A 16th-century Kentish farmhouse is the perfect showcase for the colourful individual style of its interior designer owner
A 16th-century Kentish farmhouse is the perfect showcase for the colourful style of its interior designer owner
after descending half a mile of bumpy farm track into a beautiful secluded valley where Kent meets East Sussex, visitors are rewarded by the quintessentially English sight of an ancient russet tile-hung farmhouse, with a clutch of mellow brick oast houses across the yard. The only clue that the interior of the property might not be quite as conventional as its exterior lies in the gleaming Air Force blue open-top Land Rover parked jauntily outside. Found rusting away in a client’s field, it was restored and given a new lease of life by Alexis Wylie, who finds it great for whizzing along the country lanes to her interior design jobs. And in summer, she, husband Fergus and their three children – Finnbhar, 18, Tabitha, 16, and Jonjo, 11 – plus dogs, all pile in for picnic outings and trips to the seaside.
The family arrived at Bourne Farm 15 years ago, after more than a decade in South Africa, followed by a short stint in London. Keen to move out of the city to be closer to Alexis’s parents, they were looking for an isolated rural property with some land that was still close enough to the capital for Fergus to commute to his job as a PR consultant. Surrounded by fields, with glorious views of the Weald of Kent and only 20 minutes from the coast at Rye, this 16th-century homestead near Bodiam Castle fitted the bill perfectly.
Although in rather an unloved state, it came with five acres and the bonus of outbuildings, including an oxbay, granary and a triplekiln oast, which already had planning permission. First on Alexis’s agenda was tackling the conversion of these derelict buildings, built centuries ago for drying hops. A major project, it took five intense months but, once complete, she was able to turn her
attention to the house. Grade Ii-listed, it is a typical Wealden farmhouse, with clay Kent-peg tiles covering the steeply pitched roof and a huge chimney for the inglenook fireplace stretching like a spine up through the centre of the house. With a frame made from the oak timbers of an old merchant ship, the property exudes character. “It was liveable in,” Alexis recalls, “but tired and in need of updating.” Happily, this is exactly her forte, and years of experience in South Africa working on everything from boutique hotels and safari lodges to individual projects (how she and Fergus met) have influenced her eclectic personal style, which she loosely describes as “colonial boho”.
Bold use of colour plays an important role and Alexis favours bright, vivid fabrics and accessories, set against a calm muted palette. Farrow & Ball is her current paint range of choice and features throughout, with Lamp Room Gray a particular favourite. She has used this warm battleship blue on the broad horizontal boards that panel the walls of the beamed sitting room to create a restful backdrop for an idiosyncratic mix of inherited pieces, souvenirs from their travels – including several naïve-style African paintings – and vintage finds, all presided over by a striking modern bronze of a lurcher. An old armchair, brought back from a French flea market on the roof of Alexis’s car and reupholstered in a subtly striped Roger Oates wool runner originally intended for the stairs, makes a comfortable perch beside a weathered 18th-century Dutch cupboard – now a drinks cabinet – that belonged to her parents.
The family tends to congregate in the adjacent snug – a cosy area where the African theme has been given full rein, with a papier-mâché head of a kudu (African antelope), a vibrant painting of a pink Land Rover by Tommy Motswai, an animal-print footstool and flamboyant floral cushions from Zimbabwe brightening up the much-loved, faded bottle-green needlecord sofa made by Alexis for Fergus’s original bachelor-flat commission.
The other place everyone gravitates to is, of course, the kitchen. This generous vaulted space, with its original cream Aga, reclaimed Belfast sink and handmade Chalon kitchen in distressed shades of artichoke and charcoal grey, is the scene of enjoyably rowdy family gatherings around a French farmhouse table. In summer, the action moves outdoors to the terrace. West-facing, with a wisteria-clad rustic pergola, it is perfect for alfresco meals and provides a blissfully shady retreat, where relaxed seating with cushions in quirky Charleston fabrics by Duncan Grant invite people to linger.
In the recently finished dining room, walls in dramatic dark Down Pipe create an atmospheric setting for candlelit entertaining, with old family portraits illuminated in the flickering glow. Dining chairs covered in colourful African
dress textiles in a mix of eye-catching prints provide an unexpected but inspired contrast with the sober antique refectory table.
Up at the top of the house, quietly elegant fabrics by Ian Sanderson and Kathryn Ireland, set against a pale scheme of paint colours Slipper Satin and Bone, bring a tranquil feel to the light-filled master bedroom and ensuite bathroom, which take up the entire attic space. A brightly striped rug from a souk in Oman livens up the natural seagrass that is Alexis’s choice of flooring throughout. The children’s bedrooms are on the floor below, along with a tiny guest room, which is dominated by an ornate antique French bed – so high that a footstool is required to help visitors clamber into it – with an old game rack providing a place to hang clothes.
Converting the oast house into additional accommodation was an obvious priority. When not occupied by visiting family and friends, it is a popular holiday let, with guests enjoying sunny breakfasts on the wide wooden balcony. Inside, there is a large open-plan vaulted living space, where comfortable old sofas are piled appealingly with cushions in soft velour and vintage florals, with quilts and throws adding texture and warmth. “I wanted it to be a relaxing space, so kept things simple,” Alexis explains. Many of its furnishings are cast-offs she has stylishly upcycled: “I’m a firm believer in make-do-and-mend – old pieces have far more charm.” And she is not afraid to experiment. The magnificent multi-coloured Manuel Canovas 80s ‘puff-header’ curtains, donated by a friend when moving house, were a revelation. “I would never have chosen them but they work perfectly here,” she enthuses.
Beside an old dresser filled with blue and white Spode china, a wooden ladder leads up to a sleeping platform. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Alexis laughs. The two other bedrooms, in each of the end roundels, are easier to access, with a four-poster in one and twin antique Swedish beds in the other. The central roundel contains a turquoise mosaic-tiled wetroom and a bathroom with a Victorian rolltop bath found by the side of the road. Re-enamelled, with its sides painted in Pink Ground to match the walls, it sits on a small brick plinth near the window, looking out onto fields of sheep.
Just as the use of these buildings has changed over the centuries to suit different needs, Alexis is always open to opportunities for reinvention – the old granary is now her studio and, as they no longer use the main front door, she has made ingenious use of the redundant vestibule behind it as a study for Fergus. “A home is never finished,” she explains. “It is constantly evolving with the stages in your life and must never stand still.” You get the sense that many more exciting changes lie ahead for Bourne Farm.
ABOVE LEFT An eclectic mix of pieces, including a late 18th-century Dutch cupboard, bring character to the living room THIS PICTURE In the dining room, walls in Farrow & Ball’s Down Pipe provide an inky backdrop for books and country chairs
OPPOSITE Floral cushions bring colour and pattern to the sofa in the converted oast house. A wooden ladder leads up to a sleeping platform THIS PAGE, FROM ABOVE LEFT Thetraditional Kentish oast houses; a bespoke treehouse by Lucy Williams of Wild At Art; a rustic pergola smothered in wisteria provides a shady spot for Jack Russell Titus Andronicus
THIS PAGE, FROM ABOVE LEFT The tiny guest bedroom is dominated by an ornate French bed; the Victorian rolltop bath was re-enamelled and painted to match the bathroom walls; awirework chandelier makes an eye-catching focal point in one of the oast-house bedroomsOPPOSITE Cladding and seagrass flooring creates a restful, rustic look in the master bedroom