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A Home with a History: Mark Winstanley on the restorative power of his Sussex refuge

Once known as The Rest, Mark Winstanley’s house near Lewes is as much a sanctuary for him and his family as it is for the many friends they like to fill it with. When it comes to his lovingly decorated rooms, it’s clear that sharing really is caring

A Home with a History: Mark Winstanley on the restorative power of his Sussex refuge

Mark Winstanley’s got the bug. And, in fact, if you’re reading this, in all likelihood you have it too. (Inigo’s definitely got it.) “I bought my first issue of House & Garden aged 11, on a rainy holiday in Scotland,” he says. “Ever since, I have been hooked on the joy of homes, their interiors and the people who inhabit them.”

It’s a joy – positively unbridled, in this case – that the effervescent Mark has brought to bear on Black Lamb, the house in the South Downs he shares with his wife, Sally, and their two children. They’ve filled the 17th-century brick-and-flint structure slowly, with – as Mark says – “the things we love”. It has been an organic process, one shaped naturally by the highs and lows of the last nine years they’ve spent here as a young family, having moved from London.

The hummocks and cliffs of this part of East Sussex are as much a part of Black Lamb as the building itself; positioned on a high bank above a 11th-century church at the bottom of the garden, the house offers shifting glimpses of the surrounding countryside, depending where you stand. This is the landscape painted by Bawden and Ravilious, beloved of Bell and Woolf. Charleston and Monks House are round the corner, as is Furlongs, onetime home to the indomitable Peggy Angus. Mark and Sally, who met while both working for Laura Ashley in its heyday, used to visit this corner of East Sussex to raid the antique shops of nearby Lewes, which was how they came across this house.

For a couple so aesthetically minded, so conscious of craftsmanship and beautiful things, it was perhaps inevitable that the thought they might make a life here began to creep in. It was, at first, kept at bay by the horror Mark felt at commuting to London, where he works as chief creative officer at The White Company. But then… “Sometimes,” Mark says, “there are houses that just feel right for you.”

It’s clear, talking to Mark, quite how much home – and specifically this one – means to him. He holds a terrifying cancer diagnosis three-and-a-half years ago in part responsible. “That I had somewhere that nourished me spiritually was vital to me,” he explains. Mark speaks as though this house – so thoughtfully, generously and personally decorated ­­– achieved sanctuary status by accident. But at the suggestion that it might be down to clever design, he accedes – albeit modestly. “Sally and I have just always tried to make a home that’s nice to be in,” he says. Looking round, it seems those years spent poring over magazines may have paid off.

“To me, decorating is about accumulating the things you love. If you take that as your guiding principle, naturally your things will work together. What was amazing about this house was, when we got here, it was like everything had its place. I unpacked my books and they just slotted in; the paintings found their right home. It was wonderful. Sally would laugh at me saying that, because of how many unhung pictures I have stacked around the house, but that’s because I keep buying them when I shouldn’t.

“Working with a decorator must be fantastic, but it’s just never something that particularly appealed to me – the idea of the job being over and your home then being ‘finished’. I am a hopeless gatherer, so the mise en scène here often shifts. I don’t think this place will ever be ‘finished’. How could it when I keep hopelessly gathering more things? I suppose I ought to get rid of some, but I kind of love that the shelves are groaning. For me, books, paintings and flowers ­– in abundance – are what make a home.

“We were very lucky not to have to do too much to this house. The previous owners had completed all the structural work that needed doing. They built the extension at the back of the house, which is covered in vernacular flint; you’d hardly know it was new. Since we’ve been here, we’ve been able to focus on redecorating. I’m pleased, as I hate the idea of moving into a house and ripping everything out. It’s so wasteful – and I like the idea of living with the layers that others have left behind.

“I think my working life has certainly informed my taste – and vice versa. Laura Ashley gave me a real sense of historical decorating and a great understanding of textiles, pattern and colour. The White Company, meanwhile, made me think about decoration more holistically – the importance of textures and scents, for instance. But in terms of the things Sally and I have chosen, they really are the things we love and have accumulated over time; I suppose it’s what’s now called ‘slow decorating’. Often, those things are old; I’d hardly call us green warriors, but I do think the fact we like antique objects and textiles makes a small difference. Just don’t look too closely at the threadbare cushions…

“Unlike the house, the garden took a lot of work. It had been laid out a long time ago and it hadn’t been cared for since. It was so important to us that it was brought back to life, not least because you can see portions of it from every single window, as it wraps around all sides of the house. At first, we had the brilliant Sheen Sinclair, who really taught us about gardening and went on to become a great friend. When she moved to Cornwall, we asked Mark Divall to come and work for us. Mark was responsible for the replanting of the garden at Charleston, where he was head gardener for many years and he is just the most wonderful person. What he has created out there has been instrumental in the shaping of this place. It needed to speak to the topography in which it sits and I think it does now.

“There’s a gentleness about the Downs that I adore. We’re really nestled in them here and I feel very protected by them. I think it adds to this house’s sense of comfort and security, something that became particularly pertinent to me when I was ill. I think it was only when shit hit the fan – when I had to face the question of whether I might actually survive – that I really thought about what home meant. I remember Sally coming to pick me up after some surgery and driving me back into this cocooning landscape. The car rolled into the drive and I just thought: ‘That’s it. I’m home. I can start to get better now.’

“I feel heartened that our friends think fondly of this house too. We have one who always writes lovely thank-you notes after coming for dinner; I remember one in particular, which said: ‘Whenever you open the door to the house, I leave my worries behind.’ I feel proud that Sally and I have created somewhere with the ability to do that – though of course the house itself plays a big part. The kitchen here makes that possible – we’ve got two long tables salvaged from a monastery’s refectory that make for the best parties. We can fit masses of people round them, or Sally and I can huddle round a corner of one. They’re surprisingly intimate.

“Our hall, which has a gorgeous floor of hexagonal terracotta tiles and is just utterly beautiful, is also crucial. So often halls are ignored or treated like liminal spaces for passing through. But they shouldn’t be! They’re for greeting people, for welcoming them in from the cold. Even if you’ve only a tiny space, celebrate it. Make sure there’s some greenery in there, light a candle so it smells beautiful. Makes people feel like you want to see them from the moment they arrive.

“Once upon a time, this house was called The Rest, which makes me think it was perhaps an inn. We’re only 10 minutes’ drive from Newhaven, so back when it was built lots of people would have been milling around these parts. That this building has a tradition of providing sanctuary to people feels very special to me. It feels appropriate that Sally and I are doing the same thing. We’ve invested a lot in this house, in all senses. The payback is that people want to spend time here. How wonderful is that?”

Further reading

Mark Winstanley on Instagram

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