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A Private View: history is quite literally written on the walls of this deeply storied and richly coloured 400-year-old family home

Jacqueline and Geoff White are the last in a long line of accounted for custodians to live in this imposing home in the East Sussex village of Ripe. Their hard-won knowledge of painstaking preservation has resulted in the wholehearted restoration of this capacious, cosseting home

Madeleine Silver
Dan Glasser
Portrait photography
Ellen Hancock
A Private View: history is quite literally written on the walls of this deeply storied and richly coloured 400-year-old family home

It was the moment that Jacqueline and Geoff White saw their three-year-old granddaughter merrily racing around the circular ground-floor layout of their East Sussex house that they realised children had been doing the same for nearly 400 years. “There is a thrill to living in an old house,” says Jacqueline who, with her husband Geoff, has brought back to life a series of houses which checklist the periods. There was the Victorian farmhouse in Derbyshire, the Georgian house in Devon and two Victorian houses in Nottingham. So, when this 17th-century beamed house in East Sussex came on the market just over a decade ago, Jacqueline was swift to add it to her wish list. “As soon as I saw the picture of the house, I knew it was the one for us. I didn’t need to look around,” she recalls.

The medieval streets and tiny alleyways (or “twittens” as they are known to locals) of nearby Lewes had been on the couple’s radar after visits to the Charleston Festival, Jacqueline wooed by the Sussex-bohemia of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. And so, when Geoff retired and they decided to move, the couple drew a 10-mile radius around Lewes to uncover their next project.

Books by Ben Pentreath and Ros Byam Shaw were mined for inspiration and, working closely with English Heritage as well as University College London Archaeology for some of the more sensitive work, their home was completely overhauled. A new central heating system, kitchen and four new bathrooms were put in, an extension for a utility room built, and a rotten conservatory pulled down and replaced with a library, as well as the roof being redone using the old tiles. “I think every time you do a building project, you make mistakes, you learn, and you carry that forward,” says Geoff, whose priority was retaining the house’s historic bones. As the couple toy with returning to London and the house comes on the market, Jacqueline reflects on their time as custodians of it, wardens for a slice of its long history.

Jacqueline White: “The house is in a prominent and quite imposing, elevated position in the village. It’s like a fortress really, looking down on the other houses in Ripe. And I imagine that was deliberate of the wealthy Acton family who commissioned the house in 1640, so they could stamp their authority. In those days it would have been self-sufficient with its own brewhouse, bakery, dairy, land around for animals and space for staff. The circular layout – going from the dining room across the lobby into the sitting room and round again – was considered state-of-the-art at the time. Prior to that they’d all been houses where you walked into a great big open hall. So, it was an innovative move.

“When we arrived, it had been neglected for a long time. The garden was full of little suburban flower beds, which didn’t go with the house at all and so we replaced them with topiary which is much more in keeping with the history. When you come in, it’s a gutsy house and so you can’t be doing with pastel colours, they’d just get lost. I painted different sections of old wallpaper in different colours and watched how the light affected them. We opted for strong colours such as Farrow & Ball’s ‘Calke Green’ in the dining room and ‘Brinjal’ in the library. When the sun comes through a window at the right time, the ‘Orange Aurora’ by Little Greene that I used in the hallway actually glows – it’s just tremendous.

“We have a combination of modern and antique furniture because I wanted our home to feel contemporary, too: we’re not still living in the 17th century! For example, our drinks cabinet, – which we call the column – came from a shop in Notting Hill that specialises in post-war and contemporary design. It’s a one-off by the Italian designer, Alessandro Mendini, who invented the Anna G corkscrew. It follows us around every house we’ve had and goes really well with the dark beams here.

“It felt important to keep the old graffiti on the walls. On the beams in the sitting room is a ‘witches’ mark’: a circle with segments of flower petals inside it – supposedly a device to ward off evil. And in the second bedroom, which would have been the main bedroom when it was built, there’s a carving in the stone mullion windows which mentions ‘diacculum’ and dried milk, which we think was probably a recipe that the builder made for casein distemper. They obviously painted the stone mullions with that when the house was built and now it’s faded away and left the recipe carved underneath. In the attic, there are examples of where children had been practising their handwriting, with their names appearing in records from the early 18th century.

“We commissioned the author Fiona Rule, who has written ‘The Worst Street in London’ and ‘The Oldest House in London’ to write a history of the house, which is a summary of everybody who’s lived here from the day it was built. Fiona unearthed lots of photos of the Tingleys, who were a big family who lived here in the late 19th and early 20th century. And there was one inventor who lived here, who created what he called the mobile restaurant, where he had diners moving on a sort of conveyor belt around the table. We even have an inventory that was published in 1711, which lists all the rooms in the house and what was in them, from joint stools to pewter pots.

“There are no gaps at all in its history, and I find it really fascinating that every single person who’s lived here is recorded in that book. It reminds you that you don’t really own a house like this; you’re just passing it on to the next generation and you hope those people will have the same sense of aesthetics as you.”

Ripe Lane, Lewes, East Sussex

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