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A Home with a History: ducks, dogs and draughts – the reality of Mrs Trufflepig’s romantic restoration

Genevieve Harris melds a ‘make do and mend’ attitude with modern living, darning her beautiful vintage jerseys and decorating with junk-shop treasures – an unstuffy approach that led her to restoring the Sussex farmhouse she and her husband fell for. Challenging? Yes. Crazy? Perhaps. But, as she says, “love is a kind of madness”

A Home with a History: ducks, dogs and draughts – the reality of Mrs Trufflepig’s romantic restoration

Some people just know how to do things right. Genevieve Harris, known by her 33,600 Instagram followers as Mrs Trufflepig, is one such. She’s a fabulous baker, has a gift for gardening, is a homemaker nonpareil and oversees a madcap menagerie comprising two tree-climbing children, a dozen or so ducks and geese, Bear the golden labrador and a couple of cats (somewhat miffed since Bear’s arrival on the scene). Somehow, her scarlet lipstick remains unsmudged.

And while it can be easy to envy perfection, it is simply impossible to begrudge Genevieve. Perhaps it’s something to do with her rather naughty sense of humour. Or the fact that her weekly ‘Knick Knack Chit-Chats’ on social media, in which is she runs through her recent finds – from chipped junk-shop Staffordshire bits to locally foraged mushrooms – are so often conducted with a cocktail or a glass of Aldi fizz in hand. A highlight was her Halloween get-up last year, which involved a raggedy crow perching precariously atop her head.

For those that find romance in the ruggedness of rural life, Genevieve is a darling in darned cashmere and fabulous skirts (invariably vintage), personable and entirely unpretentious. But seeming like a real person on a platform full of unreality must be hard. But Genevieve’s honest-to-goodness enthusiasm for the old, the repaired and the pre-loved gives her an air of authenticity.

The same is true of her home, a 600-year-old farmhouse a few miles from Rye, East Sussex. When she and her husband bought it in 2016, it was utterly dilapidated. The pantry was caked in duck droppings feet-deep, the panelling rotting. Since the house had listed status, the couple took every pain to do things sensitively and by the book, much of it by hand or with the help of specialist conservationists. Genevieve’s rolled-sleeves attitude stood her in good stead. What she and her husband have created in their Sussex farmhouse feels faithful to history but fit for a modern muddy-booted family too. It’s a treasure coaxed back to life with genuine care – and proof that when it comes to handling old houses, you don’t just need grit, but a bit of good humour too.

“The main reason for buying this place was simply because we’d finished doing up the last one. I started getting itchy fingers. I also wanted more of a garden to play with. When we saw this place, we knew we wouldn’t find another one like it. There wasn’t another one like it. It was untouched. It was perfect – I wanted to do a restoration, not a renovation. The difference is crucial to me.

“Actually getting it was a long process. The sale fell through three times, but we had to persevere – not least as I’d fallen increasingly in love with the place and with the idea of putting it back together again. When it finally came off, everyone thought we were mad. I remember friends saying: ‘Where will you live?’. The look on their faces when we said we would live here was priceless. We couldn’t afford to pay extra rent for more than a week, which we spent in a cottage nearby so we could make a start on the cleaning, but then we were in.

“Looking back when we had to de-duck the pantry with a shovel, I just think: ‘How could we have done that?’ But of course we did do it. We had to – mainly because it stank to high heaven! Soon we got the place semi-liveable.

“We had no idea how much things were going to cost. We’d done a survey at the beginning, but that can only show you so much. The house had been lived in by the same woman for 60 years, who’d done nothing since the 1960s, so we had no real sense of the true state things were in. It was a massive leap of faith. Or perhaps it was rather stupid! But I suppose love is a kind of madness.

“We got a fantastic firm of builders to help us, called Evans Conservation. They knew everything about this type of house. It has a timber frame in the local vernacular, which is quite simple in its construction. I remember the builders telling us that the worst thing you could do – which had been done here – was to incorporate modern materials, like the concrete that had been overlaid on the façade’s lime plaster. It was bonkers – the plaster underneath had just rotted away.

“Putting the house back together was like a jigsaw puzzle. At one point, we had no walls at the front of the house. Every single window frame was rotten. The whole process took about two years and involved lots of surveys and even a historical report, but what they unearthed was fascinating. They dated the beams and the earliest was from around 1440. I love the witches’ marks they found on the way. It’s said that Henry VIII sometimes stayed here, as the woods around here were once rife with wild boar, which he liked to hunt.

“The whole restoration process allowed us to peel back all the layers of the house, which was brilliant. It’s been added to and extended so many times – it’s like a patchwork house. There’s a 17th-century bit, a late Georgian section, a Victorian bit, two bathrooms from the 1960s… Some of the beams have huge chunks taken out of them. We scratched our heads for ages about the reason why. In the end, it transpired it was because the last owner’s husband was just incredibly tall.

“I was born in Canada and I’d never really come across any ancient houses. My husband didn’t grow up in an old house either and yet we both have always felt this pull towards buildings like this one. In restoring it, we wanted to create something that looked like it had always been there. I like the higgledy-piggledy nature of old houses. Each is a portrait of the progression of time, which is why I’ve left the bathrooms as they are – I didn’t want to put in a faux “old” bathroom, because it wouldn’t have felt very honest. I love being able to see the evolution of the house.

“The kitchen isn’t exactly contemporary, but it’s not imitation either. We took Georgian proportions and translated them into a modern, working space. The zingy colour is right for today too, but we made sure to hand-paint rather than spray the cabinets, which feels more sensitive to the age of the room. I don’t want to pretend this kitchen has always been there; it simply hasn’t. I have an Aga, for goodness’ sake! I have central heating! But I do think you can look to the past and layer it with the present, without it becoming a pastiche.

“I love beautiful things. I love them. When we lived in London, I worked at Gucci, McQueen and Liberty, so I’ve always been surrounded by inspirational design. It definitely planted a seed in my mind – not least at Liberty, which taught me how to mix the old and the new together. There’s something about that historic building being filled with boundary-pushing design that really captured my imagination.

“I’ve always bought second-hand. I love nothing more than a vintage cashmere jumper that’s been mended. It brings me so much joy. I’ve always done it in our home too. It’s how my weekly Knick Knack Chit Chats came about. In lockdown I was, like so many, very bored. I was buying lots of things on eBay, as I’ve always done, but I had nobody to talk to them about, no car-boot sales to natter at! So I started doing it online and found this wonderful community of people who are as interested in modern country living as I am. The chats took off really quickly and I like how varied they’ve now become. Sometimes I’ll talk about making jam, sometimes picking raspberries, sometimes the cake that just didn’t rise. I don’t want things to be perfect all the time – it’s not realistic.

“It’s great, post-lockdown, being able to go back to car-boot sales again, especially round here, where they’re brilliant. The treasures I find here are often local – rosettes won by Romney Sheep at a nearby agricultural show, for instance, or native bits of pottery. I love feeling connected to the area through objects like that. It’s a privilege to be able to understand where these beautiful things come from.

“Of course, buying new things is lovely, but having something with a story is, to me, infinitely more interesting. The same is definitely true of houses. When we bought this place, I really wanted to learn all about the woman who’d lived here before us. She sounded incredible: every day she would don a headscarf and drive her Rolls-Royce to buy some seed for all the birds that love this garden. I remember people asking us if the house was haunted by her, but I’ve always made sure the garden is full of birds, to keep her happy. She hasn’t come out to scare us. Yet.

“I absolutely get the benefit of new houses. The other day all our postcards flew off the sill when the window was closed, because it’s so draughty. But I like those idiosyncrasies – as long as I’ve got enough jumpers. I think the world is divided into people who, when they feel a chill, think they should live in a modern house and those that go and put on another jumper. We’re firmly in the jumper camp. It’s why we’ve got such strong knitwear game in this family.”

Further reading

Mrs Trufflepig on Instagram

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