Country Living (UK)
ECHOES OF THE PAST
The former inhabitants of Barrie and Jo Stewart’s historic home in Rye have been rich material for its sensitive renovation
When Barrie and Jo Stewart opened the front door to their new home in Rye, East Sussex, they were greeted by a curious parcel of papers. “In the middle of the floor was a package wrapped in white cotton and tied with red ribbon. It contained the original deeds and also documents relating to the house, which date back to 1703,” Barrie says.
Interestingly, those handwritten records also detailed the various professions of the property’s former inhabitants. Over the centuries, ‘The Mint’ (so called because money was once coined on the street where it sits) had been home to tallow chandlers, sailors, wheelwrights, cordwainers and linen wrights, while a wig maker, a hairdresser and tailors had used its leaded windows as a shop front.
The house, parts of which date back to Tudor times, also held its own clues to other, off-the-record occupants. “We found a tiny smugglers’ door in the eaves,” Jo says. “If there was a raid, smugglers could swiftly vanish through to the attics of neighbouring houses and emerge at the other end of the street.”
Reading about the artisans and craftspeople who had lived within its walls helped to inspire the couple’s renovation of the Grade Ii-listed property. “When it came to decorating the rooms, we included some references to the tradespeople who have lived here over the centuries,” Barrie says. So a vintage mannequin head in one of the bedrooms is a subtle reminder
of the wig maker, while beeswax candles provide a nod to the chandlers who worked here.
With such a creative tradition among the house’s former occupants, it’s fitting that Jo and Barrie also work in the world of textiles and fashion. Vintage linens dotted around the bedrooms are the couple’s tribute to the tailors and linen wrights of bygone times. “Using textiles to add texture to the spaces was particularly appealing,” Barrie says. Vintage French sheets, softened with wear, have been hemmed and hung as curtains. Striped mattress covers have been given a new lease of life as bedcovers and old linen shirts are hung as decorative items. “The detail and fine needlework – even on everyday workwear – is incredible,” Barrie says.
But before the couple could start trawling local shops and fairs for these finishing touches, there was a lot of careful restoration work to do. While ideas for the house’s redesign came from delving into its artisan past, rebuilding it sensitively required the expertise of modern builders and craftspeople. “We liked the idea of creating something that felt bespoke rather than off the peg
by using local artisans and experts,” Barrie explains. “The aim was to bring the house back to life in an authentic style that took its lead from the building itself.”
Early on in the project, the couple visited a forge in nearby Robertsbridge to find replacement backplates for the large inglenook fireplaces. “They were the things we loved about the house, so we wanted to reinstate them as faithfully as possible,” Barrie says. The forge was “like a graveyard of old fireplace ironware” and the couple had their pick of original and recast pieces. But, having made contact with the blacksmith, they also commissioned him to make other pieces for the house, such as the curtain rods and rings. “He combined a simplicity of shape with the slightly rough, visibly hammered finish that we wanted,” Barrie says.
A local carpenter, with experience of working in listed buildings, was employed to make a bespoke kitchen and sets of simple, rustic shutters from salvaged planks. “We wanted someone who understood the quirks of the building and would approach the work in a sympathetic way,” Barrie adds. A seamstress ran up the curtains from French linen sheets, which give privacy without completely obscuring the leaded windows and frames. During the renovation, the couple also visited other old properties for inspiration (Cotehele in Cornwall was a favourite) but they didn’t want to create a look that was “preserved in aspic”. Instead, Jo says, the goal was “to put back its authentic character but with our modern eye for simplicity”.
In the upstairs bathroom, the walls had to be taken back to the original wooden laths and reconstructed with increasingly fine layers of plaster, mixed with horse and goat hair, as the couple were keen to replace like for like. “An unforeseen benefit was that because the exposed laths were made from chestnut timber, they filled the house with an amazing rich smell,” Barrie says. Then
there were the original beams, which were still sound but had more recently been painted a thick, dark brown. “As the house is listed, there was no way we could sandblast them,” Barrie explains. “We started stripping them back by hand, but it was a huge and messy job, so we got two local chaps in to help. There are a lot of painters, collectors and creative people around Rye and bringing The Mint back to life introduced us to lots of them.”
The couple also enlisted the help of a dealer in medieval and primitive oak furniture in nearby Herstmonceux and a furniture restorer, who seamlessly added inches to an 18th-century farmhouse table’s legs to make it comfortable for modern diners. Alongside the antique pieces are smaller curios and vintage items with a contemporary feel, including the paintings by Luke Hannam in the living room.
When they aren’t in Rye, Barrie and Jo rent out The Mint: “It’s lovely when guests appreciate the artisan details that we’ve worked into the property,” Barrie says. “There’s a real sense of the history in this house.”
For holiday rentals or to buy Barrie and Jo’s vintage finds, visit themintinrye.com.