Creaky Floors and Leaky Windows Are the Selling Points of This 1600s British Home
The kitchen is new, but you’d never know it.
Published May 24, 2021 1:00 AM
Frequent outages and leaky windows would be on most people’s list of cons, but they’re exactly what still charms Alex Willcock about his 1600s West Sussex, England, house. “It’s full of surprises and adventure,” says the Maker & Son founder. “Whether the constant power cuts in winter that bring on a house full of candles and open fires, baby jackdaws falling down the chimney, wisteria covering the south side of the house with its heavenly scented purple throngs, or the sea of bluebells in the woods in spring, every season brings something new.”
Sixteen years ago, Willcock picked up a compass and drew a circle around central London on a map—he was looking for a home within commuting distance of the city for his growing family. Just outside the village of Balcombe, he came across the six-bedroom, three-bath Kemps House. “The listing was just a photo of the exterior and it actually looked very gray,” he remembers. The inside was equally dreary, with wallpaper everywhere. “It was like you would have imagined a house in the ’40s or ’50s—a little like going back in time,” he adds.
Despite the chaos of a team of builders on-site to rip out walls for central heating during Willcock’s first visit (amazingly, the previous owner had lived there without it for all those years), it was an instant love affair. “I walked in and just knew I wanted to live there,” he says. The high ceilings, original 17th-century floorboards, and grand staircase trumped every issue. “I love to imagine all of the feet that have walked up and down those steps. All of the hopes and dreams of people heading up to bed or down for breakfast,” he muses.
Willcock’s mentor earlier in life—his former father-in-law, Sir Terence Conran, of Conran Shop fame—had a lot to do with the entrepreneur’s appreciation for old country homes, imperfections and all. In the ’90s, Willcock cut his teeth at the iconic British decor brand as a creative director before founding Maker & Son. So unsurprisingly, he kept the renovations light, leaving the original charm intact save for the small scullery and adjoining sitting room.
Now those spaces are one large eat-in kitchen, given a bit of the old grandeur with a cabinet made from recycled antique doors and a reclaimed countertop. “It looks like it has been there forever but really, in the grand scheme of the house, it is very new,” Willcock points out. It’s also where the entrepreneur displays his favorite painting, a portrait of a young boy from the Russian Constructivism period: “It’s very calming to look at.”
The bright living room, with its five entrances, serves as the heart of the home, and the Maker & Son sofas, although white, can stand up to the traffic: They’re upholstered in washable linen. “Nobody stops wearing white clothing because it is going to get dirty,” quips Willcock. Other than replacing old leaded windows and stripping back dark wallpaper, he kept the bones as is, simply bringing in objects that tell a story, from ceramic molds for making marigold gloves to antique lavender sieves.
But the most serene spot is Willcock’s blush-hued bedroom. “I wake up here to the most beautiful birdsong,” he says. The sun streams in through windows that look out onto the lush green property. “As romantic as they are, none of them shut completely tight, so when it’s really windy, and it often is, they whisper and sometimes howl,” he admits. Luckily, his toes hit sisal carpeting when he wakes up each morning (the original floorboards were a complete mess). “I like the feel of it under my feet,” he adds.
These days the entrepreneur shares the house with Felix Conran, his eldest son and cofounder (who moved in during lockdown and whips up chef-quality meals daily); his godson, Freddie, who visits four to five days a week; Nutley, a border terrier; and a rescue dog named Apollo. “We also have chickens, ducks, geese, and a guinea pig,” adds Willcock. Every other weekend his other children, Song (18), Otti (16), and Hero (12), fill the home to bursting with life and laughter.
In regular times, the home doubles as a showroom. “Sometimes it is quite odd,” he says of the constant shuffle of furniture and knickknacks. “Notebooks and tools that I can’t find turn up a few weeks later.” But he wouldn’t have it any other way. The casual interaction he gets with customers is second to none. “It’s like they just come down to have a chat. It helps you understand what it is that people find appealing, not just within the furniture but within the brand itself.”
Coming up on two decades later, Willcock is just as enthralled with the property as he was at the start. “My children have grown up here and Hero was born here,” he says. “We call the house the third cofounder of Maker & Son.”
Go-to local vintage shop: Puckhaber Antiques.
Must-visit neighborhood home store: No.1 Lewes.
Favorite source for plants and gardening supplies: Evergreen Exterior Services, a nursery in Banstead, Surrey.
Object in my home that gets the most use: The large wood candlesticks—I made all of them at our house from green oak that I bought from the Balcombe Estate Sawmill.
Biggest splurge: Truthfully, probably my weekly shopping trip at the grocery store Waitrose!