It may not be advisable to move house with a newborn baby, but many of us do. But how many of us exchange a comfortable life in London for a run-down hotel with 24 bedrooms – and all the hard work that entails? Alex and Katie Clarke did just that and arrived in East Sussex in 2004, having purchased The George in Rye hotel. "I'd had a successful career in prop design for film and television," Katie explains. "I'd just finished working on Nanny McPhee and Alex had worked in the hotel industry for a number of years. I was about to give birth to our second daughter when Alex announced that he thought we should move to the country and buy a hotel. For some reason, I found myself saying 'OK, let's'. Next thing I knew, we were looking around The George." At the time, the hotel was owned by a brewery and needed a considerable amount of work. "But," Katie points out, "we could see the potential the place had. It dates back to the sixteenth century and has so much character. As soon as I saw the ballroom, which was dull and dingy, I realised that it could be a quite magical place."
So it was that, some eight weeks later, Katie and Alex arrived at The George with their eldest daughter Matilda, then a toddler, and six-week-old Olive. "We were given the keys on the Saturday night and, suddenly, it was all our responsibility," says Katie. "Thankfully, the staff were still there because on the Sunday there was a classic car rally in Rye and we had 85 covers for lunch. It was a baptism by fire to say the least." In fact, the Clarkes went on to discover that the rest of the next twelve months, and beyond, was going to be just as much hard work. Almost immediately, they applied for planning permission to update the hotel to modern standards and the result is a stunning boutique hotel that was voted one of the top five UK hotels in the 2008 Observer Travel Awards and also made the cover of the Mr and Mrs Smith guide. "It was a chaotic but fun year," Katie enthuses. "I always think that hotels should be sumptuous and spoiling. So I indulged all my decorating fantasies when I designed the decor of the rooms and suites. I love shopping – so this was shopping on a grand scale. I let my imagination run riot. It was glorious fun, I can tell you!"
Initially, the couple rented a house in Rye but soon found that this was too close to work. "We were living in a great place," says Katie. "But you'd be sitting in the garden with the children when someone would pop over the fence and tell you the till roll had run out. We needed to make a gap between us and the hotel." The hunt for a new home took much longer than the search for the hotel and Alex and Katie saw many houses on the Kent and East Sussex borders before they found the right one: a Georgian farmhouse with six bedrooms. "We loved the huge windows, the flagstone and tiled floors, and the feel of it," Katie reveals. "But moving into a house without central heating in the middle of the winter is perhaps not recommended. We spent our time huddled up in jumpers and wiping children's runny noses." Because the project involved considerable restoration, not least a heating system, the family moved out for six months to avoid the dust and upheaval: a lesson learned from renovating four other houses. Then, at last, the house was ready for painting and Katie tackled the decoration with relish. "As I say, I think staying in a hotel should be like a fantasy – and I wanted to bring that feeling to our home. Visitors are often saying to me that the house is really like Room 1!"
Katie's tastes are eclectic and, as a self-confessed shopaholic ("But in a good way. I mean I don't buy clothes, well, not many anyway"), she never tires of finding new things. McCully and Crane in Rye is a favourite haunt, as is the Rye Auction Galleries – "The other day I bought a job lot of 50 clocks there – some of them are amazing!" – and the abundance of treasures to be found in Norman Road in Hastings. "But anything anyone likes in this house," Katie confesses, "is usually something that my mother-in-law has passed on to us. She's got great taste and kindly let us have a gorgeous Art Nouveau bed for the spare bedroom and a stunning birdseye maple wardrobe for the same room. All the other good stuff is hers too!" The colour palette downstairs is enhanced by the beautiful and original floor tiles and parquet flooring. "Also I love china and porcelain," Katie adds. "So I take a lot of my colour inspiration from beautiful china plates and vases." Some curtains have moved from house to house with Katie and others are made from the fabrics of Sally Baring at Borderline, as well as Cressida Bell, and G P and J Baker. One pair is even made from an old Indian tablecloth that Katie found. "I get bored with things quite quickly," Katie points out. "And I'm a perfectionist." (This is hardly a surprise: having followed her around her comfortable home, there isn't a picture that hasn't been straightened or a spec of fluff unspotted.) "And I am always moving things. If there are two men in the house at any one time, I'll find a piece of furniture they can shift. Last week, the sitting room was a dining room and there are now twelve dining chairs in the attic! I'm the same in the hotel – it's constantly evolving, just like this house. I've even been known to move furniture from the house to the hotel and vice versa."
The twelve dining chairs in the attic is a bit of a family joke. "People say that I've got a chair fetish and tease me about where the next one is going to go," Katie laughs. "Well, I can't help it if I spot a pair of lovely chairs in the Rye Auction Galleries, can I? Anyway, I've got a terrific upholsterer called Paul Norris who makes them look even more gorgeous. And anything that needs fixing goes to The Chair Doctor, also known as Holland of Rye." Holland of Rye created the bespoke kitchen that Katie designed on the back of a cereal packet – "I just scribbled it down, they measured up, and then this fantastic kitchen was made."
Indulgent bathrooms might also be another fantasy of Katie's. Having created stunning ensuites in the hotel with luxurious Lefroy Brooks fixtures and fittings, Katie emulated those at home too. "I love great big statement baths," says Katie. "We've got enormous ones in the hotel but Alex did draw the line at having exactly the same ones in our house. He did point out that the floors probably wouldn't take the weight… But I suppose the Sussex Marble double basin top makes up for that." Originally, the house had only one bathroom, but with some jiggling around of bedrooms, there are now three, an essential now that the family has three daughters, following the arrival of Esme just over a year ago.
Sitting at the top of the house is another gem, a belvedere, glazed on all sides, providing excellent views of the surrounding countryside. "We think it was added in the 1920s," explains Katie. "Certainly an earlier photograph of the house doesn't feature it. We've no idea why it was added – except, of course, that it does let us see out for miles. When I first saw it I had grand ideas for putting a bathroom up here, thinking how wonderful it would be to bathe in the moonlight. But then boring things were pointed out to me, like how would we get a bath up the stairs or enough water pressure…? But it's a great place for sleepovers or simply a good look round."
Back downstairs, every room is filled with the heady scent of seasonal flowers and it is easy to see why the Clarkes' house is popular for use in film and photography shoots. "I love filling the hotel with local blooms and I found a brilliant local florist, Alex Ball, who has her own cutting garden. Now I get Alex to fill the house with flowers as well – changing the flowers is a lot quicker than moving the furniture," Katie jokes. "I do love this house though. I used to want to move all the time but I think I've got over that now. Anyway, we've just put in planning permission for a ten-bedroom extension on the hotel, as well as an exciting new shop concept. That will keep me busy for a while. Especially as I've kicked my chair habit. Although I've moved on to orange glass lampshades now… But then I suppose I did buy some more chairs the other day. Oh well, I'll just have to find somewhere to put those in The George!"