Every house has its idiosyncrasies, but an architect’s eye – or two architects in the case of this property in Somerset – will turn challenges into opportunities and reveal the elegant lines beyond a cluttered layout.
Bella and Richard Parker, who met at Bath University, were renting part of a Tudor house further down the lane when this property came up for sale in 1996. Converted from two workers’ cottages and a stable block, the house was sloping down the hill on three levels, which – along with a bad case of damp – might have daunted less-experienced buyers. “We never worry about the condition of a building, as we know we can do it in the end,” Bella says.
They watched streams of potential buyers being shown around before putting in their offer at the last minute, just pipping the closest bidder to the winning post. Then they moved in with a new baby and spent the next 23 years turning it into the kind of family home everyone wants to come back to…
A few miles outside Bath, with a view of Solsbury Hill (made famous in the 1970s by a Peter Gabriel song), the house sits in six acres of garden (originally a sloping field, which Richard has terraced by hand). Its Cotswold stone rubble walls are topped with a roof of double Roman tiles. The original sash window frames are painted an enigmatic Sikkens grey (“green in some lights, blue in others”), and the new ones the couple put in are natural oak, left to silver.
Inside, what strikes you immediately are the views – from room to room as well as those across the stunning landscape. Because of the hillside, each room is half a level up or down from the next, which creates an enhanced sense of perspective, intriguing the eye with unexpected angles and sightlines. So the kitchen, which is formed of two ground-floor rooms in the lower cottage, leads up half a dozen steps to the drawing room (knocked through from two rooms in the second cottage), while on the other side, another half-flight of stairs opens onto a playroom.
All the areas, says Bella, are designed around a principle of ‘altars’ and ‘thrones’ – altars being mantelpieces, shelves, dressers and windows, which have their own stand-alone place against a wall, and thrones comprising chairs, tables, beds and other items that need to be artistically positioned and dressed. “We raided our parents’ attics when we moved here,” she adds. Furniture includes the kitchen table and settle from Richard’s parents’ home in Scotland, as well as the carved headboard on the wall above their bed, found by Richard’s father in a field where a farmer had been using it as fencing, and the ornate clock on the playroom mantelpiece. “That was given to my grandmother by a Jewish family in London in the 1930s,” Bella says. “They left it in her care, and never came back for it.”
These touches of ornament, along with the Victorian stag heads and gilt-framed family portraits, are all the more effective for being displayed against pale paintwork, clean lines and occasional flashes of orderly colour (“It’s a good way to file books – you actually remember what’s where”), together with contemporary furnishings, such as the postcard pigeonholes used to display a rotating selection of modern artworks.
Storage throughout the house is effective but discreet – whether it’s the cupboards fitted under the sloping ceiling of the playroom, and continued beneath the window to provide a roomy seat, or the two ‘dressers’ that flank the kitchen cooker, which conceal a small fridge and other appliances. Even the kettle is hidden away. Other cabinets are made from old sun-blistered shutters from Richard’s parents’ house. “I feel the world has reached its peak when it comes to kitchens,” Bella explains. “As architects, we’re always trying to create rooms that don’t look like kitchens.”
And as architects, they also know the benefit of experimentation. “It’s how you learn what works – doing your own plumbing, mixing your own paint colours. This place is full of half-finished things, because we experiment on our house so we don’t have to on our clients’,” she says, thinking of the green ochre that looked like mould and the red that was just too red.
They know the importance of good heating: an air source heat pump provides underfloor heating in the kitchen and playroom, the drawing room woodburner has a back boiler, giving them hot water in winter, and solar thermal tubes on the roof fulfil the same role in summer. And the bedroom curtains, made from old linen sheets that Bella collects, are fully lined. They prefer shutters where possible, “but insulation is important in draughty old houses”.
Switching a couple of roofs from flat to pitched has given them two extra bedrooms, including son Bogan’s, which has fabulous views over the garden and rooftops: “We should have had that room for ourselves,” rues Bella. “It’s like being up in the trees.” This floor is reached by a spiral staircase with cantilevered beech treads and steel rails, and a ledge propped with “old mirrors we can’t find another place for” bounces even more light into the landing.
Playing with light and space is the Parkers’ stock in trade, and nowhere works more effectively than the kitchen, where about eight years ago they swapped the original back door and small window for a new bay. It’s glazed on all three sides with inward-opening doors that fold back against the side windows. “It’s much nicer than the bi-fold doors I’m always trying to dissuade clients from installing,” says Bella. “It’s added an extra metre to the room and created an effect a bit like a loggia. Sitting there in my Liberty-print armchair, looking across the garden to Solsbury Hill is just lovely. It is my favourite place in the house.”
And it seems that every season has its strengths here. “When family visit over the festive period, they say: ‘This is a great Christmas house.’ But in summer, it’s: ‘This is a perfect house for summer.’ We have loads of trees, so it’s wonderful when the leaves begin to change colour in autumn, too, and there are masses of tulips in bloom come spring.” It’s hard to find anywhere better for holidays, Bella admits, so unless they go to the sea, or somewhere with extraordinary architecture, they’re really better off staying at home.
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