"I saw it as a great opportunity to choose from the best of what we have collected over the years. It's actually quite liberating. When you're bringing up a family and concentrating on careers you often don't have the time to really plan a house to be just as you'd like it," says Margaret. "We moved from a large Georgian house and we knew we wanted to find something from the same period as we love having the tall ceilings and generous proportions. While we were house hunting, we rented a tiny cottage in Benenden village, so that we could get used to living in a smaller space. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we absolutely loved it," she recalls.
Finally they found the right property: a detached Edwardian "cottage" with elegantly proportioned rooms and fabulous views across the Wealden countryside. "We wanted a bigger kitchen, so we extended and created a kitchen/breakfast room. We retained the original kitchen, too, though. It still has a hob, sink, dishwasher and washing machine, but now it serves as a kind of scullery." The decision was a clever one as the scullery is now positioned between the new kitchen and the dining room, which means that when the couple entertain, they can stack dirty dishes in there and use the new kitchen exclusively for cooking and casual dining. The smaller room also acts as a larder, with open shelving housing preserved foods and various sets of serving dishes and crockery. "I decided not to have wall cupboards," says Margaret, "because this way, I can see exactly what I have."
The new kitchen was created for them by JM Interiors of Biddenden. "We were determined to use local suppliers and craftsmen," says Margaret. "Our builders, Dave Robinson of Headcorn, were brilliant too. We stayed on site throughout the six months of work, not because David and I didn't trust them, but because if you're on hand, you can spot things early on, and make decisions quickly. It's amazing how much you have to decide when you're building or remodelling. If you're not there, it slows everything down."
The cupboards were a bespoke design and the company persuaded Margaret to have curved cupboards and surfaces at the end of each wall. "I was a bit sceptical at first," she admits ,"but they pointed out that we wouldn't want to catch our hips on the corner of a very hard piece of granite and that such things become more of an issue as one gets older." This might seem rather excessively cautious as Margaret is clearly a long way from her dotage, she's heavily involved with the Citizen's Advice Bureau, having worked for them for 25 years, and is currently the Chair of the Trustee Board. It is the CAB's 70th Anniversary this year, and with the current economic downturn, she says the organisation finds its services are more in demand than ever.
The kitchen is a fine marriage between the old and new. The pewter Aga has a glass splashback to protect the painted wainscoting behind. Along the other wall, the Zimbabwe black granite surface doesn't run in one long strip but has been carefully cut so that it protrudes a little in the middle, to accommodate a cupboard beneath that interrupts the line of cupboard doors, thus making it look less standardised. "That was another of JM's good ideas," says Margaret, "it's such a tiny thing really, but it just adds interest." The cupboards have been painted in Farrow & Ball's Light Blue and it works beautifully with the grey slate floor. The windows are dressed in Vanessa Arbuthnott linen spots and checks. Margaret shows me a Susie Cooper coffee set on the window ledge. It is the exact colour of the paintwork and linen. "I hadn't realised when I planned this scheme, that I must have been thinking of this set of china. It was given to us as a wedding present, and somehow, I based a whole room on it without even being conscious of it." It's not really surprising that a kitchen should be such an important room in this house. Margaret used to be an inspector for the Good Food Guide and loves to cook and entertain at home while David grows all kinds of vegetables and fruit in the garden.
Good food is such a vital part of their lives that they created a sort of anteroom between the kitchen and dining room especially for all their cookbooks. It's a far-ranging collection and Margaret explains that this is partly because of the "Destination Dinners" that she and David share with their friends. "We started in 1992 and every month or so we decide on a particular country or region and then cook a three- or four-course meal. We have eaten food from about 50 different destinations so far, including Lebanese, Polish, Vietnamese, and Jamaican food. We take it in turns to host the event and we also try to source the correct wines or drinks. One member of the group is a professional cook, so standards are pretty high. Of course, we've also had regional British meals too. The Scottish one was one of the best and we made proper Stargazy Pie for our West country evening. For the Wealden meal we had Sussex produce and delicious Kentish wines and cider. We learn some interesting things about each place, and, of course, it always gives us plenty to talk about while we tuck in."
The formal dining room is decorated in a rich, deep red, with a highly polished mahogany dining table that can be extended to accommodate a really large party. On the walls there are delicate gilt sconces, and an ornate mirror reflects the many candles dotted about. The mirror came from France but the sconces and several other pictures have been bought at Gorringes auction house in Lewes. "Of course we had a lot of things from the other house as this one is half the size of our old one, but even so, one doesn't always have just the right thing for a particular wall or corner, so it's good to find a reliable source." French windows open out into the conservatory with its extraordinary views across the garden and surrounding farmland. "We throw these doors open when we entertain and have drinks out here by candlelight," says Margaret. We wanted a proper, timber-framed Victorian glasshouse. It's south facing, so in the summer it can get a little hot but we can always decamp to the timber summerhouse if it's really sweltering." Where the dining room was warm and intimate in tone, the drawing room is calm and restrained, but also welcoming. "Gillie Day, the interior designer, helped me to choose the fabrics and paint colours," explains Margaret. "I wanted to use a limited palette throughout the house, so we have predominantly used Fired Earth's paint in ‘Putty' here, but accented it with black and with this pair of red chairs. The idea is to link them with the red of the dining room and give a sense of continuity." The patterns complement one another and the black accents echo the scheme in the couple's study that can be glimpsed through an open door. The pale, Nina Campbell curtains have dark buttons at the head of each pleat which neatly links them to the darker fabric used on the armchairs. The curtain poles have beautifully carved artichoke finials, which I realise echo the smaller ones used in the study and the pineapple ones in the kitchen.
The calm palette continues upstairs. One bedroom has a very pretty cottagey wallpaper while another has plain walls but very striking curtains from Zoffany. Bookshelves line one wall up to waist height and Margaret proudly shows me three recently published books about her father's role in the building of the bridge on the River Kwai. The master bedroom is more restrained, providing a serene retreat. "We often see pheasants and foxes in the fields," says Margaret. "We can watch the changing of the seasons from here and the windows frame the view perfectly."
The first impression of this house might be that the overall scheme is a relatively simple one, but that is because the eye at first mistakes harmony for simplicity. Margaret has carefully considered every detail and the result is a house that is far more than just a series of well-decorated rooms, but a delightful whole. Le Corbusier said that a house should be a "machine for living" and although Margaret and David's house is very far from being a machine, it does fulfil that function in a sense, because it so efficiently and comfortably suits the way that this couple like to live.