Back to basics: Forget wallpaper and fancy furnishings, Sally and Mark Bailey make a virtue of stripped paint, old wood and factory-yard finds. Caroline Kamp visits their deliberately undecorated home in Herefordshire

Saturday 06 October 2007 00:00

"We understand that people might not get it," says Sally Bailey, co-owner of mail order company Baileys, "but it's what we like." We are standing in her spare room at Whitecross Farm in Bridstow, Herefordshire, and she is pointing to a stack of old solicitor's deed boxes, which are being used for storage. Next to them is a bed with a frame made from old scaffolding, and suspended from the ceiling on a long cord at shoulder-height is a naked lightbulb. The walls are unfinished.

It's what Sally and her husband Mark refer to as "undecoration", a term they have coined to describe their passion for recycling - and their extremely healthy relationship with paint stripper. "My stripping bills are very high," says Mark, with a grin. "Wait until it bubbles and then start scraping it off." The back door to their kitchen is a prime example of this technique; layers of colour reveal that the door was once green, then blue, then red and most recently white. "The trick," he adds, "is knowing when to stop."

Say the name "Baileys" to some people and they practically melt. In the past 20 years, Mark and Sally have gathered a loyal following for their very personal take on rustic home and garden goods. People will travel miles in a day just to visit the shop and cafe, and until recently would pay 3.50 for the mail order catalogue (it's now free). There is a kind of domestic nostalgia to some of the items they sell, such as traditional creamware jugs and horsehair brushes. The more utilitarian wrought iron hooks and hand-forged fork and trowel have a slightly romantic, just-back-from-the-blacksmith's feel. They even sell string in a tin for 7.50.

Then there's the recycling element. The couple have created an entire business out of the things other people discard. But we're not talking old newspapers and bottles here. Whether it's old wooden shoe-lasts (which become door stops) or fruit crates (when hung on the wall become shelves) their trick has been to see the use where others couldn't. Mark, a furniture maker, does most of the searching and has spent many happy hours over the years rooting through factory yards and antique markets around England. You get the feeling he'd much rather be doing that today. Does he still get excited? "Crikey, yes!" he exclaims, "every day, I think, what next?"

A desire for "honestly made" goods has always been with them. They have a carpentry workshop on site but also support the local blacksmith and family companies such as Burleigh Pottery, in Stoke-on-Trent. They would rather look locally first before venturing overseas, although some of their wooden toys come from Germany. "You see things that are based on British designs, but are mass-produced overseas," laments Sally. "We'd buy the local one. Like our metal buckets - they're made in Birmingham." Sally holds one up. "It's got a great feel to it," she explains. "Someone has actually designed and made it using great materials, it's not been knocked out cheaply." The Baileys have been doing ethical for years, long before it became fashionable and mainstream.

The business has grown from a small shop in south Wales, and come via an old engine shed in Bridport, to the tumble-down rustic elegance of Whitecross Farm today. The listed property - which includes the house, a large barn (now the shop), a cart shed (now the cafe), a granary, a cowshed, stables, a walled garden and four acres - was bought from the Duchy of Cornwall. It had been ear-marked for developers, but after some wrangling the Baileys got in first. They moved in to the house, which dates from 1840, last year after a big renovation job.

Walking across the courtyard, from the shop to the house, it's hard to see where one ends and the other begins. Sally notes that there is a lot of "ebb and flow" between what is theirs and what goes in the shop. Let's just say that when they f have a clear-out, they don't go down to the local charity shop. The entrance hall is dominated by Mark's collection of ephemera in classic Bailey's tradition - copper watering cans, bobbins, a hat block. Two kittens lie purring on a chair (were they planted?). In the kitchen there are large letters spelling "cycle" on the wall and there is an island unit, which was once a shop counter and even has a coin drop (a coin-sized hole in the top) with a drawer underneath. Details like this clearly delight the couple. The Belfast sink is set in a one-time work bench and the larder is an old wardrobe which Mark put on casters and built shelves inside. Next door in the living room, vintage signs lean against the wall and a large model airplane hangs from the ceiling. It all seems perfectly normal after a while. A giant ceiling-height spade sits in the hall - and why not?

Upstairs are the bedrooms and an office room with part of the wall painted a vibrant yellow. It is one of the few concessions to colour. In fact, one of the most striking things about the house is the overwhelmingly woody and neutral scheme. Too much pattern distracts, they say. Sally points to one of her favourite details - the old-fashioned dolly switches, which give such a satisfying click when you flick on the lights. Except that these are new versions designed in the old style, with safety paramount.

Not all their customers immediately get the recycled element of what they do. People have sent back the fruit crates complaining they are too old and don't look like they did in the photographs. "Well what did they expect?" laughs Sally. In some ways you can understand how that might happen. In the context of the shop, and their rustic farmhouse, these crates look fantastic. Put one on casters and it can hold magazines - brilliant, you think. But put only one in with the rest of your furniture and it might look like it should have been left outside.

This month they publish a book called Recycled Home which is full of beautiful photographs of their house and the houses of other people who have a similar aesthetic. If you fancy a bit of their style yourself, the book explains their "guiding principles" are "rescue, repair, reuse and rethink." They are keen to point out that what they've done you can do anywhere, even in a modern house. (Except, perhaps, the bit about stripping paint off the walls if you have the "plasterboard effect" underneath). One of the properties featured in the book is a modern flat belonging to a banker who has a sofa made out of an old iron hospital bed. It's an idea that is slightly puzzling. Why choose something so simple when you can presumably afford something special?

But the psychology behind the banker's decision to decorate his home in this very humble way is a subject the couple are unwilling to be drawn on. And in many ways that's the point. It is such a personal thing for the Baileys - an evolution of their taste over two decades - that they don't feel the need to analyse it. They're not prescriptive. And it's not meant to be taken too seriously. Customise your furniture, make it yours, think of your home as an experiment and don't be ruled by perfection, says the book. And remember, not everything has to be old. "A cast-iron rolltop bath with Philippe Starck taps - that's what we like to do," says Sally. "We're not into old plumbing." E

'Recycled Home' by Sally & Mark Bailey, (Ryland, Peters & Small, 19.99). To order your copy at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct 08700 798 897. Visit

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