A Treat in Store


Housed in a former village stores, Diane and Ian's quirky B&B offers a tranquil haven with a truly personal touch.

Picture the perfect getaway. Where do you fancy? Paris? Rome? Or perhaps somewhere exotic and further away? Well, yesterday I might have been imagining a faraway place too, but today I want to stay in Rolvenden Layne. I only live down the road from this wonderful little bolt hole, but within two minutes of meeting Diane and glancing quickly around her gorgeously quirky apartment, I'm already wondering whether I could slip away for a few days. It is to die for - or at least, to lie down and dream in for a while.

Diane's dream, twenty years ago, was to move out of London and set up a business. "I wanted to move to the country and have an antique shop with a tearoom," says Diane. "The idea was to mix and match; selling antique furniture while providing tea and cake." The Old General Stores in Rolvenden provided the space for this perfect combination. The Stores is a lovely white weather-boarded building, following the vernacular style of the area. Originally built around 400 years ago, it had been a shop since the 1800s. It was looking worn and outmoded when the couple moved in and they had considerable work to do before setting up shop. "The people before us had been in their 70s or 80s and although there was nothing structural to do, it needed a lot of updating work." Diane and Ian, an upholsterer (what a useful thing to be!), transformed the premises from tired and dull to vintage and appealing.

They opened for business. It was enjoyable, but hard work running both a tearoom and an antiques shop, and after some years Diane decided to have a 'rest' - by going out to work - catering at the local pub (the Ewe and Lamb in Rolvenden) and at a florist's in Rye. It was once her daughter, who had been using the space as an apartment, moved out, that Diane had the idea for a holiday let.

Our conversation takes a philosophical turn at this point and I get a clue as to how Diane has managed to create such a well thought out and stylish look for the apartment. There is no clutter and nothing that doesn't 'fit'. Diane smiles. "I get up some mornings and have to turn everything around - and I don't have photos or sentimental things," she says. "I like to look ahead and don't want to be held onto, held down. It gives you freedom. I've never had a job I've had to stick at, so I can be impulsive, with not much to lose." This observation (which I'm now taking as a piece of life advice) reminds me of that saying by William Morris: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." To that sage sentence I shall add a summation of Diane's sentiments: "Don't look back, or be held down by material things." I can now see that when you are free from attachment to the things you feel that you have to hang on to, then choosing a theme, or look is much easier. It is clear that too many possessions can bog one down (and turn into a terrifying hoarding habit from what I see on the television), but it is hard to find the right things - and isn't it expensive to start from scratch?

"We had the chaise longue already," says Diane, "but we were on a tight budget. Luckily Ian is handy, especially with upholstery." She points to the seating in the sitting room, which has been masterfully re-covered. "It's a bit of a team effort - when we go away for the weekend we look around for things." Ardingly is a favourite haunt and Diane also visits Rye for inspiration, so they don't always have to go far. She often goes to Tenterden where the Three French Hens hold their brocante sales at Silcocks Farm Shop. And, of course, there's Wealden Times Midsummer Fair just around the corner at Hole Park.

Diane also manages to find quirky and interesting objects in high street chain stores and charity shops alike. The copper effect lampshade in the bedroom is from Dunelm, some of the cushions and towels were from TK Maxx. "I never thought I'd like patterned towels, but they were just right and look great in a mix and match with plain white," she says. "I didn't want to have to spend a fortune. If I can find something for a tenner that works, then that's good enough."

Bargains and quirky finds have come from unexpected places and at different times: the floorboards in the sitting room were from the village hall when it was demolished. There is a snooker table hanging decoratively on the wall in the kitchen, bringing a splash of colour to the room, but it's also just waiting to be taken down for a game - and, by fluke, it fits perfectly on top of the dining table. There is a nod to the apartment's previous incarnation as the village stores in the form of a statement set of scales that sit on the counter between the dining and bijou cooking area. The actual cooking space is just behind a glass partition. "We bought the window because I liked it," says Diane. "We didn't have an immediate use for it and then Ian saw that it could be used to make the partition." Et voila, it has become a version of The Little Paris kitchen.

"I see people in these massive granite kitchens and I don't feel so much in love, I think 'where are your little curtains, your pots and crockery?' I'm not old fashioned but I don't like it when everyone's houses look the same" says Diane

Diane hasn't been afraid to use dark colours in this low beamed house and has opted for a sophisticated dark grey (Farrow and Ball's 'Plummet') on the walls of the sitting room, breaking it up with a wall of paler, striped wallpaper by Zoffany. "There were only two rolls left, which I bought for two pounds and there was just enough to do this space, with nothing to spare," she laughs. The ceilings are painted white, beams and all, which seems to lift them and bounce light into the rooms. It takes imagination to bring everything together so successfully - and a strong sense of style, which Diane possesses in vintage spades. She is not always a big fan of some contemporary design ideas."I see people in these massive granite kitchens and I don't feel so much in love," she says. "I think - where are your little curtains, your pots and crockery? I'm not old fashioned but I don't like it when everyone's houses look the same. I don't want to see that they've been through the Next catalogue, or when you watch Grand Designs and there's all that glass…"

Evergreen shrubs and topiary help to bring a chic, but verdant intimacy to the outdoor seating area. "The advantage of using mainly evergreens is that I can rely on it being the same throughout the year. And then I can add seasonal colour in pots." In the winter the whole garden twinkles with fairy lights and makes a magical space to look out into.

Outside the garden is separated into two areas - a private garden for Diane and Ian and a more formal, courtyard-style garden for the guests. Privacy has been ensured with evergreen shrubs and topiary. It is very well clipped and helps to bring a chic, but verdant intimacy to the outdoor seating area. "The advantage of using mainly evergreens is that I can rely on it being the same throughout the year," she says. "And then I can add seasonal colour in pots." In the winter the whole garden twinkles with fairy lights and makes a magical space to look out into. The apartment's French windows open onto a little terrace, which has just enough space for a table and two chairs. It is perfect - the essence of a Parisian balcony, albeit on the ground floor.

It is usually couples that come to stay at The Stores. "They might be people coming for weddings, or we've had a few that were exhibiting at the Wealden Times Fairs. Chapel Down vineyard is just around the corner and there are lots of lovely local gardens like Great Dixter and Sissinghurst nearby."

So where do the couple go on holiday? "We tend to go on short breaks. I don't need long holidays, and I don't need to go anywhere hot. Although I love the sun, as all my friends know, especially my little sun trap garden."

Wherever they go though, Diane's always on the lookout for more things that would enhance the apartment experience. "Every time I go and stay somewhere I'm looking for those little extra touches," she says. "And every week that people come to visit I think of something else that will make their stay just a little bit special. For instance, I put really nice shampoo out. I wouldn't want just everyday shampoo when I'm away on holiday." I notice that in the dining area there's a big selection of stylish teas on offer - enough for a shop display - all beautifully stacked in an open drawer. It is these little added touches that make a big difference. "I wanted to make the B&B different…" Diane pauses thoughtfully, then adds, "quirky." We stop for a moment and try to name the type of holiday home that The Stores is; searching for a term that perhaps doesn't yet exist. "We want people to know that they can stay for longer than just a night or two, if they want to." So, it is not just a simple B&B, not quite a hotel, not completely self catering - what would you call it - a Micro hotel? Guest apartment? It is certainly a private space, "but there is a linking door," says Diane, "which I keep locked, so that the guests have their privacy. Except at breakfast time."

Breakfast at The Stores is a performance - literally. Not only is there a wonderful choice of food, which Ian prepares (and William Morris would have approved of the line of highly decorative, and useful, egg beaters on display above the cooker), but Diane makes a huge effort and even dresses up for breakfast, wearing a charming polka dot dress and an apron, "It makes me feel the part, like I'm in The Little Paris Kitchen. Ian does a fantastic cooked breakfast and I serve the guests." This is a warm and witty touch (but perhaps everyone in Paris dresses for breakfast?) and another sign of Diane's careful attention to detail.

Breakfast is far from the minds of the Wealden Times team today, however. It is teatime and Diane has baked some delicious scones, served (in the proper English way) with clotted cream and choice of three bespoke tipsy jams. It is the perfect end to a delicious visit. Sadly, much as I'd like to stay on and book myself in for the night, it's time to go. If Diane's guests are made to feel only half as welcome as we have been, then they are in for a huge treat at The Stores.

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