A Love of the Land

Moving out of the Georgian farmhouse that has been your family home since 1968 might seem a daunting prospect for most people, but Steven and Emily Hall saw it as just another stage in their lives together. The couple had decided to hand the farmhouse on to their eldest son and his growing family and they had spied an opportunity to make a new home for themselves just across the garden. The farm's period barn was now too small to house the monstrous proportions of modern tractors but its dimensions were certainly generous enough for humans. Tunbridge Wells architect Stephen Langer produced plans and David Hall acted as project manager. A trained chartered surveyor, David runs Burslem, stonemasons of Tunbridge Wells, and so took on the challenge without hesitation. In just 18 months the barn was taken apart "limb from limb" as Steven says and then reconstructed. "We had a team of just three men and a tremendously good foreman, called Chris Hendy who was both very hands-on and interested in the details."

Underfloor heating was installed throughout with a heat exchange system to lower energy consumption. As the barn was listed, there were strict rules about preserving features such as the vertical timbers that separated what was once a feed store from a cattle shed. It now forms a divide between the kitchen and breakfast room. "It's my giant plate rack!" jokes Emily. The couple have used British products wherever possible. The kitchen was designed and built by Traditional Bespoke Furniture of Matfield and the huge cream enamel range is a true Brit ‘Everhot'. Behind it, wall tiles have been delicately painted with some of the couple's favourite wild birds by Moppy Peate, a local artist and family friend. An island unit is topped with ‘brown' oak. "It's dead timber from the farm," explains Steven. "It acquires a beautiful rich colour, but it's unsuitable for building construction, so we've used it here." The other worktops are made from long slabs of Burslem's Wild West green granite that with its fluid green, rust red and ochre marks looks rather like a sandy riverbed.

There is a clever use of space between the scullery, kitchen and breakfast room. In the north-facing larder the shelves are impressively stacked with homemade marmalades, jams and chutneys. Next to it, an alcove is filled with cupboards and shelving, on the reverse side of which, in the scullery, a raised dog bed has been fitted, so the dogs can recline in some comfort.

In the central part of the barn huge windows flood the room with light and the walls either side are covered with pictures. The windows overlook the stables where the family keep their point-to-pointers. Steven successfully competed for many years and now their sons do, too, and dotted about the house I spot black and white photographs of Emily and Steven at equestrian events, both smartly attired and astride powerful mounts. They both rode as children and their love of all things equestrian has endured. The paintings have been lovingly collected over the years and range from the Regency period to the contemporary. One of Steven's favourites is a portrait of a particularly leggy horse appropriately named ‘Pencil' dated 1804. "That one had a slightly colourful history because it belonged to a family where the owner was a gambler. They owned a lot of paintings and every time he lost a bet he sold another one. I bought it, and then one evening we had a group of people back here for dinner. We were all chatting away when this chap suddenly said, ‘You've got my picture!' but was absolutely thrilled to see it again." To the right of ‘Pencil' hangs an impressive gilt fish-eye mirror of the same period, with twin candle sconces and dolphin motif. "I saw it in an antiques shop one day and kept thinking about it. About a fortnight later, as it was still unsold I offered to pay £50 for it. ‘No,' the dealer shot back, ‘you'll pay the asking price, but not before I've come to your house and made sure that it's a suitable destination for it.' He did too, and luckily, he approved, so here it is."

Another favourite is a painting by Frank Wootton, the RAF's official artist during WWII. Wootton was also a fine horseman and was particularly good at capturing the form and character of horses. This painting was a gift to Steven's father The family are still involved in farming but on what they consider to be a modest scale. "I'm actually a lawyer," explains Steven, "but in 1977 I bought the 300-acre farm and we keep suckler calves and sheep for fattening, as well as the horses of course."

Screened off from the main part of the drawing room, Steven shows me what he calls his "legal department" with his partners' desk piled high. "Having retired, I just handle the odd thing from here." It must take some discipline, as the drawing room is such a relaxing space. Linen-covered sofas and chairs have been placed in conversational groups or around the vast fireplace. "I wanted something very simple," says Emily. "There are all sorts of restrictions in a listed building so we opted for a woodburner. The stone is from Burslem, of course, and above it is a picture of the Quorn Hunt. In fact this is a good example of our foreman's attention to detail as the ceiling beam prevented us from hanging the picture in the centre, so he just took a tiny knick out of the timber and it all fitted perfectly."

It is in this room that the underfloor heating really comes into its own, as there are no ugly radiators to hide or restrictions on where the furniture can be placed. A Derbyshire dresser occupies the wall opposite the fireplace. Its oak timbers have acquired a rich patina with age and its dark colour is echoed in the flamboyant chinoiserie cabinet nearby. "These were often constructed in England then shipped out to China to have all the inlaid enamels added before they were brought back here to be sold," Steven says, as he opens the doors to reveal more than a dozen highly decorated doors and drawers. It's actually a very practical piece of furniture too, as we store all sorts of things in here."

Emily leads the way to the first floor and we pass a contemporary oil painting by Alison Guest, another local equestrian artist whose work is shown at the Tryon Gallery in London. On the landing is an exquisitely pretty chest of drawers. It seems unusually small and dainty but then by way of explanation Emily raises the top and folds it out to show that it is also a card table. Next to it, bookshelves made by Alpine Joinery of Frant stretch almost the length of the landing. Steven's dressing room is tucked to one side and beyond it is the couple's bedroom with views towards both the North and South Downs. Here, as in the rest of the house, the timbers have been kept in their natural honeyed hue. This house might be called typically British in its understatement, not built for show, but for practicality, warmth and comfort. It complements the landscape in which it stands and perfectly echoes its owners' deep and genuine love of the land.

Address Book:

Burslem: 01892 750120 www.burslem.co.uk

Traditional Bespoke Furniture: 01892 723083

Crown Roofing: 01424 733446 www.crownroofing.co.uk

Patrick Mills Interiors: 01892 515465 www.patrickmills.co.uk

The Tryon Gallery: 020 7839 8083 www.tryon.co.uk

South Of England Agricultural Society: 01444 892 700 www.seas.org.uk

Everhot Cookers: www.everhot.co.uk

Stephen Langer Associates: 01892 524 555 www.stephenlanger.co.uk

Alpine Joinery Ltd: 01892 750998

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming