A Rural Retreat

living room, sofa, bookshelves
  • words Caroline Plaisted
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Cherry Whytock

This beautiful three-bay hall house dates back to 1490 with Georgian...

Some of us suit city living; others prefer the country. Julia is lucky to enjoy both lifestyles which was fortunate when, in the early 80s, her husband relocated his business interests to the UK. Having lived happily in the centre of Paris for some time, Julia approached her family's relocation as an exciting challenge. "East Sussex was where we wanted to live and my husband and I began our property search," Julia remembers. "We only looked at four houses and it's quite amusing now to think back to those rather dismal and grainy photocopies of house details that were handed out by the estate agents back then. There were none of the glossy brochures used today and, to be honest, the photographs of the houses left you completely unaware of what you were going to see."

hallway

So it was, with a roneoed sheet, that Julia and her husband drove to the end of the drive of the house that was to become their family home for more than 25 years. There before them was a three-bay hall house, dating back to 1490 with Georgian additions, sitting amongst five acres. "The house had been in the same family for quite some time and they had looked after it beautifully," Julia explains. "Apart from decorating, there was really nothing that needed to be done. Except a new roof, but that's not very interesting."

In fact, the Grade II listed property had been the subject of considerable restoration and attention in the 1920s by the then owner, Mrs Cornwallis. "By an amazing stroke of luck, we came across a copy of Architects News dating from 1928," Julia comments. "One of the houses featured just happened to be ours and the article gives full details of the restoration work Mrs Cornwallis carried out, including photographs of the interiors and copies of the architect's plans."

pantry, butler sink, shelving

Stepping inside this piece of history, the large hallway and the impressive scale of the main rooms indicate that Julia's house was originally built for someone of considerable importance in a rather stunning piece of the Weald. "The outlook from all the windows is really quite something," Julia concedes. "It really is a fantastic situation to live in and always must have been."

About ten years ago plans were drawn up to extend the kitchen which is now double its original size. French doors inserted into the end wall give views out across a terrace. The result, both inside and out, has been done with such care and attention that it looks as if it has always been there. The original kitchen had been in what is now the dining room, according to the architect working for Mrs Cornwallis. The original pantry a glorious narrow room simply perfect for storage with its original working cupboards is still in use. It even retains an electric cooker, probably dating from the '30s when it may have been first installed. "It still works," Julia laughs. "In fact, when we first moved in, we still used it until the Aga was fitted."

living room, flowers, vase, curtains

Throughout the house are the now rock-hard oak beams, originally created by Elizabethan craftsmen at the very start of Elizabeth I's reign. They are still as beautiful as when they were first carved, although in a few places, such as the staircase, craftsmen from the second Elizabethan age, employed by Mrs Cornwallis, have lovingly repaired them. The upper floors of the house, an intriguing puzzle of rooms and passageways, must have provided endless games of hide-and-seek for children throughout the ages. At the very top of the house is a bedroom with a stunning beamed ceiling and incised plasterwork, both original to the house. Photographs from the '20s reveal that this bedroom is a post-war 'addition' to the house: it is, in fact, the top half of the master bedroom below. "I confess that I'm really rather grateful to the previous owners for making the change," Julia confides. "Beautiful though it was, it must have been jolly cold!"

garden

Outside, the surrounding garden is a haven of wildlife and stunning planting. "I'd never had a garden before I came here," Julia states. "So I tackled what was here and added new bits." Surely, though, a garden of such scale, must have been a daunting prospect? "Don't forget that there are two fields that I just leave alone. With everything else, I just planted things and waited to see what happened. I don't think there's any great science in it." But just as Julia is modest about the love and care she has given her home, so she is about her gardening. It only takes a visitor a few moments to realise that both garden and house in this little pocket of East Sussex are very special indeed.