It's not uncommon, when selling a high-end house, for the owners to throw in a perk to tempt buyers. It might be a sports car, a year's membership at the local golf club or even - in the case of developers - a generous wedge of cash-back. The key is to match the freebie to the kind of person you think will be viewing your property... So, when the couple who were downsizing and leaving their capacious farmhouse near Bodiam, decided to include a pair of donkeys in the inventory - it was just the carrot needed to prompt a purchase.
Thirteen years later, and Viking and Ping Pong, are still happily grazing in the paddock outside the Wylie family's striking tile-hung and brick farmhouse. Truth be told, the donkeys were a welcome bonus rather than a deal-clincher, but they do seem to fit right in with Ally, Fergus and their three children Finnbhar, 16, Tabby, 15, and Jonjo, 10, plus an assortment of animals.
"The further we drove down the drive, the more I knew we'd found the perfect home," says Ally, who grew up in Northiam. "We wanted a reclusive spot, with no passing traffic and some outbuildings to play with." What they found was all of those things and a lot more: an imposing farmhouse on top of a grassy knoll, a three-kiln oast and bagging shed as well as weatherboarded and tiled stables which you look down on from the kitchen window. As kitchen-window views go, it doesn't get much better.
As well as the rustic stable yard, anyone lucky enough to do the washing up gets a view across a sloping lawn, past mature trees and out to the post-and-rail paddocks that are home to Viking, Ping Pong and Tabby's hunter Leno. Take a look out of any window, and you are met with views of hop gardens, ancient woodland and the steep-sided gullies typical of the High Weald. They are views that, one would imagine, have hardly changed since the house was built in 1490.
Despite its ancient origins, the house has been sensitively updated over the years, with the masterful addition of a kitchen extension - where we arrive, and from where we enjoy the jaw-dropping view. "The extension is a legacy of my Pa," says Ally, who built it soon after he died. Her father, Geoffrey Rainbird, was a respected architect, so it is a very fitting tribute as well as the perfect family space. "We practically live in here," she says.
The 'distressed' cream kitchen is by Chalon and the Aga an electric version put in to replace an older, oil-fired model: "The Aga we took out was so old, it ended up in the Aga museum!". A pale limestone floor helps to reflect the natural light which floods in through the huge end windows as well as the French doors, which Ally's husband put in as a 40th birthday present: "He said he wanted to give me something I couldn't lose," she jokes.
Along an impressive, timbered hallway, dotted with family photographs and mementoes, we come to the 'snug' - perhaps the second most popular room, as far as the Wylie family is concerned: "It used to be freezing in here, as it's got two outside walls," says Ally. "So we battened out the room, added insulation, then lined it with scaffolding boards." The scaffold boards give the room a cosy chalet-feel, and it's a feature that is repeated in other spaces. Bright pictures, of African scenes, cover the walls, and colourful cushions top a huge green sofa. Another theme is revealed...
In the mid-1980s, Ally went travelling in Africa, and was intending to stay for a year. In fact, she stayed for 13 years, during which time she spent a couple of years at college, studying interior design and architectural draughting. She now runs The Rainbird interior design consultancy, a company that offers others a taste of Ally's African-lodge-meets-ski-chalet-meets-cosy-farmhouse style. It's hard to sum up but it works.
Next to the snug, divided merely by vertical beams, is a classic farmhouse living room, with several armchairs and a couple of decent sofas. As we sit down for a cuppa, and to talk about the house, Titus the Jack Russell terrier tries a couple of the chairs for size, before settling on a cream chair with appropriate dog-printed cushion. An inglenook fireplace is home to a Vermont-style wood-burner with two large log baskets on either side - as well as a felt-work elephant tucked into a nook.
Every sideboard features family photos and trophies - this is obviously a very active household, as Ally confirms: "We've got most sports covered! Tabby loves riding, Finnbhar is into adrenaline sports including kayaking and mountain-biking, and Jonjo tennis, golf, cricket... then there's kite surfing, scuba, shooting..." The photos continue next door, in the magnificent dining room, although an impressive oil painting - a portrait of a 19th-century lady in an off-the-shoulder gown - is the first thing to catch your eye.
Equally eye-catching are the upholstered dining chairs which surround an antique refectory table, each in an entirely different African fabric. The startlingly bright patterns of the chairs are set off by dark grey paintwork on the walls and bookcases - though Ally has managed to keep the room from feeling dark and oppressive by painting the ceiling and its beams off-white. Another huge inglenook dominates one side of the room but has been left relatively unadorned - its ancient bricks and woodwork a feature in themselves.
Upstairs, fans of classic Wealden buildings are in for a treat, as the eye is led upwards by the most enormous chimney of local brick and lime mortar which juts into the roof space - and the master 'suite' on the top floor. Comprising master bedroom with en suite, 'handbag wall' (Ally's) and dressing room (Fergus's) the top floor is reached by a narrow and characterful wooden staircase which clings to the side of the chimney.
A water tank was removed to make room for Fergus's dressing room, and has fitted cupboards - with fabric and chicken-wire fronts - in every unused space. "I'm good at organising spaces," says Ally, with justifiable confidence. "Your house will feel twice the size, if organised properly," she says, while rearranging her beautiful collection of African and other handbags...
Back down the stairs, the first floor is home to the children's bedrooms as well as a very pretty spare room featuring a French-style upholstered bed (which Ally bought with money from her first design job) and blue Toile de Jouy wallpaper, curtains and trim. Woollen-covered cushions, from The White Company, and a chunky woollen throw add some mountain-cabin cosiness.
Next door, in order, are Finnbhar, Tabby and Jonjo's rooms. Each is a den of posters, sports-team photos and, in the case of Tabby's room, lots of rosettes. Ally has rationalised and organised each room with her own distinctive design techniques - including more chalet-style horizontal boards and clever storage spaces - while allowing the children's own taste and style to shine through.
This thoughtful mother has also designed the most incredible den for her children and their friends, upstairs in the former hop-processing shed across the lawn. All reclaimed materials and 'industrial chic' the space is leagues above your average playroom and perfect for teenagers.
The den's walls are covered in corrugated iron, which were retrieved from various local farmyards, or reclaimed scaffold boards, and a tractor tyre has been topped with planks and turned into a table. Distractions include a drum kit, pool table, dart board and a flat-screen TV - of course. Best of all, the blinds - which look like old hop pockets - are made from hessian grain sacks.
Downstairs, reached via French doors which face out on to the garden and the same enviable views, is Ally's office and work room. Not what you might expect to find in a barn, the room is filled with luscious fabric samples, wallpaper books and haberdasher's goodies. Thick, sisal-type carpet, as found throughout the house, adds to the rustic charm. It is from this room that she plans her interior design schemes... one of the most striking of which is also just across the lawn.
Converted oasts, in Kent and Sussex at least, are commonplace. This conversion, completed twelve years ago and used by the Wylies as guest accommodation, is also a holiday let - and is 'something else'. Also reached by an outside staircase, once inside the oast you're met with the most gorgeous open-plan kitchen and living room, lined with pale-blue painted boards and honey-coloured beams. A wood-burner adds to the cosiness.
The kitchen area comes with a butler sink and huge, chunky butcher's block, complementing a country-style table and cream-painted dresser that is home to an array of blue and white willow-pattern crockery. Overhead, stencilled black numbers on the beams are a reminder of the oast's former purpose... if the hop gardens visible from the windows aren't enough of a reminder.
Behind the living and eating area, the three roundels of the oast have been ingeniously converted into two circular bedrooms with four-metre-high ceilings. The middle roundel, on the other hand, has been transformed into two curved-walled wash rooms, one with a classic claw-footed cast iron bath and the other a walk-in wet room.
As you step down into each of the bedrooms, it would be easy to imagine that you were inside a castle turret and the classic, luxurious furnishings add to this impression. The main bedroom contains a regal, four-poster bed that belonged to Ally's parents, carefully chosen dark furniture and overhead, a spectacular wire-work chandelier: "I actually bought it in Africa, although they are made locally to here," says Ally. The table-top lamps, with bead and feather trim, she commissioned.
Ally is a fount of knowledge, when it comes to great suppliers of items less ordinary. Reclaimed, upcycled or imported from Africa one can only imagine that her contacts book is bulging. If you love the look, but lack the contacts, maybe you should drop her a line...