A Gardeners World

Sometimes, no matter how hard you are looking, the right house for you just doesn't seem to be available. Sophie Hall, chairman of Oak Park Landscapes, had been house-hunting for some time when a friend mentioned a converted barn that had been on the market for a while. "I hadn't even been looking in the East Sussex area," Sophie explains. "But I thought, why not?" Now, some eight years later, Sophie is rather glad that she listened to her friend. Originally from the Marden area, she had lived in a large, remote farmhouse. "I wasn't sure that I would be able to take to village life at first but I quickly began to appreciate its blessings. There are many advantages to being able to pop down to the shop or round to the neighbours."

The barn, which dates back over 400 years, was only converted in 1997 and had been lived in by a couple who remain in the village. "It was in excellent condition," says Sophie. "All I needed to do was paint the walls to freshen it up. But what really attracted me to the house was that it had a great feel to it and potential for a beautiful garden." Walking around the house with Sophie, it is easy to understand what she means, not least because, rather than having one huge open-plan living space as many barns do, there are smaller rooms, set up or down steps, which lend a cosy, cottage-feel to the house. "I understand that the chap who renovated it originally intended to live in it himself," Sophie continues. "I think it's partly because of that it has a feel of being converted with great affection. Simple things like the way the wood on the banisters has been turned and the quality of the fittings make a real difference, I think."

Despite saying that very little needed to be done to make the house her home, Sophie has very much put her own touch on the property. "A large proportion of the kitchen was here," Sophie points out. "But I had a larder cupboard made to match the existing oak units and also had some extra cupboards put in over the Aga I installed. The enviable flagstone floor was already in position and is so perfectly chosen it looks, to all intents and purposes, as if it has been there since the barn was built.

Leading off the kitchen, are steps up to the sitting room. "When I moved in the internal doors were pine," says Sophie. "But with all these striking oak beams everywhere, I felt that the doors should be oak too and had new ones bespoke-made to fit all the nooks and crannies of the building's unique shape." One wall of the sitting room has recently been painted by Sophie in a rich Fired Earth colour called Amethyst. "I think the beams and floors lend themselves to earthy colours," explains Sophie. "So I am very drawn to the Fired Earth palette." For the corner of the room, Sophie commissioned Mark Lineham, of Thoroughly Wood in Lyminge who came recommended by a friend, to create a cupboard. "The only problem with barn conversions, I discovered when I moved in, is the lack of storage space. So Mark made this cupboard along with the extra kitchen units." In the dining hall, the floor-to-ceiling windows are draped in a beautiful dragonfly embroidered sheer linen. "I found that in Bell House Fabrics," says Sophie. "I always prefer natural colours and textures. It's probably really boring of me but that's what I feel comfortable with and, anyway, I think they reflect the character of this house." Having downsized from her previous home, Sophie found that not all of her furniture suited the barn. The dark oak cupboard in the dining room was traded by Sophie for a large table that she no longer needed, and now sits perfectly in the room.

Sophie's own bedroom is downstairs. "I wanted something more feminine in here," explains Sophie. "So I've recently painted the walls in a soft blue. But I found the beams to be rather dark. That can be another problem in a barn conversion, partly because the windows can sometimes be quite small and low, depending on the planning permission that was granted. I decided in the end to paint the beams off-white. It's made the ceiling feel higher and the whole room much brighter." Across the hall, a bathroom has an enviably high ceiling. "I love the character of this room," Katie comments. "With the steps coming down and the unregulated shapes of the walls and ceiling."

Upstairs are two further bedrooms and another bathroom. The landing has a gallery, allowing light from the high windows in the dining hall to flood upstairs. "There's a lot of clever use of borrowed light here," Sophie points out. "It does make a huge difference because if you are not careful in a barn you can get one room absolutely full of light and another room much darker." The walls around the house are adorned with the many paintings that Sophie has collected over her life. "I have artistic sons," says Sophie with understandable pride. "So some of their paintings and sculptures are around the house. But I also help out occasionally at Rhapsody House, a gallery in Tunbridge Wells run by my friend Stella, and I get tempted by some of the paintings there as well." In a previous life, Sophie was a restorer and conservator of prints and drawings. "But I began to find it a very solitary occupation. I wanted to work with people and my love of gardening has rather happily led to that."

As owner of Oak Park Landscapes, Sophie works with a team of designers, landscapers, arborists, and general gardeners. "We carry out everything from garden maintenance to restoration, on to garden design and estate management. It's great to work with people and see their dreams for their gardens develop." With so much garden experience, Sophie was not daunted by the fact that the garden surrounding her barn needed far more attention than the house did. "There's a natural pond which has a beautiful bridge over it," Sophie explains. "And there was some planting when I arrived but, over the eight years I've been here, I've enjoyed developing it." A terrace has been laid outside the kitchen and a decking area near the pond is a perfect spot for reading or entertaining, or simply watching the ducks float by. A vegetable patch is a recent addition and under development. "I must confess that for the maintenance jobs like tree surgery and the lawn, I do ask the Oak Park chaps to come along and help me out," Sophie confides. "But everything else I do look after myself. I love my garden and recently undertook an RHS qualification at Hadlow College."

Sitting amongst the flora and fauna is a delightful studio room. "Lots of people think it would make a great room for parties but," Sophie points out, "with three sons over six foot, the low beam across the middle is a bit of a handicap! Apparently the house next door was once owned by Admiral Frewen of Frewen College fame. Local history says that his batman had to sleep in here. Now, if my three sons ever manage to be at home at the same time, one of them ends up out here so I suppose not that much has changed."

In fact, having seen historic photos of the barn, local conservationists must be very contented that the conversion of the property has been so sympathetic both to the building and its surroundings. "It has been kept absolutely in tune with it's original design," Sophie concludes. "And it sits so snugly within the village, as it has done for the last 400 years, I hope it's going to for very many more."

Oak Park Landscapes works in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and London. 01580 211630 www.oakparklandscapes.co.uk

Thoroughly Wood, Lyminge 01303 863334

Rhapsody House, The Pantiles, T. Wells 01892 516342

  • words Caroline Plaisted
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Julie Simpson