A Private View: Sara Sugarman explains the pull of her Georgian home on Sheerness’s Dockyard Terrace
The actor and filmmaker never meant to end up in a dilapidated Georgian house on the Isle of Sheppey, but, she says, the building had other plans and eventually “got its way”. With it now on the market, Sara explains how she carefully rethought and quietly revamped her “respite from the 21st century”
- Celia Lyttelton
Sheerness is the second act of Spitalfields, a place for the discerning and those passionate about rescuing beautiful if neglected architecture. These days, people are streaming down to this corner of the Ise of Sheppey, buying – among other things – abandoned naval officers’ houses. One of them is the actor, scriptwriter and film director Sara Sugarman.
Her house is found in the Georgian naval quarter. Now within a conservation area, this pocket of elegant civilisation has been saved from falling into dereliction in relatively recent times, mostly due to the adamantine efforts of Will Palin (formerly director of Save Britain’s Heritage, trustee of the Spitalfields Trust and conservation director of the Old Royal Naval College; now chief executive of Barts Heritage), who established the Sheerness Dockyard Preservation Trust to do just that (and rescued his own house here too). Opened in 1660, the dockyard closed 300 years later, in 1960. Historically overlooked and underprivileged, this part of Sheppey is now on the up, its community going from strength to strength. The old dockyard church, for instance, is now an enterprise hub for local young people to help them establish financial independence and entrepreneurship.
Sara’s house, currently on the market, forms part of Dockyard Terrace, a street built in the early 19th century for top-ranking officers. Constructed as it was on an east-to-west axis, its four storeys and five bays are filled with light. As one wanders round its gleaming rooms adorned with simple Greek Revival detailing, one can imagine a scene from a Jane Austen novel. Elsewhere, it’s almost Turneresque.
She bought the place nine years ago and in the intervening time has taken great pains to restore it, retaining the building’s eccentricities while carefully re-establishing its proportions. The decoration feels entirely natural: walls and woodwork have painted in Georgian hues, their surfaces imbued with a lustrous texture because only lime rendering and wax polish have been employed. Here, preparing to move on, she takes a moment to look back on the work she’s done and the life she’s lived here.
“I have been at the dockyard for nine years, one of which was a full year of restoration. I completed the renovation Will Palin began; he restored the cornices and painted one of the sitting rooms that rich yellow. It was in fact Will who introduced me Dockyard Terrace. He didn’t want to sell it – and I didn’t really want to buy it! In the end we both lost; the house got its way – it kept drawing me in.
“The light at Sheppey is pure Turner, while in atmosphere it’s more Dickensian. In fact, Dickens’s father, John, visited; he was a clerk in the Navy pay office at Chatham. Dickens fans may know that some of the most evocative parts of Great Expectations take place in Romney Marshes, nearby on the mainland.
“This house once belonged to the dockyard’s senior medical officer – the hospital was opposite – but it had fallen to ruin by the time Will got his hands on it. The renovation I took on was a labour of love – we had to scrape black tar off the stairs and paint every single one of the spindles on the staircase. There are many reminders of history in the house’s very fabric – not least in the floorboards. They’ve now been cleaned, but they still have lime-soaked ship’s ropes wedged between the boards, which acted as insulation against sound and draughts. I’ve tried to honour the age of the place in all I’ve done – all the wall colours, which come from Papers and Paints, are historically accurate, for instance, such as the chrome yellow I used on the door surrounds in the dining room.
“When I got here, the kitchen was in what is now the green room. It was horrible. I decided instead to have my kitchen in the basement, at that point derelict, which is where it would have originally been. It has a simple design, with open shelving for pots and pans, and two enormous wicker baskets full of tablecloths and tea towels. All the plates and crockery are simply stacked on white side tables in the dining room leading off from the kitchen, which still has its original flagstones. The green room has had its original function as a reception room reinstated; I once had 20 people for dinner in there! Though mainly it’s for flopping around in.
“I still remember: I bought 52 brass door handles to redo this house. And most, if not all, the furniture and paintings have come from auction, chosen to fit the late Georgian period. Among them are some treasures: an enormous four-poster bed I found at a sale in Derbyshire, an oil painting of a sailing ship, portraits, gilt mirrors, corner cupboards, faded Persian rugs, Indian textiles, stellar pendant lights… The wonderful bar – upon which Lady Gaga once danced – and library came from the Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner. I call the bar ‘the Doctor’s Tavern’ in honour of my Georgian predecessor – hence the plaque on the mantelpiece opposite.
“Old-fashioned things look well in here. I’ve used them in every room – even the bathrooms, which have copper basins and roll-top tubs. The old-fashioned loo with the polished-brass cistern came from Catchpole & Rye; all the lavatories came from there, in fact, and have been fitted with specially commissioned mahogany seats. Instead of bearing the company’s name, they’ve got my address on.
“I don’t live here full-time; it’s a weekend and holiday house, a respite from the 21st century, where I can write my scripts in peace, all while being just an hour from London’s East End. Yet despite my not being here all the time, all my neighbours – lots of artists and families – are friends. We wander in and out of each other’s houses for tea or drinks. There is a great sense of community.”
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