The Renovation of Sunflower House
Laurence Anholt tells the story of the renovation of Sunflower House – the Anholts” house and studios in Devon, England
One day our three children decided they were grown up. Off they went to find new adventures in London, New York and Berlin. Catherine and I looked at each other and realised that a lovely chapter in our lives had come to an end. It was time to sell the family home and our children”s bookshop in Lyme Regis and find an adventure of our own.
The countryside is relatively unspoiled, there’s good access to London, Exeter and Bristol and most importantly, there are lots of friendly, creative folk tucked away in every town, village and valley.
We must have viewed a hundred ‘bijou, ‘tasteful’ or ‘desirable’ properties, each more depressing than the last, when we received an almost apologetic call from an agent telling us about an empty house in a badly neglected state – “It”s rather weird and wonderful”, he said. Well, if there’s one thing we love more than weird and wonderful, it’s neglected – we were there like a shot.
It was a perfect June day when we drove between banks of cow parsley up a narrow lane called – I kid you not – Love Lane, and there, on the very tip of a wild hill, sat Sunflower House in all its dilapidated glory. For the last 45 years this had been the home of delightfully eccentric identical twin sisters, Faith and Constance, who passed away in their nineties. Now it lay empty, unloved and lonely.
Catherine and I wandered into the jungle of a garden and it took us precisely two minutes to know we had come home. It was the most beautiful place we had ever seen.
I should say that these photos were taken one year on. Sadly we didn”t take any at the time.
The house had originally been a fine architect designed ‘Arts and Crafts style’ property. We later discovered that it had been the 1931 Good Houskeeping Magazine House of the Year! Surrounded by five acres of meadow, knee deep in wildflowers it looks south across the shimmering Axe Estuary and out to sea. To the East is a row of hills, which had been important Iron Age settlements and on the other side of the valley we can see a more current success story – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Farm.
There is a funny little annexe at Sunflower House and that’s where Cathy and I lived while we were renovating. We quickly realised that we had no option but to gut the house and start from scratch, but this would give us the opportunity to do some fairly dramatic things; for example it struck me that an ‘upside down house’ with studios downstairs and a living area above would take maximum advantage of the spectacular views.
In a former life, I had worked as a carpenter and Cathy is also very practical; so we called in a team of willing and handy friends, rolled up our sleeves and got stuck in.
Firstly, we smashed down all the internal walls and ceilings upstairs to create a big open-plan living room and kitchen with a balcony. Then we converted the former living room and kitchen into studios and library on the ground floor.
We re-wired, re-plumbed and lifted every floor board to lay underfloor heating. In every possible way we used sustainable options; for example we have no gas or oil so we fitted a bio-mass wood boiler which is as hungry and time consuming as a race-horse.
During the coldest winter in years, we installed oak ‘A’ frames, a new staircase, and removed and renovated every window. Wherever possible we restored and replaced the original features of the house. More than anything, we stuffed insulation into every nook and cranny. In short, it was a monumental task.
Although we did much of the work ourselves, we were forced to re-thatch the roof and that stretched our budget to the limit. But finally, the house felt warm, dry and comfortable and we moved in. When the lorries arrived with all our possessions, we wondered what on earth we needed all this stuff for, and we took endless loads to charity shops.
What we had seen on that first visit and what the developer had missed is that Sunflower House has an utterly charming atmosphere. Filled with light from dawn to dusk, it has a tranquil creative feel in which one can paint, write, meditate, and enjoy this short and beautiful life. We have left much of the garden wild and the huge variety of trees and plants is an ever-changing joy.
A friend installed a beehive in the field and when the building work ceased and silence had returned, we discovered that the old twins, Faith and Constance had left another magical legacy – wild animals seem to sense that this is a place of safety; and deer, badgers, rabbits, bats and buzzards are our constant companions.
At night, the darkness falls over you like a cloak and it”s as if the house is right up amongst the stars.
Nothing lasts forever, but right here and now, we feel incredibly blessed to live in Sunflower House on Love Lane.
Here are a few more images of the completed renovation…