The old saying about sow's ears not being able to be turned into silk purses is, rather sadly, mostly true. The exceptions are rare, perhaps especially when it comes to architecture, but when it does work, it is a cause for celebration. Successful property transformations breathe new life into run-down old buildings and give hope and confidence to others daring to embark on similar projects. Admittedly we are visiting this house on a lovely sunny day, but I suspect that even grey skies don't darken the view. As I am greeted by owner Nicola and her young Red Fox Labrador, Lupin, outside the house, it is already hard to imagine what the house looked like in any 'before' pictures. To Lupin's dismay her usual long run along the golden sands at Camber has been cut short by our visit and although not totally placated by another outing later in the day, she obediently trots inside with us nevertheless.
The house was built around forty years ago and already I can't help thinking that it takes an impressive combination of skills to be able to change a jaded and uninspiring 1970s house into acceptable accommodation, let alone a dream holiday home. During our first quick look around, it appears that Nicola possesses these in buckets and spades, and has not only been able to see past this house's drab exterior and years of neglect, but has also summoned the patience, attention to detail and determination needed to carry out the actual transformation. She and her team of builders have somehow managed to bring New England to old England, as this home now looks as if it would be just as comfortable near the shores of Cape Cod as Camber Sands.
The location has helped, I'm sure; the fact that the beach is only a pebble skim away must have sent some energising ozone to aid the inspiration, and help to bring a clear vision of how the house could be transformed. Nicola, her husband and three boys live in Burwash Common, but they know and love Camber Sands: "We've always come down here with the boys. It has such a lovely long sandy beach. I knew I wanted to find a property down here - the location is right, it's near to London and most of the other beaches nearby are pebbly." That said, many of us would have been put off from actually purchasing the house. Nicola smiles. "It was a tired old chalet bungalow with swirly carpets, Artex on the ceilings and nicotine stained walls." Nice. Fortunately there were no big structural problems, but it was obvious that she needed to start again from scratch and that the house had to be completely gutted.
Nicola employed local builder Dave Lancaster and his team, and the renovation project began in earnest. "My starting point was a completely white beach house, a New England look. I didn't want it to be twee," she adds, "like a typical blue and white striped seaside house, but I did want a rustic feel, with a nod towards the location, and it definitely had to be a beach house in feel." The interior was completely stripped out and then rewired and re-plumbed. The outside of the building was given a total facelift and clad in weather boarding, painted in a delicate, pale shade of sea green. They made a few internal alterations, opening out the kitchen to make a more spacious, easy living area downstairs. The inside of the house was then clad in new pine and then painted white throughout - "we got through an awful lot of white paint!" she laughs. "The resin from the pine kept creeping through. We tried brushing it and then rolling. In the end we sprayed it. That seemed to do the trick and gave the pure finish that I needed." All the floorboards on the ground floor had to be replaced, but upstairs the boards were intact - preserved by the carpets (it's good to know that something beautiful can emerge from beneath the ugliest of swirly carpets). It was a fairly easy job to paint all the floors a pale, sea breezy colour: 'Ammonite' by Farrow and Ball. The simple floor treatment has proved to be a godsend too, as it is very easy to sweep out the main by-product of seaside living - sand, which is inevitably traipsed in all the time.
Nicola's eye for detail and her clever use of up-cycled salvage and retro items has come into its own on this project. Although the pine cladding is completely white, she wanted one wall in each room - "I don't like the term 'feature wall', but there isn't another word for it" - to be clad in old salvaged floorboards that Nicola has carefully collected. The result is very effective, "although there is one room in the house that has missed out because the builders couldn't quite get their heads around the fact that I wanted to use old floorboards on the walls". They weren't sure about the scaffolding planks that Nicola has used on the kitchen units either, but they, and the bespoke handles, really give the right rustic feel to the kitchen.
The vintage, slightly rustic look has been very successfully applied in this house and I wonder how Nicola has managed to find so many perfectly appropriate items in such a short time. The house took nine months to renovate, which seems to me like lightning speed, but it was much longer than Nicola expected - she had thought it would be finished within an impressive six months. The secret to achieving the right look fast, apparently, is to become a bit of a salvage hunter. "I have a garage at home that contains all sorts of things just waiting for the right space." She points to the huge blue and white 'Milk Stout' sign on the wall near the dining area. "I've had that for years and never quite knew what I was going to do with it, but when we bought the house I saw the ideal space for it - and it is from this part of Kent too, so it fits right in." The wonderful piece of corrugated iron on the opposite wall - and who would have thought that such a thing could look so appropriate - is another case in point. "My husband couldn't believe that I wanted it," she laughs.
Much of the furniture has come from her grandparents and an elderly uncle's home and some pieces, such as the lovely old trunk in the front sitting room that once travelled the world with her Air Vice-Marshal great-uncle, have great sentimental value too. Somehow she has managed to find exactly the right item for each space - by luck, and through the industrious and creative work of up-cycling. I'm impressed by the simple but very effective window treatments, that are made from French linen sheets, cleverly clipped onto curtain poles, and by some of the light fittings: the quirky kitchen lights are made from jelly moulds, and a huge old ginger beer keg has made a great lamp base. Nicola also makes decorative and functional use of all sorts of things that many of us would overlook - the old rowlocks from her grandfather's boat and an animal feeding trough are put to good purpose in the utility room. "I collect things." she says simply, showing me a nostalgic collection of postcards from old Camber. A long row of antique ginger beer bottles and some colourful vintage children's books and annuals have all been used together to help create a theme. "I wanted to create that 'lashings of ginger beer,' old-fashioned, seaside holiday/adventure feel," she says. Nicola obviously has an eye for a find, but I am beginning to wonder whether her garage might not be more of a giant warehouse.
The seamlessly retro theme continues upstairs, where the bathrooms are simply and effectively decorated with subway tiles. Nicola has turned old wash stands into functioning basins and then carefully added vintage accessories. It is the charming details that immediately soften what could have been stark, functional rooms into bright and welcoming spaces. The bedrooms have been treated in a similar uncomplicated way and the understated scheme is a great backdrop to the quaint finds and harmonising colour accents. There are lots of excellent design tips to be picked up from Nicola, and the use of a restricted palette is an example of another good one. With white as the base, any colour combination could work, but there's something about the light by the coast that brings depth to greens, greys and blues - perhaps it's an instinct to respond to these colours when there's such an expanse of sea and sky outside. Whatever it is, it creates an uplifting and calm space and works very well.
It is tricky to make a garden so close to the beach, as wind, salt and sand are the enemy of many plants, so Nicola has taken a leaf out of a famous local garden's book - that of Derek Jarman's further down the coast at Dungeness - and created a sculptural look for the front garden using pieces of driftwood and more salvage. The back garden is another story - in fact it's a story that links the past with the name of Nicola's house and explains the intricate and imaginative mural on the wall running along the boundary of the garden. "Originally the plot had contained just one house, called Shell House," she says, "because the owner, a man called Edwin Sutton, had decorated the outside of his house and the end wall all over with images made from shells. The original house was knocked down in the 1970s to allow for two houses to be built on the plot, and this house was renamed 'My Way'. All that was left were the shell designs on the garden wall." Nicola changed the name of the house back to Shell House, and says that if she had her way the wall would have a preservation order on it.
Visitors still come past looking for the famous house, as decorated by Edwin Sutton, but now perhaps this version of Shell House - under the charge of another creatively ingenious decorator, is fast becoming famous in its own right as the perfect holiday retreat.