By Karen Darlow
Long before the dawn of the railways, in the days of horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, many a weary traveller will have broken their journey in what is now Wendy and John Bunyan’s home. The couple’s house is a former coaching inn, a popular resting point on a major highway between Hastings and Chatham on England's south coast. The house is set back from the old Roman road and was one of many such inns along the route when it was built in the 16th century.
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What sets it apart today, however, is John and Wendy’s careful restoration of this treasure. Indeed, it was their sensitive approach to renovating their Grade II-listed home that won them Best Listed Property in Period Living’s 2019 Home of the Year awards. The couple have balanced essential repairs with new additions and classic style, resulting in a space where anyone would be happy to rest a while.
Restoring the old coaching inn has been a long journey in itself. John bought the house in 1990 and began its renovation in 1994. The oak frame had to be strengthened in places where it had moved over the years, and a new roof was needed.
John changed the rotten weatherboarding at the front of the house for tiles to protect the oak frame against further water damage and put in new wood-frame windows. Setting the once-dilapidated house to rights became a real personal challenge for John, who worked alongside the builders.
‘By the time I met John in 1995 he’d done all the messy structural repairs. I eventually moved in with him and started to think about the furnishing and décor – quite good timing from my point of view,’ adds Wendy with a chuckle.
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While John’s focus had been to make the house structurally sound, Wendy’s was a more aesthetic input. ‘When I moved in there were magnolia walls and blue heavy domestic carpet everywhere, and the kitchen was just thrown together,’ says Wendy, ‘I gradually changed the colours and carpets to inject a bit of personality. John took it very well.’
With the help of their architect friend William Howe, planning permission for a sunroom extension at the back of the house was granted without any problems. They also secured dwelling permission for a small barn at the side of the house. ‘We were lucky with our local council,’ says Wendy. ‘They’re pretty flexible providing that you’re doing things in keeping with the original building, and of course we didn’t want to make changes that would jar.’
The sunroom and an updated kitchen helped to transform the house and every room now exudes the kind of warm welcome associated with its earlier days as a coaching inn. Thanks to Wendy’s discerning eye for just the right vintage and antique pieces to complete the look, there’s now character in abundance.
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‘I don’t really ever think I had a feeling or plan about how to decorate and furnish,’ says Wendy. ‘I like the French-vintage look and painted furniture but there’s an element of trial and error too. It’s as though the house talks to you,’ she adds. ‘I sometimes bring things home and either the house doesn’t like them or I don’t like them, but when that happens I just pass them on.’
In the master bedroom, an old coin is lodged into the mortar round the fireplace, its surface so smoothed by the touch of many hands over the years that it’s impossible to read its date.
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Treasure hunting isn’t just Wendy’s domain, John also has form in this area. ‘He’s a great bargain-hunter, and a bit of a hoarder,’ says Wendy. ‘One day he came home with some fence stakes and some old windows and doors from a skip. I wondered what he was going to do with them.’
What John did was take himself off to one of the far corners of the back garden and built a raised platform, ‘a bit like a fort,’ explains Wendy. The couple would sit up there looking across the valley at the view. ‘It was ugly and ramshackle at first,’ she adds, ‘but John added walls and windows and gradually it evolved into a summerhouse that we jokingly call the “pond house”, because the pond below it comes and goes with the seasons.’
‘Because I love the sea so much I decided on a coastal theme, for the pond house, adding shells and things I’ve picked up beachcombing. I wanted something very different in style to what we’ve got indoors,’ says Wendy.
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Whatever the season, the view of the garden is always worth climbing the steps for. Wendy is devoted to her garden and spends more time there than anywhere else, in fact she rarely sits down in the pond house as she always spots some plant or other that needs tending on the way down the garden. Often as she digs the soil she’ll unearth pieces of clay pipe – relics from her home’s days as a public house and inn. In the house, John discovered a child’s shoe in the chimney above the kitchen fireplace, replacing it once the fireplace was renovated.
Perhaps these links to the home’s history have brought its owners luck over the years. Wendy and John definitely feel lucky to be the current caretakers of this special building and if houses could talk, the old coaching inn would surely be grateful too.
I'm the homes editor of Period Living magazine and an experienced writer on interiors and gardens. I've also moved house quite a few times – totting up 10 homes in 12 years during a particularly nomadic time in my life. I like to think that makes me quite the homes expert, or at least very experienced and with a clear idea of what I like and don't like in a home.
I love visiting and writing about old houses for Homes & Gardens' sister magazine Period Living and working with photographers to capture all kinds of historic properties. It's inspiring to talk to people about their traditional homes and to hear the stories behind their furnishing and decorating choices. And by the time I've finished an interview with a homeowner I've always got a handful of new ideas to try in my own house, as well as plenty of good stories for the magazine. It's the perfect work-life balance.
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