A Butterfly Unfurled

When Sally Harrington opens the huge front door of her Kentish weatherboard home I assume that the 1950s bungalow that once stood here was demolished to make way for the new house. "No," she says, "it's still in here somewhere, it's just developed into something else. I like to think that the rather dull brown chrysalis of a house that was here before has grown into something more attractive." Originally constructed for Sally's father-in-law, by the time she and her husband moved in, 25 years ago, the rather plain brick bungalow had been occupied by a series of tenant farmworkers and was in need of some updating. Sally gradually improved it, adding an extension and a modest sunroom. Then, as their two children arrived, Sally realised that they could no longer cope with a downstairs bathroom and that she also needed to knock down some walls to make an open-plan kitchen and breakfast room. "I thought, well how difficult can that be?" Sally recalls. During the course of our conversation I come to realise that this could almost be her signature expression. She seems to have tackled all kinds of tasks with the same can-do approach.

For a while, the changes she'd made were satisfactory but then about five years ago, she decided that the real attraction of the house was its fabulous views which were actually obscured by the sun room, and that every door and window seemed to be in the wrong place. "It wasn't that I hated the house, we'd been very happy here, bringing up the children, but it just didn't work as well as it should," she explains. " I consulted several architects, but they either told me to just put in some dormer windows in the roof, or to add a conservatory. They thought my plans were too ambitious and that the cost would outweigh any value that it might add to the property, but it wasn't ever about adding value, it was about creating something lovely. Eventually, I persuaded a friend who was a retired architect to submit my drawings for planning permission and I got it."

The work took three years to complete and during that time Sally lived in the remains of the house, parts of which were open to the elements. Her son took a gap year and lived in a caravan in the garden in order to help her. Of course, Sally also employed plasterers, plumbers and electricians to do the jobs that required professional expertise, and she was fortunate to have the advice and practical help of her friend Simon, who had recently restored his own historic house. "We had quite a few fights over artistic matters though," she grins. "Simon and I trawled reclamation yards for old timbers, and Simon always wanted me to buy the straight, level pieces, whereas I always homed in on the gnarled, twisted ones. "You can see, that in the main, I won."

The new kitchen/breakfast room is a triumph. A long wooden table overlooks the terrace with its broad sweep of timber decking. The stunning views of the south-facing garden and surrounding countryside are no longer obscured, as the wall here is entirely made of glass panels that can be folded back to open the space to the outside. Sally offers bed and breakfast accommodation and her lucky guests can tuck into their morning meal either inside, or out. Behind the kitchen, in the new extension, Sally has an office, a rear lobby and a cloakroom. It's a small room, but has been treated with Sally's characteristic care and inventiveness. There wasn't sufficient space even for a tiny ceramic basin, but instead of installing a corner basin, Sally found a roughly carved and rustic looking stone bird feeder at a reclamation yard and Simon drilled a hole in the bottom as a plughole.

Through arched, glazed (and reclaimed) double doors is the dining room. An intricately carved cupboard stands in one corner. Again, this was a salvaged piece, saved from a friend's chicken coop (they must have been very posh chickens) cleaned and waxed. The dining table is enormously long and will comfortably accommodate 20 people. "It's made from old scaffolding planks," says Sally. "It was a bit of a last minute thing," she adds, "we made it on Christmas Eve, as I needed a big table for everyone coming the following day." Sally evidently does a lot of entertaining, though as her main business is food that's not surprising. She is the creator of Benenden Sauce, a sweet, garlicky dressing. She began by making it for events that she catered for and so many people asked her for the recipe she decided to try selling it, albeit on a modest scale. "I made just six bottles and took them along with handmade labels in a wicker basket to Betty at Ward's, the butcher, in Benenden. Half an hour later, Betty phoned me to say that she'd sold the lot." Since then, demand and production has increased, but although Sally happily sells to local Waitrose and Jempson's stores, she's keen to remain loyal to the smaller independent shops who first championed her. She now has a development kitchen where she has recently created a new, "English" salad dressing made with malt, instead of wine vinegar and English mustard rather than French. I try it later, and it has a pleasingly nostalgic flavour. For a while, Sally says she thinks she got almost too sophisticated in the dishes that she cooked for guests, then, she says she went to dinner with local garden designer and artist Charlotte Molesworth, who served a fantastically fresh and delicious meal using home-grown ingredients simply cooked and served. "It was a revelation!" says Sally. "I thought because I worked with food that my friends had great expectations, but suddenly I realised what I really should be serving was good honest ‘nosh' to share and enjoy. So the new dressing, ‘Quiddity' (meaning the essence of a thing) is part of that philosophy."

The drawing room reflects Sally's love of entertaining too. There is an enormous inglenook-style fireplace that is so deep it is possible to sit in it and still not get scorched by the fire. Generously proportioned sofas offer invitingly soft cushions on which to recline, while the solid oak floor (laid by Sally of course) leads back into the kitchen and breakfast room. The planks, which are of mixed widths, have been bevelled to add texture, and Sally methodically tested and trialled more than a dozen ways to achieve the right shade of honey.

We climb the reclaimed stairs with their new, clear Perspex spindles and Sally shows me the bedrooms that she offers to paying guests. Again, these have been furnished with great inventiveness. Chests of drawers have been chopped up and reconfigured to make new ones. A friend's unwanted pine bed has had the posts remodelled before being painted and dressed with crisp white, embroidered linen. Chairs and other pieces of furniture have been found in charity shops. "The Hospice in the Weald shop in Cranbrook is a favourite of mine as I've found Laura Ashley armchairs, brand new beds, and all sorts of bargains there and I've simply painted or recovered them." In one guest bathroom, there is a smart built-in shower, but also a quirky, copper basin made from a Victorian planter. Sally has tiled another bathroom with huge squares of pale travertine and covered the walls with glamorous mirrors. Her own, private bathroom is a vast, serene space with a freestanding washstand made by Simon. Either side of the bath are sealed downlighters which Sally has mounted on the wall and then shaded with shallow mother-of-pearl dishes into which she has drilled tiny holes. In her bedroom too, Sally has created funky wall lights by twisting copper piping around a croquembouche tower and on the landing, she has adapted tealight holders to cast delicately patterned beams onto the walls behind them. Up another flight of stairs, there are two more bedrooms and a smart bathroom available to guests. But if this is not enough accommodation, there's room for six more in the holiday cottage in the grounds. Just a short walk from the main house, the timber-clad cottage was once a milking parlour where Sally has created a cosy retreat. The kitchen cupboards were hand-me-downs from friends when they decided to change their kitchens. Sally remodelled and painted them and created a curving work surface that stretches toward the dining table, and unifies the space. In the sitting room there is a wood-burning stove and a gorgeous polished cherry wood floor. "This was supposed to be a floor that I could create almost for free, as I made it from my own trees that had been felled by high winds. But it twisted and bowed and I had to keep taking it up, pressing, sanding and re-laying the thing. It nearly drove me mad." I ask Sally if she ever thought of giving up on it and she looks at me blankly. Such a thought clearly never even occurred to her.

Upstairs, the rooms are unashamedly romantic; with timber-clad ceilings, the bedrooms feel almost like log cabins. Beds are dressed with vintage linens and faux fur rugs, while in one room an ornately carved, fretwork Indian screen has been cut down to make window shutters. Every room here and in the main house shows extraordinary resourcefulness and inventiveness. It has taken a great deal of hard work, but Sally's hope that the chrysalis has been discarded is far too modest. The butterfly has unfurled its wings and taken flight.

Sally Harrington can be contacted for enquiries on renovation and building or for B&B bookings on 01580 240203

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Julie Simpson