The Dolls House

Before I arrive at her home, all I know about Daisy, the owner of what looks like a classic Georgian manor house, is that she is reputedly an avid collector of vintage toys, so it's rather fitting to find that she has a fragile, doll-like appearance. However, something tells me that Stella is not just an elegant chatelaine, but that like the toys she so enjoys, perhaps there's a slightly mischievous side to her too.

The entrance hall is an impressive space with oak panelling and classic William Morris "chrysanthemum" wallpaper. A handsome mahogany grand piano sports a theatrical pair of coloured glass vases and masses of framed family photographs. There is a pretty Victorian circular table and set of balloon-back chairs. It would have been just the thing for visitors' calling cards. "This was a doctor's house for many years," Daisy explains, "so the entrance hall formed the waiting room and several of the reception rooms were used for consulting."

One of these would have been what is now a high-ceilinged breakfast room with a vast inglenook fireplace. Painted a cheery red, it houses a collection, or perhaps what should be called a swarm, of brass flies. These are actually ashtrays from the early 20th century and Daisy has amassed a collection of over 90 of them. There are copper pots and an enormous kettle as well as proudly displayed grandchildren's art.

Daisy and her husband Rupert moved here 36 years ago, "downsizing" from what must have been an enormous Victorian house, as her present home is hardly modest in size. "The kitchen was upstairs, so we had quite a lot to do," she says. "We extended what was the original old kitchen in what is the Tudor part of the house. This rear part of the building dates from the 1560s and I'm crazy about Gothic style, and Pugin in particular, so I had the extension built in the style of a sort of Strawberry Hill Gothic pavilion or folly." It's a clever choice as it links both periods well. The timber roof beams have been lightly stained and as they run to a point in the ceiling there is a delightful, tiny cloverleaf window set among them. The other windows all have small, lattice like panes and elegant Gothic arches. The kitchen is painted yellow and the Aga is dark green. Daisy and a friend painted their own designs of spring flowers and chickens on the wooden cupboards.

All the time that we have been talking, I've been aware of the most tantalising perfume and finally I ask Daisy whether she has a jasmine plant in the house. With a knowing grin, she beckons me along a short passageway and into one of their two conservatories. I see now the reason for the smile. Here is the most glorious jasmine plant in full bloom. The scent is almost enough to make one swoon and the setting is perfect. Daisy designed the conservatory and it is another Gothic-inspired structure, but this time, it is like a delicate lantern. In one corner there is a doll's house and Daisy tel..ls me that she and her husband both love to collect, but that she particularly loves things in miniature.

Back through the breakfast/dining room and across the entrance hall, we go through a doorway into the drawing room. Above the door there is a finely carved coat of arms that Daisy uncovered when they removed the layers of paint that used to coat the fine oak panelling. The room has been artfully furnished with a mix of Stuart, Georgian and Victorian pieces. There are oil paintings of moonlit scenes and several "sand pictures". "These were very popular in the time of the Prince Regent," explains Daisy. "They were made of sand stuck to a board and then painted. I think it adds texture and depth to the picture." Daisy favours pictures of animals such as lions and tigers and the sand makes their fur look very real. It also adds a touching softness to the animals' expressions and somehow diminishes their ferocity. The Regency taste for the exotic is well known and being unfamiliar with the true nature of such beasts, perhaps there was also an appetite for them to appear a little more friendly towards humans.

The rear wall of this room still has its original Tudor leaded-light windows. The ancient brick wall is a deep, mellow red and it's impossible to resist the urge to touch it. The door here leads into the second lantern-like conservatory, even larger that the first, and which the couple built 28 years ago. There is an enormous brass chandelier, suspended from the highest point of the ceiling, that they brought from their previous house. It must look quite magical at night. Returning to the main house, my eye catches a strange scene in a glass case. Entitled "Mrs Partington's Tea Party" with the origin of "Stuttgart" underneath, it is a curious little collection of stuffed baby stoats (or kits), dressed in Victorian gowns and taking tea around a dainty table.

"I just enjoyed the comedy of the scene," says Daisy. It was so unusual, I suppose it was intended as a sort of conversation piece."

We climb the stairs to the first floor where the landing has been decorated with a wonderfully colourful wallpaper which covers both the walls and ceiling. The design features an exotic collection of plants and the overall effect is of being in a particularly lush jungle. "We had this paper in our other house. We had 46 rolls of it, in fact, and we had a bit left over, so I used it here. I know it's a bit unusual, but I like the feeling of being immersed in the botanical atmosphere," laughs Daisy. From here, an original green baize door leads into the master bedroom. The walls are mainly painted in primrose yellow, but the ceiling features a delicately patterned paper. "It's another William Morris design, though his ceiling papers are hardly ever used these days," says Daisy. A four-poster bed is hung with a classic English chintz stripe and is home to several elderly and much-loved teddy bears. One chocolate brown wall provides a dramatic backdrop for a gorgeously ornamented Rococo gilded mirror.

Further along the landing there is a study with another collection of teddies arranged along the window seat. "Where my son went to school there was a fantastic teddy bear shop in the high street, so I'm afraid I bought a new one at the beginning and end of every term," laughs Daisy.

Up another flight of ancient and rickety stairs, past a mural of well-endowed male nudes, painted by a family friend (from which Stella usually tries to distract visiting workmen's eyes) we reach the top floor. Here she has made a delightful nursery for her grandchildren. It is painted a bright sky blue and the French carved wooden bed is dressed with Cath Kidston's scarlet and crimson roses in full bloom. There are, of course, enchanting old toys around the room. A little doll's pram, and a lovely elephant on wheels for those first animal rides. From the window here I can see the garden with its newly constructed pond and Daisy's topiary. "We had a huge herbaceous border, but I decided to shorten it and add the fish pond and cascading fountain. The only problem is that we have a marauding heron and so we keep losing fish."

We descend to the ground floor via the family bathroom that Daisy stencilled with gold fleur de lys and the back stairs that lead back to the kitchen. Outside, the air is perfumed by spring daphne. The roses that clamber over delicate iron arches are just coming into leaf and I notice with some envy that the vegetable beds are looking very orderly. Fruit cages boast raspberries, jostaberries, blackcurrants and greengages. Pretty terracotta forcers cover tender rhubarb shoots and spring bulbs are in flower. There is topiary all over the garden and the emerald green box has been coaxed into the shape of lollipops, pyramids, triple pom-poms and even birds. "I grow it all from cuttings and love to experiment with new designs and surprise people," says Daisy. Just so, this is a house full of surprises.

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