Family Matters

Hurst Farm is not a huge, rambling traditional farmhouse, nor is it the grand, elegant home of generations of gentry. It is a beautifully proportioned 1840s house hiding in a modest garden and paddock a stone's throw from its Kent village High Street. Its front elevation is perhaps more friendly Georgian than early Victorian and even before you set foot within, you sense immediate welcome.

Hurst began life as a village dairy farm and the old milking shed at its rear has now been incorporated into the building itself, linked by a bright and spacious conservatory. On a pane of the kitchen sash window that now opens into this lovely space is still etched the legend "Hurst Farm Dairy".

When Mary Evans and her husband Rob moved down from London over 20 years ago, Hurst was in need of a little TLC - and it had fallen into exactly the right hands. The couple were looking for a new home for themselves and their four young children and although, as it stood, the farmhouse didn't quite provide the accommodation they were looking for, they immediately saw its potential.

"We loved the building, location and the village itself and we saw that with a little thought and reorganisation we could make Hurst a real family home," says Mary. "The trick would be to finally have what we wanted without detracting from the essential integrity of the place."

And perhaps this has been Mary and Rob's great triumph. As they have developed the house over the years, they have not only safeguarded the essence of the property but exposed potential and charm that even the house itself didn't know it had.

The main entrance is now not the original front door but the conservatory which serves as a dining room, its central dining table surrounded by a harlequin patchwork of different-coloured wicker garden chairs which seems to invite in the garden to front and rear. An old butler sink, picked up for 50p and once used for a herb garden, has been pressed once more into its original service and now stands beneath the kitchen window and next to a marble-topped table, which once belonged to Mary's mother. The children's wooden rocking horse - renovated by Rob's mother - stands sentry to the French windows which lead into the rear, cottage garden.

By the now front door is the dog's bed, which must be one of the most elegant beds ever enjoyed by a King Charles spaniel. Brass, and probably originally a small child's bed, the couple found it in France. Against the wall of the former milking parlour - now divided into a utility room, cloakroom and occasional bedroom - glows a woodburning stove - or that is one's first impression. However, even close to, it's difficult to discern that it is, in fact, a clever Calor Gas replica bought from Kristel Fireplaces, in Hawkhurst.

The kitchen - once the old scullery - has been recently renovated. The sink, now stainless steel, made to measure in Yorkshire, and the Carrara marble worktops were made to measure by Marble 2 Marvel in Hastings. Against one wall stands a Welsh dresser the family brought down from London.

"It had originally been stripped - everything was in those days - but it would have been too dark and heavy for this kitchen so we distressed it and it now fits in well," says Mary.

On the walls are a series of quail's egg paintings and a portrait of a pear by local artist Lindsay Denning, all of which were bought at the art&soul auctions in aid of Demelza House in Tunbridge Wells. The central food preparation table was once Mary's uncle's workbench. Cooking is by Aga and refrigeration by SMEG.

The kitchen leads into what was probably the original kitchen, now a TV room although the TV itself has been fitted into the fireplace and can be neatly hidden by double folding doors made by local craftsman Peter Cochrane. The centrepiece is another rescue from the Briwax boom - an old pine chest now French grey and supporting a Carrara marble top. There's more marble in the window - a deeply distressed table that stood in the garden for over a decade.

Both Mary and Rob love their books, and brimming floor-to-ceiling bookcases flank a window that looks out over a rectangular fish pond, installed by Hawkhurst Fish Farm for Rob's 50th birthday. The shutters to both the room's sash windows have survived as have the old service bells that run high on one wall.

"When we first moved in all the bells were still connected and there are still handles in the old playroom and drawing room," says Mary. "Unfortunately, the children couldn't resist them and drove us nuts, so we finally had to disconnect them."

The most serious piece of furniture in the room is a 19th century chiffonier in glowing walnut and the prettiest, the sofa upholstered in an old-fashioned fabric by Cabbages and Roses.

Focal point of the sitting room is a lovely Victorian marble and tile fireplace of the kind so common in London but surprisingly rare in country properties in Kent. Everyday heating is from radiators with bespoke cabinets by Raymond Cusack of High Halden. The wallpaper is candy stripe from Laura Ashley and the chintz curtains by Colefax and Fowler. Here a mirrored chiffonier has been given the reverse distressed treatment and taken back to the natural wood.

On one wall is a large van Dyck etching of Charles II and his siblings while on the opposite wall, to mirror it, is an etching-style family group of Mary, Rob and their children by local artist Luella Glover-Wilson. Presiding over both are Rob's, great-great-grandparents painted at around the same time as Hurst Farm was being built. By the window stands a superb and unusual Edwardian bow corner cabinet, its elegant door a single sheet of curved glass.

The third reception room might be called the Music Room, if Mary didn't consider the term far too grand, but combined music room and library it certainly is. More floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a walnut upright piano and a wall full of music CDs. This also serves as Mary's yoga room when she is not attending classes in the yoga studio at the Wellington Centre in Hastings. In the window, like a discreet commode, stands a Victorian oak wine cooler and, before it, a standard lamp, its shade made from Mary's mother's sheet music.

In the hallway, interesting pictures abound - including two pairs of Victorian silhouettes which have been passed down through Rob's family, Hastings Old Town by local artist Anne-Catherine Phillips, and a delightfully whimsical print of two cows discussing higher mathematics by another local artist, Will Taylor. Draughts from the original front door are kept at bay by a floor-to-ceiling Kelim rug with others underfoot. An old brass-bound barrel houses long-disused hockey sticks.

At the end of the hallway, stairs plunge down into a tanked cellar that now serves as a study.

"The entrance to the cellar used to be via a cupboard in the kitchen but we now use that as a larder," says Mary. The hallway entrance is a considerable improvement on the original and evidence of Mary and Rob's talent for bringing out the true potential of the property.

A newly refurbished bathroom, created in the original refurbishment by dividing a bedroom, hides halfway up the stairs to the first floor, all in Carrara marble tiles from Sussex Marble in Hastings.

Onward and upwards past antique Indian wall hangings, now curtains, a male nude by Mary's aunt, the artist Maureen Kilpatrick, and a kitchen scape, again by Anne-Catherine Phillips, to four bedrooms, all with wonderful Victorian bedsteads - three wrought iron and one, in the Mary and Rob's bedroom with its en suite bathroom, of brass. And, yes, on their wall, another Anne-Catherine Phillips, this time a study of ballerinas.

Grand or rambling it may not be but Hurst Farm is a perfect example of how it is possible to bring out the very best in a period property and transform it into an elegant family home of real warmth and character.

Address Book:
Kristel Fireplaces: 01580 753686
Marble 2 Marvel: 01424 851888
Lindsay Denning: 01892 891124
Peter Cochrane: 07725 812356
Hawkhurst Fish Farm: 01580 753813
Raymond Cusack: 01233 851043
Woodcocks: 01580 761008
Luella Glover-Wilson: 01769 581651
Wellington Centre: 01424 442520
Anne-Catherine Phillips: 01580 852417
Will Taylor: 01580 852476
Sussex Marble: 01424 852575

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Julie Simpson