Decorative living

It's odd, perhaps, but the expression 'living over the shop' somehow now seems to conjure 1950s images of a middle-aged, Fair Isle-sweatered tobacconist and his aproned wife settling back, Horlicks in hand, while on the black and white television Percy Thrower does something wholesome with geraniums.

Today, however, in the Kent-Sussex border village of Hurst Green, James Rourke has brought a whole new meaning to the phrase. James is the owner of Foxhole Antiques and he has transformed the early 19th century house, Foxhole, that curls comfortably around his business premises into a home at which a 1950s tobacconist could do little but wonder.

James' involvement with antiques grew out of his previous incarnation as a furniture restorer and he has had antique shops in Surrey, Cranbrook and Goudhurst. He found the Hurst Green premises when he visited the shop and discovered the then-owner wanted to sell. "The property has always been a shop,"he says, "but originally it was a sadler's and the house just a two-up, two-down. It was added to in the late 1800s, again in the 1960s and now we have extended it a little further."

The result is a four-bedroomed, two-bathroomed house with an open kitchen-dining area, a cosy snug and a lovely barn-conversion that provides a bright and spacious main living room. However, James' passion is 19th century rustic French furniture and it's his skill in spotting just the right pieces for each room that really makes this house so special. "I'm afraid elegant highly-polished furniture doesn't do it for me,"he says. "I like pieces that show their age and that have a character all their own. I like furniture that you can really live with."

James makes regular trips to northern France to collect pieces for both his business and house. He admits to being choosy but says it's getting harder and harder to find the right pieces for either and the current strength of the euro doesn't help.

"There was a time when you could find wonderful pieces everywhere but this kind of furniture has become increasingly popular both sides of the Channel. People are realising how well it sits in almost any home,"he says.

The heart of James' home, as is so often the case, is the kitchen-dining area. "Everyone always seems to congregate here,"he says and it's not surprising -at one end light floods in through the French windows which open out onto a pretty, partially decked, courtyard garden and, at the other, a wood-burning stove snuggles in the old brick fireplace providing welcoming cheer on winter evenings. However, the real glory of this area is a long and honeyed farmhouse table, the evidence of the voracious appetite of generations of woodworms proudly displayed in its chunky sycamore top. Ironically, it's English rather than French made.

At the other end of the dining area is a large and distressed grey French cupboard, its long-lost original glass panels replaced very effectively by humble chicken-wire. Flanking it are two old French window shutters.

"When I found them, they were white but I took them back to their original grey,"he says. "I never tire of working on pieces like this, slowly revealing their original colour."Rustic French is contrasted and complemented by elegant English in the shape of two pieces that James has had all his adult life: a small 18th century table, which was the first piece he bought when leaving college, and a 19th century chair given to him by his parents for his 21st. Fascinating ornaments abound -a large brass lantern, two huge oak statues that once flanked a Victorian fireplace, an old glass candlestick. But pride of place must go to two beautiful, mightily-distressed, toy wooden horses, probably both once on wheels and drawn by proud and excited owners over the cobbles of a French village. Across a small hallway is the original sitting room, now known as the snug for very obvious reasons. The focal point is an open fireplace with pine surround. Opposite stands a pleasing French corner unit upon which are now nesting a collection of gratefully-retired antique shooting decoys. On one wall is a 19th century portrait of an unknown burgher studiously averting his gaze from the modern canvas on another.

"I like mixing old and new,"says James. "If the pieces are right they can work very well together."The final room on the ground floor is James' own addition. At the rear of the property once stood a tumbled-down barn and this has now been replaced by a new barn-style living room complete with oak beaming, high-vaulted ceiling and limestone flooring. Two walls are half composed of glass doors to the garden allowing the light to pour into the room. High on one wall is a classic and glorious James 'find' -the face of an old French station clock -while on the opposing wall is a vast, cast-iron key, a shop sign from some long-forgotten French village locksmith. Old shop signs like this are another of James' passions. Hardly can one turn a corner in this house without being beckoned by Monsieur Petit to be fitted for new boots or Monsieur Vuillermoz who clearly feels his axes have a certain edge over the competition. "I always keep my eye open for an interesting sign,"says James. "Each tells a little story of its own."

Upstairs and past a huge, foxed, gilt mirror, the master bedroom with its en suite shower room is dominated by a leather-headboarded bed on each side of which appear, at first glance, to be old but purpose-built bedside units. On closer inspection, however, they turn out to be the drawers from an old office desk, the top of which is probably living quite happily as something else somewhere in the Pas de Calais. Their tops, which look for all the world like slate, are in fact wood given a very clever James treatment.

On a table in the corner stands another interesting French find, a drawer unit, again originally from an old village shop, its 13 tiny drawers once the home of some unknown but invaluable household commodity. On the walls hang two large portraits of prosperous 18th century ancestors, but whose is anyone's guess.

In the guest bedroom stands a French grey distressed double bed, made around 1890. James has had it re-upholstered in warm Old English white calico and flanked it with two old and rusty garden tables.

"I like bringing outside furniture in -used in the right place it can be very effective,"he says. Against one wall must be the biggest bargain in the house -a superb English leather screen that James picked up in a junk shop for a fiver. The 18th century chest of drawers is English elm and the French armchairs 1920 repro naturally distressed by years in service. The final two bedrooms are a visiting child's room and a work in progress which James is designing around another 19th century French bed. The bathroom with its roll-topped bath and hand-painted patterned walls is largely unchanged from the previous owners but James has added a lovely turn-of-the-century English oak corner unit, now home to a collection of rustic French pottery, and a huge rusty cast-iron coat rack which now serves as a towel rack. Foxhole is not a grand house and could comfortably be slipped into the west wing of some of the properties in these pages. However, it's an outstanding example of how over the years a house can grow from humble beginnings into an exceptionally stylish and comfortable home. It's also an example of just what, today, 'living over the shop' can really mean..

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming

James can be contacted at Foxhole Antiques on 01580 860317