrific views down over the fields toward the beach and a table and benches made by the rightly-celebrated Hastings & Bexhill Wood Recycling, with wood reclaimed from the old Hastings pier.

On the walls are works by two Rye artists - mermaids by Richard Adams and a delicate ladybird drawing by Lincoln Taber. Flanking the window are two galvanised steel nautical lights by Cox & Cox. "There are odd nods to the seaside here and there," says Francesca, "but nothing too obvious - I didn't want to start going down the seashell route."

Also delightfully conspicuous by its absence is any evidence of The Dead Stuffed Things School of Interior Design. True, there is a stag's head above the woodburner in the living area but this is a lovely wood carving from Eras of Style in Bexhill.

The woodburner is set into a central chimney that is all that is left of the original wall that separated the front and rear rooms

The woodburner is set into a central chimney that is all that is left of the original wall separating the front and rear rooms. "It was the most expensive item in the house to buy and to install," says Francesca, "but I really wanted to make sure that the house was a real home for all seasons and it certainly does its job."

The fireplace is now open from both sides of the chimney, heating and cheering both the sitting room area and the kitchen behind. The sofa is from made.com and the white painted chest - as many other objects of desire around the house - from McCully & Crane in Rye, owned by Marcus Crane, who you will remember was Francesca's partner in the renaissance of Goodnestone Park.

The majority of walls throughout the downstairs are Farrow & Ball Ammonite but a great feature of the ground floor is a superb 'wooden' wall that runs from the front to the back of the house and is clad floor to ceiling in sanded, unpainted scaffolding board, effortlessly giving the whole area a lovely beachy, driftwood feel.

Piàce de résistance in the kitchen area is a stunning central island designed by Francesca, built by H&B Wood Recycling and incorporating a huge hidden kitchen storage area and lit by two industrial-style lights that were being thrown out of a café in St Leonards.

In one side wall is a real ship's porthole which Francesca bought from a stall which appears and disappears Brigadoon-like in Hastings Old Town and is run by a bloke called John.

At one end of the island is virtually a wall of glass, with doors out into a magical shingle garden. At the other end are parked two tractor-seat stools which serve as extra seating to a circular dining table, joining a matching set of stylish steel chairs that only Francesca could have found at Dunelm.

In an existing extension is the business end of the kitchen - and as Francesca "doesn't do fitted kitchens," it's all natural wood shelving, a work surface made by H&B Wood Recycling, a superb full height cupboard made by Francesca's father from old wooden tractor trailer doors, and pretty blue curtains covering a dishwasher, freezer and washing machine.

At the end is a former loo, now a wetroom which means guests can come in straight from the beach through the kitchen door, down the tiled-floor kitchen and into the shower.

On the landing is a four-foot-high framed poster of Gary Cooper from McCully & Crane, one of a pair of lobsterpot-y string lampshades from made.com and a smart blind designed by Francesca with ticking from Merchant & Mills.

Downstairs, the former owner's double bedroom now sports a high bed on a level with the windows, so that when you open your eyes you are looking south over the fields to the sea. The headboard was designed by Francesca as were the cushions - among the first of a new range she is now developing. On the chest of drawers is a light made from an old wooden-cased voltmeter, almost a trademark of McCully & Crane.

The former garage has been converted into a twin bedroom, games room and bathroom. Again, the headboards are Rowan Plowden and serving as a joint bedside table between the beds is an old painted toy box Francesca bought from Lydd from another resident of Brigadoon, a bloke called Drew.

The double aspect window sports more Rowan Plowden/M&M blinds. The lampshade and the rug - as do most of the rugs gracing Field View - comes from Hunter Jones.

The games room's south-facing glass doors lead out onto an area of decking

Over the free-standing bath in the new bathroom is a picture by Francesca's artist uncle, Nick Madison. The games room's south-facing glass doors lead out onto an area of decking and while this room would have made a superb bedroom, it sits below local sea level, so this is verboten.

Instead, equipped with large TV, it's an elegant bolthole for the young. The TV cabin came from H&B Wood Recycling and the high desk from McCully & Crane. A nice touch are the woollen sea urchin poofs which serve as mini bean bags.

So onward and upward to the top of the house and an absolutely magical vaulted bedroom suite from which there is not only a great view out over the fields but one can also see the blue ribbon of the sea beyond.

This area was just one large one, stepped into from the top of the stairs, but Francesca has remodelled the whole floor to provide a landing, spacious double bedroom, lovely bathroom accessed through a pair of elegant reclaimed wood doors and a secret, curtained child's sleeping cubbyhole made from an old attic cupboard.

The brilliant touch here is the reclaimed scaffolding cladding behind the Rowan Plowden headboard, made all the more dramatic as bed and cladding are what greet you the moment you step into the room. In the window is an Ikea wrought-iron day bed. The table lamps are, of course, McCully & Crane. The blinds in both bedroom and bathroom are Rowan Plowden designed and the fabric is Ralph Lauren while the bathroom's three industrial lights are Cox & Cox.

Field View was an instant success. Its first posting on Facebook had 4,000 hits

Predictably, Field View was an instant success. Its first posting on Facebook had 4,000 hits and it's never looked back, proving virtually as popular a winter bolt hole as it has a summer escape.

So what's the secret of its immediate success? Why does it stand out from the crowd? Why is it that one feels at once so impressed and so at home when one walks into, not only Field View, but any Rowan Plowden gig? What makes the difference between a gifted amateur and such an accomplished professional?

Personally, I have no idea whatever, which is why I try so manfully to keep my views to myself as I wander around yet another property in which I would be delighted to spend the rest of this life and most of the next.

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