Dominic Ford, 42, was Harvey Nichols' Restaurants and Food Retail director for 13 years. He recently launched Obika, a mozzarella bar in Selfridges, and Tamesa Restaurant at Oxo Tower. This summer he plans to open The Butcher and Grill, a butcher's shop with restaurant attached, in Battersea. He lives in London SW19 with his wife Nathalie and their two daughters, Charlie, eight, and Mieke, six.
In April 2003 we were living in Southfields. We had no plans to move, we'd only been there for two years and loved the house. I was reading the paper and saw a Georgian house in SW19 on the market for £600,000. I thought, "That is absurd, it can't be true!" I rang Knight Frank and they said there was a viewing day that Wednesday.
My wife Nathalie did a drive-by on Monday and said, "I'm not sure - the house looks fantastic, but you should see the area." The property is in the middle of a council estate. When we went along on the Wednesday, there were cars everywhere and the whole road was blocked with people coming to see the house. Some were wandering around with video cameras, and the owners - a couple in their 60s - were a bit shocked by it all.
The property was built in 1789 and is Grade II-listed. Once part of Morden Hall estate, it is owned by the National Trust and was for sale with a 72-year lease. Nathalie and I were really interested - a house like this with a two and a half acre garden is a one-off in London. The auction was two weeks away. You have to have surveys done prior to going to auction or take a risk, and then on the day you have to write a cheque out for 10 per cent of whatever you've bid, and you've bought the place. We rushed around like crazy to see if we could do it. Nathalie's father helped sort out a bridging loan quickly. The surveyors said, "We can be there in 21 days." I said, "How about two!"
So we went to the auction at the Café Royal. I'd bought wine at auction, but not a house. I called a friend who is a partner at Strutt & Parker, and said, "Help me!" I told him the maximum we could spend. We hung around for three hours and then the bidding started. My friend Simon didn't move. I was nudging him. It went to the first knock of the hammer. On the second knock, Simon put our first bid in. Within two bids we'd lost the competition and bought the property, for just over £700,000. The vendors were at the auction and came running over, hugged Nathalie and said, "We are pleased, we wanted the house to go to a family."
The couple had owned it for nine years. Before them, a lady had lived in the house for years and, after she died in her 90s, it became derelict. A builder then bought the house for almost nothing. His name was Roger, but the couple nicknamed him Bodger. They showed us photographs of a terrible sauna with panelled walls and five-jet showers, which used to be the room that is my study. But Bodger did at least put a roof on the house. The couple paid something like £200,000 for the property and then spent a lot of money, time and care doing it up traditionally.
We are not in any hurry to change things and are working our way up the house. It's got a farmhouse-feel and with kids and dogs, it's always going to be scruffy. There are cellars. We thought of putting the kids' playroom down there, but then it seemed a bit cruel. We haven't changed the kitchen yet. We've talked about extending it through into the conservatory, but we'd have to get planning permission.
In the hall we've replaced the carpet with terrazzo, which has been laid like a stone floor in Georgian times. We have tried to do some things in the style of the house while being modern. In the sitting room we've laid a walnut floor in a traditional basket weave pattern. We've kept the green walls, but changed the blinds and curtains. The room has an Asian feel - we used to live in Hong Kong and have Chinese furniture.
Again, in the dining room, we've changed the floor but not the walls. I like the dark green which works with the art by Graham Knuttel, an Irish artist I first worked with when we opened Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols. He is popular in American now - Sylvester Stallone buys him. We can seat 12 in the dining room - we do a lot of entertaining. The chairs are Mies van der Rohe. Designed in the 1930s, Knoll now has the licence to produce them and they retail at £1,100 each. When we opened Prism Restaurant in the City we bought 120, so I got them at a good price.
Upstairs there are six bedrooms and three bathrooms, but we haven't done anything to them yet. Outside, the beautiful garden has been a learning curve. The Southfields garden was 90ft and we thought that was huge! The River Wandle runs along the bottom of the garden. There was a little jetty, which I'm going to put back one day, so I can sit with my fishing rod.
In our fields are three angora goats - Horace, Maurice and Doris, and our sheep, Wally and Catkin. The chickens are Hamburgs so their names are Hamburger and Cheeseburger. To keep the grass down we call nearby Deen City Farm and they bring their sheep. It is an almost country life.Reuse content