When de­signer CRES­SIDA BELL’s home of 40 years was left dev­as­tated by a flood, she found her­self dis­placed and help­less


The last thing de­signer Cres­sida Bell thought she would ever ex­pe­ri­ence was a flood. ‘I thought it could never hap­pen to me be­cause I live on the top of a hill in the mid­dle Lon­don,’ she says. And yet in the dead of a cold win­ter’s night on 6 December last year, sud­denly all she held dear was at risk.

Cres­sida and her long-term part­ner Paul, along with a friend stay­ing the night, had gone to bed late. ‘At some point in the early hours of the morn­ing I heard a lot of noise – bang­ing and crash­ing – and I thought it must have been some­body com­ing home late. We of­ten get drunken lads com­ing down the road from the nearby high street to fight,’ she says. ‘But then I heard wa­ter and thought, my God, it’s rain­ing hard. There was shout­ing out­side so I opened the win­dow. A po­lice­woman was try­ing to alert us that a wa­ter main had burst and a mas­sive

flood was com­ing our way. She told us to get out as soon as we could,’ she says.

Much to Cres­sida’s sur­prise, her late 1700s-built house, tucked away on a side street off Is­ling­ton’s Up­per Street, was at risk. After she had gath­ered her iPad, a pair of shoes and a bot­tle of wa­ter – ‘even then, I didn’t do any­thing else be­cause I didn’t think I was go­ing to be flooded’ – a po­lice­man helped them wade through the tor­rent of wa­ter out­side. ‘It was knee-high, like walk­ing through rapids,’ she says. They es­caped into a nearby pub and were given tea while they dried off. Ev­ery­one watched as the wa­ter con­tin­ued to gush non­stop, up to 12 feet deep. One lo­cal, who had re­ported the burst main to Thames Wa­ter at around 4am, said he’d seen the wa­ter shoot up like a geyser, al­most three storeys high, Cres­sida says. As ev­ery minute passed, the grim re­al­i­sa­tion sank in that if it didn’t stop soon, her home was go­ing to be del­uged.

‘If your space is sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly mis­placed, you feel quite des­per­ate,’ says Cres­sida. Hav­ing lived there for four decades – it is one of only three places she’s lived in her whole life; ‘very few peo­ple I know can say that’ – the threat to her house felt like an at­tack on her­self.

Cres­sida was born in New­cas­tle, then her fam­ily spent eight years in Leeds be­fore mov­ing to Sus­sex. Her fa­ther, art his­to­rian and au­thor Quentin Bell, was the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, both key mem­bers of the Blooms­bury Group (Vanessa was Vir­ginia Woolf ’s sis­ter). Cres­sida’s mother Anne Olivier Bell was the only fe­male of­fi­cer among the Monuments Men after the Sec­ond World War. ‘I’ve lived in this house since I was 18 and it’s be­come a huge part of my life and who I am.’ If she car­ries any Blooms­bury legacy with her, it’s most cer­tainly in the way ‘ev­ery­thing in the house has been cre­ated by me,’ she says of the hand­painted wall­pa­per, her de­signs adorn­ing the rugs and lamp shades, fur­ni­ture painted in her sig­na­ture graphic prints, and the row of her brand’s scarves (Joanna Lum­ley is a fan) on the wall where you come down into the kitchen.

It’s a skill Cres­sida learned at an early age in the fam­ily home in Sus­sex, near Charleston, the iconic Blooms­bury Group house where her fa­ther had grown up. Cres­sida was given the free­dom to paint her bed­room and ev­ery­thing in it. ‘No one both­ered whether it was done the right way – it was im­por­tant to do it how you wanted to do it.’

Four and a half hours after the mains pipe burst, the leak was fixed and the slow process of re­turn­ing to her home be­gan. You can imag­ine the im­po­tent fury Cres­sida felt as the res­i­dents were sub­jected to roll calls and ‘treated like schoolkids, told what we weren’t al­lowed to do and where we couldn’t go. We were even in­structed to put our hand up if we wanted to say some­thing,’ she says. ‘It was dis­em­pow­er­ing and I was des­per­ate to find out what dam­age had been done to my home.’

With hind­sight, Cres­sida re­alises it hadn’t been nec­es­sary to leave so quickly. ‘One of my neigh­bours spent three hours stack­ing her fur­ni­ture,’ she says. Once they were out, how­ever, they couldn’t go back in. ‘I felt I’d re­lin­quished con­trol of my life,’ she says. Worse still, as hers was the last house on the street to be af­fected, Cres­sida be­lieves it ‘prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been flooded at all’ had the wa­ter been stopped half an hour ear­lier.

By the time the wa­ter had drained away later that day and the res­i­dents were fi­nally al­lowed back in, it was after 4pm. ‘I walked down the stairs and couldn’t see much – the power was still turned off. I tried to tidy a lit­tle. Of course, there was stuff all over the place, but I hon­estly don’t think I re­alised how bad it was. Per­haps it was shock and de­nial,’ she says. Thames Wa­ter had of­fered to put up res­i­dents in a nearby ho­tel for the night but ‘all I wanted to do was shut the door, light some can­dles, open a bot­tle of wine and bur­row in,’ she says. It was damp, the car­pets were soggy, ‘but at that time of night, there wasn’t much I could do. I sim­ply wanted to be in my home, what­ever state it was in.’

The next morn­ing, the peo­ple from Flood Call, a wa­ter dam­age mit­i­ga­tion com­pany, ar­rived. ‘There were no niceties, they just started to rip up the skirt­ing boards and pull the house apart. I had to shout, “Stop!” It was fright­en­ing be­cause sud­denly my house be­came theirs, not mine.’ The wa­ter had reached waist-height in the base­ment kitchen and the whole room needed to be stripped back to the brick­work and the floors re­moved. The cup­boards were full of wa­ter. ‘At first, I thought I’d roll up the rug and put all the things I could res­cue into the bath to dry off but after a day or two I re­alised it was all go­ing to go mouldy,’ she says.

Over the days that fol­lowed, keep­ing track of

what had been lost, deal­ing with in­surance bro­kers and find­ing trades­men to re­pair the dam­age be­came like a sec­ond job. It was Cres­sida’s busiest time of year – ful­fill­ing or­ders for her on­line shop and launch­ing new col­lec­tions for the Royal Academy of Arts and Mu­se­ums & Gal­leries – but the flood had taken over her life.

After nu­mer­ous wran­glings with in­surance bro­kers and Thames Wa­ter, the last straw came when they tried to con­demn all her ap­pli­ances. ‘With­out those I couldn’t func­tion,’ she says. She broke down and asked them to leave her alone un­til after Christmas. ‘It makes me cry even now,’ she says. ‘My home had been in­vaded and I felt vul­ner­a­ble. My house is the one place I feel safe and it was like I was be­ing com­pletely taken over.’

Fi­nally – at the end of May this year – she signed off the re­pairs. She had man­aged to stay in the house, in­stalling a tem­po­rary kitchen in the first-floor sit­ting room so she could re­main on-site while the builders were there. Friends laugh that her new kitchen is ex­actly the same as the old one. ‘Maybe I’m bor­ing, but I love my kitchen. It’s the first place I go when I get home from work; it’s where we eat and en­ter­tain. I spend a lot of time there,’ she says. ‘When I first painted it [in turquoise, deep blue, cream and coral] – in­spired by the colours of the Is­tan­bul bazaar – my sis­ter said that as it is a base­ment kitchen, the colours needed to be light. The truth is that it’s cosy in the win­ter and cool in the sum­mer. It works,’ she says.

A few things are still amiss. ‘The boiler in the cel­lar still isn’t work­ing prop­erly and there’s a slightly odd sci­ence-fic­tion feel­ing to the house, like be­ing in a twi­light zone, be­cause it’s my home and yet it’s not. The new shelves are slightly dif­fer­ent sizes from the old ones so I lose things down the back of them; the in­sides of draw­ers don’t quite fit all my spoons and uten­sils. It’s like that Talk­ing Heads song [‘Once in a Life­time’], “This is not my beau­ti­ful house,”’ she laughs.

The thought of los­ing a life­time of things – in­clud­ing her beloved col­lec­tion of vinyl records – is still more than she can bear. Ev­ery trea­sure in her house has a story, and for­tu­nately a great many were saved. ‘I know ex­actly who gave them to me or where I found them on my trav­els. Each one holds great mean­ing and im­por­tance for me.’

Cres­sida re­alises it could have all been de­stroyed in the flood. ‘I’m thank­ful for small mer­cies,’ she says. ‘No pre­cious photos or paint­ings were lost; no one was hurt.’ Has the ex­pe­ri­ence taught her not to care so much about her pos­ses­sions? ‘No! Quite the op­po­site. I prob­a­bly love them even more now than I did be­fore.’



From top: gar­dens sub­merged in flood waters; Cres­sida’s stripped-out kitchen and hall­way

Above: the flood­ing caused by a burst mains pipe on Lon­don’s Up­per Street. Right: Cres­sida at home to­day

From top: Cres­sida in her re­dec­o­rated kitchen; dam­age to the walls is still there to­day; some of Cres­sida’s de­signs

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