In the stillness of the morning before sitting down at my laptop, I watch the little birds flitting about in the branches of the unassuming suburban treetops. This is where the illusion begins, that I am not within smelling distance of the Northern Line in a first floor flat, but instead looking out towards the ancient oaks that line the neighbouring fields of my sprawling country pile. One morning, it could be a datestoned rectory filled with gnarled geraniums, fading tapestries and splintering wicker baskets stuffed with wellies. The next, it could be a Henry Holland-style pavilion, the colonnade framing successive views through a gallery of high windows across be-rabbited lawns, twinkling with morning dew. Although I’m the first to defend my smeuse of a flat, I would absolutely be the first out the door at the offer of a mere hour at a country home resembling, even tenuously, the magnitude of Manderley, the aplomb of Pemberley, or the loftiness of Thornfield (before the devastating blaze, of course).
It seems I’m not the only suburbanite lusting after soaring skies, wilder wildlife and more generous quarters. According to the ONS, there is evidence that our increased engagement with the natural environment during the lockdowns has helped some people to cope with negative feelings such as increased anxiety throughout the pandemic. It comes as no surprise, then, to read in the same report that our collective housing preferences are changing. Growth in sales of detached houses is outstripping that of flats, and Cornwall has overtaken London as the most-searched-for location on Rightmove, the property website. Devon and Dorset have also made it into the top 10. Space, both outside and in, the report reads, is among our top priorities when it comes to house searching.
This chimes with the recently published results of a new housing survey conducted by The London Assembly Housing Committee, which looked into Londoners’ housing situations and attitudes to their homes as a result of Covid-19. Of those surveyed, a third of Londoners want to move home, and just under half of that group want to move outside of London. Of course, we cannot conflate the more possible reality of moving to a modest semi in a little village outside the M25 with acquiring a country estate complete with a long, winding driveway, but one can fantasise.
According to Cheffins, a firm of advisors, estate agents and auctioneers, their interiors auctions have each hosted an average of 58 new buyers over the last year, half of which are private buyers looking to furnish country homes. Brett Tryner, Director, points to the increased demand for typical, period, ‘country house style’ antiques such as early 18th-century farmhouse tables, wall-hanging cabinets and club fenders. “There is a whole array of furniture needed for country living,” Tryner says. “This could be the perfect kitchen sofa which you wouldn’t mind covered in paw prints from the dog; a club fender for those cosy nights by the wood burner; a large, scrubbed farmhouse table for when friends from town come to stay or deep pile Persian rugs to keep the toes warm in draughty old houses. Boot racks, hat stands, desks for working from home, cosy armchairs and nightstands have all seen new leases of life in interiors sales in the past 18 months.”
Joanna Rowe, a freelancer from London, is a recent Cheffins customer and found herself wanting for larger-scale antique furniture befitting her farmhouse in Kent, having moved out of the city for more space. “We bought a rambling, listed farmhouse and suddenly, our micro-mini furniture from the Victorian London terrace was lost in the proportions.” Her story reminds me of the way Shirley Jackson’s “city furniture” jars so uncomfortably with the rustic pieces left in her family’s crumbling Vermont house by previous tenants in her 1953 novel, Life Among the Savages. “Our furniture,” Jackson writes, “which has been more than adequate for a city apartment, here spread all too thinly among the echoing rooms of the house, and we had to fill out with odd tables and chairs bought from … nearby second-hand shops.”
For Rowe, much the same is true. Her tastes have irrevocably changed, and she now spends her time hunting for furniture at regional auction houses which will fit the farmhouse. “Large dining tables, chairs, dressers and big pieces in keeping with its proportions and aesthetic,” she specifies, adding, “we don’t want run of the mill furniture. Rather, we are searching for things that are unique with their own story and history.”
But where is one to begin on the journey towards adopting a country house-style charm at home, stone mullion windows and exposed beams or not? For Tom Howley, the Design Director of the eponymous bespoke kitchen company, it should all start with a good country kitchen. “The kitchen is the heart of the home,” he says, “and the way country homes are used these days tends to centre on kitchen living. Gone are the days when the kitchen was never seen by guests or even the owners of the property. Now, it’s a gathering spot, and a country house feel is a classic choice.” A styling tip Howley imparts of which I am particularly fond is to use the tops of your kitchen cabinetry for larger items, “such as heavy casserole dishes, soup tureens, antique scales or even a collection of vases to give the space a more unique, personal feel.”
Throughout the ground floor, investing in natural stone flooring such as limestone flags will give your home an instant, time-honoured, country feel. Isabel Fernandez, Business Manager at Quorn Stone, a natural stone and porcelain flooring company, believes that although there are many benefits to choosing natural stone flooring, including its forgiving nature, the visual effect is its overriding selling point. “Tumbled and antiqued finishes gives any new stone floor an aged look, adding a sense of establishment to your home. Natural stone’s worn edges, textured surfaces and natural markings make it a point of effortless beauty in the home, as well as a fuss-free option when it comes to crumbs and muddy shoes and paws.” On the first floor and any subsequent storeys, delicately patterned carpets lend a comfortable yet refined feel.
Finally, for those glued to the city like Soho-starved urban foxes with an appetite for ahead-of-the-curve cuisine and impromptu nights spent lounging in exquisitely lit members’ clubs, it’s easy to add a little country charm to the sleekest of metropolitan crash pads. One of the ways to do this is to “fill an antique dresser with patterned crockery to create a truly elevated, country-style statement at home,” says Alison Howell, the Design Development Manager at Burleigh, the English pottery. Not only does a display of Burleighware earn you country points, but you may even see the very same earthenware in some of the finest dining establishments in London, including The Ned, Gymkhana, Chiltern Firehouse and Soho Houses. Win-win!
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