The kitchen is usually considered the most important room in the house and, in our case, that is definitely true. Despite its corner location, it connects to the dining room, utility room, boot room and, via a door under the stairs, to the sitting room; it really is the hub of the house.
In common with the rest of the house, nothing had been done to the kitchen since the 70s and much of what was there had been installed long before that. The sink unit, under one of the two south-facing sash windows consisted of an extremely damp cupboard topped with a fibreglass sink, which cast an amber glow on the lino as the sun shone through it. We peeled back the lino, in anticipation of revealing an original flagstone floor or quarry tiles or even dry-laid bricks like the ones in the under stair cupboard, but no – just concrete.
The walls were decorated in a vinyl type floral wallpaper in a yellow shade similar to the cellophane once used in shop windows to prevent stock from fading (yes, younger readers, that really used to happen. In fact on a recent visit to a town, not too far from us, we found a shop that still uses it!). Under the wallpaper, to shoulder height, was tile-effect hardboard panelling which had been stuck to the wall with the most effective adhesive known to man. Its subsequent removal would take up several evenings of picking, scraping, steaming and swearing.
All woodwork was stripped back to bare wood, in order to restore the detail of mouldings and to remove all traces of successive coats of thick, drip-ridden paint. Over the last few years, I have become particularly fond of restoring sash windows. The kitchen windows were the first I had ever done and became my ‘apprenticeship’ in this discipline. The windows were dismantled completely, all traces of paint removed and the individual components repainted, prior to re-assembly. New sash cords were fitted and, where necessary the glass was re-puttied. The frames and sashes were given the Farrow & Ball treatment; Lime White eggshell on the inside and Lichen exterior eggshell on the outside.
Due to a crack above one of the windows, I removed some of the plaster to inspect the timber lintel. My suspicion was confirmed when I found that the end of the lintel had been completely eaten away by a combination of rot and woodworm. As the remainder of the back wall consisted of a further window and a door, it seemed wise to check their lintels too. Just as well I did because the lintel above the back door was just as bad. Unfortunately, as the windows are so high, and because the new steel lintels are so much taller than the timber originals, their replacement called for removal of part of the ceiling as well as quite a lot of the back wall! The lintels were carefully replaced and the ceiling repaired before re-plastering the walls.
As the house had no central heating when we bought it, we had the opportunity to look at combined systems for heating, hot water and cooking. We decided on the Rayburn 345w; great for cooking and more than capable of heating lots of radiators and producing copious amounts of hot water. And all powered by wood! We liked the idea of heating and cooking from logs and the iconic Rayburn design also fits beautifully with the look we were hoping to achieve.
Actually, that’s an interesting point. At no point do I remember us ever discussing what that look might be. That’s either because the Rayburn ended up defining the style of its surroundings or because Michelle and I always agree on everything. No, that’s not it. I think, maybe, we just knew from the start that we wanted an old house with old things on display and, wherever possible, in daily use. I suppose, if we had planned a look for the kitchen, that is what the plan would have said.
Back to the Rayburn. The kitchen had a built-in larder cupboard in the centre of one wall and I had hoped that we might be able to use it as a surround for the Rayburn. Unfortunately the cupboard wasn’t quite large enough, so it had to go.
We now had the opportunity to build a surround that would give the impression that the Rayburn had just been slotted into an existing fireplace. Two sides were constructed out of brick and, to allow for the huge flue, a couple of corbels were employed to allow for the increase in the depth of the chimney breast.
I had this idea of cutting the corbels from a pair of breeze blocks and then plastering them so they looked like they had always been there. It sounds like a crazy idea and an over-simplification but, armed with a rusty old wood saw, that’s exactly what I did. Having placed my freshly carved corbels atop the brick sides, all that was needed was to finish the corners with 1 inch dowel (to match the other chimney breasts) and a bit of plastering, and the look was complete. I am really pleased with the end result and it was so easy!
The new Rayburn looks absolutely gorgeous sitting in its new surround and, after some initial teething problems, performs brilliantly. I should be clear here and state that the problems we experienced were due to the actions of the installers who were better qualified in the art of muppetry than in the installation of solid fuel appliances!
To get the best from your Rayburn, use dry, well-seasoned logs and don’t be afraid to play about with the controls until you find the optimum settings for your situation. Once you have, it is as efficient as it is beautiful. I suppose the best recommendation I can give is that if we had the chance to do it all again, we would certainly still go for the Rayburn.
The recess to the left of the Rayburn was now home to all the pipework feeding cold water upstairs and hot water to and from the Rayburn. This was concealed behind tongue and groove, to match the original panelling under the stairs on the other side of the kitchen. We liked the effect of the full-height tongue and groove so much, we repeated it on the opposite wall (which also made concealing the new electrics much easier). Once the last of the hideous hardboard panelling had been removed, we discovered that the doorway leading to the dining room had once been three times the width, so we opened it back up again – instant kitchen-diner – that was easy. On the short run of wall either side of this opening we repeated the tongue and groove but only to shoulder height this time. I’d managed to obtain some really nice old oak boards from Semley Reclamation (well worth a visit) and I used these to line the opening into the dining room and used the off-cuts to cap the tongue and groove. I find oak is the perfect material for bridging the gap between rustic and formal and here it works perfectly. The shelf also allows us to store our ever-increasing collection of Farrow & Ball sample pots.
Yes, I’m afraid they are in numerical order.
We needed to do something with the concrete floor and, inspired by the floor of our under- stair cupboard, eventually settled on the idea of brick. A well-known High Street interiors chain was offering reclaimed Eastern European factory bricks sliced in three (allowing them to be laid with only 1½ inch difference to the current floor level) but they were way beyond our budget. A quick check online found a great company called Kamstar who were able to supply the same bricks at a fraction of the cost. Please note that Kamstar now trade as Charles Howey Ltd. I laid these using stretcher bond (again echoing the under-stair cupboard) and pointed them with a limestone coloured grout. As the bricks have a very uneven, worn surface, I finished the pointing with a sponge to give a slightly concave effect. A valuable tip here is to seal the bricks before you do the pointing. This makes it so much easier to clean the bricks after pointing. Once all the pointing was dry, the whole floor was treated to two more coats of sealer. The result is absolutely gorgeous and just what we were after – rustic country kitchen (turns out that was what we had unknowingly been aiming for all along).
Now the floor was complete we could fit the sink cupboard we had sourced from free-standing kitchen specialists, The Old Creamery in Yeovil. Their Victorian sink unit was ideal, holding a decent sized Belfast sink and sporting a vintage paint finish, in a lovely ivory shade. The plumbers were called in to connect it all up and fit the oak worktop. They came up with a good tip here, which involved routing a drip channel in the underside of the worktop. This means that any water running under the lip of the worktop around the sink can only go as far as the drip channel before it is forced to let go and land in the sink.
At last the kitchen was starting to feel like a proper kitchen but, just when it was all looking comparatively civilised, we decided that we would convert a lean-to shed (quite aptly, renamed the ‘lean-over’ by our daughters) into a utility room and connect it to the kitchen by knocking a doorway through. This would be no mean feat as the exterior walls are 18 inches thick and the stone, known as forest marble, as hard as granite. Eventually the break-through was made and four lintels installed back to back to bridge the gap. More making good, re-plastering, construction of a stone step and fitment of a door later, it was time to carry on with the kitchen! In fact, it was time to start decorating!
As fans of proper white ceilings, we had already decided that one of our constant ingredients would be Farrow & Ball All White ceilings throughout. We like this white as it provides a finish that looks like it was once brilliant white but has aged to be slightly easier on the eye, without looking dirty. Farrow & Ball Lime White emulsion was chosen for the walls and the same colour in eggshell chosen for the woodwork. This would be the standard woodwork colour throughout most of the house. Lime White is another colour that looks like it’s been there a while and works beautifully with woodwork that has seen its fair share of action. We both appreciate some colour in our lives and (I, especially) shy away from monotone rooms. However, having a house with so many doors and inter-connecting spaces it is vitally important to think about what colours are borrowed from glimpses of neighbouring rooms. For this reason, we often experiment with repeating small amounts of colour in adjoining rooms to provide some continuity and a feeling of familiarity. In this case we made a rare departure from Farrow & Ball to inject some Baked Cherry, from Little Greene. This is a redder version of the more earthy reds generally available and has a dead flat, chalky texture. This was used around the opening into the dining room and on the tongue and groove in the recess next to the Rayburn.
Other, decidedly more random, use of colour in the kitchen is courtesy of Craig & Rose 1829 Tapestry Green on the doors to the boot room and utility room and, for a reason I can’t remember, a window sill painted in Farrow & Ball Dix Blue. These colours, I suspect, will prove to be temporary.
It was no good having all this lovely new paintwork without the right lighting. We’d fallen in love with a French rise and fall ceramic pendant light we’d seen on the Holloways of Ludlow website, so we ordered the jade version online and were not disappointed. It is the perfect centrepiece for the kitchen ceiling and the colour is just gorgeous.
In addition to the central light, further pendant lamps had been wired up above the sink and close to the under stair passageway that leads to the sitting room. We opted for brass roses, braided flex and non-matching fluted glass shades for these. We had brought with us a twin shaded Ikea light that we intended to fit above the dining table (as it had been in our previous house). This has fluted glass shades and we really liked the idea of having different styles of shade in a common material. The overall effect is a bit like being in an antique lighting shop and I often find myself thinking “Yes madam, we can offer these fluted shades in several styles as you can see.” I also often think that if your kitchen lighting works effectively and makes you smile it must be OK!
Furnishing a free-standing kitchen can be quite a challenge and I must admit that we were very lucky in our search for suitable pieces. To start with, we discovered our beautiful dresser at Semley Reclamation (by this time we had become regular visitors), swiftly followed by the purchase of our larder cupboard from the nearby Dairy House Antiques. Both were reasonably priced and provide the perfect combination of form and function (which in this case means storage). At the same time we also bought a very tall school cupboard from Semley Reclamation, which we painted in Craig & Rose 1829 French Turquoise. We love this piece for its whacky proportions and the level of craftsmanship, despite being destined for a purely utilitarian life. It made a fleeting appearance in the kitchen but has since continued to be moved around the house in search of a permanent resting place. At the time of writing, it is hugging a wall in the sitting room, trying to keep a low profile, in an attempt to avoid further relocation. It obviously likes being where it is.
The last major piece of furniture to be added to the kitchen was the island unit (which we quite often refer to as the ‘butcher’s block’, even though it isn’t). A central piece of furniture is vital to the operation of the kitchen as it provides the only practical work surface, in easy reach of the sink and, most importantly, the Rayburn. This piece was an impulse purchase when there was still money in the kitchen budget. It had a certain appeal that I found irresistible, even though it wasn’t exactly the style we were looking for, but it soon proved to be the least suitable piece of furniture we have purchased and, unfortunately, also the most expensive. It performed perfectly but just didn’t look the part. And so it was that I set about making it fit in with the house and the authentic pieces that surround it. The original top was made of soft reclaimed pine and marked really easily (and not in a nice way). This was replaced with oak boards, currently trimmed with a painted moulding around the edge (set to be replaced with oak when the opportunity arises). A moulding has also been added around the drawers and cupboard doors, which have also had tongue and groove added to their recessed panels. The turned wooden handles have been replaced with reclaimed brass fittings and the hinges too have been replaced with a more subtle alternative. The original waxed finish was painstaking stripped to allow for painting. Several colours were tried, including Lime White, before finally settling on Farrow & Ball’s Arsenic, which echoes the colour of the ceramic pendant above and provides a stunning contrast to the cream Rayburn and Baked Cherry feature walls. The unit contains our cutlery and a selection of Kilner jars, filled with cooking ingredients, as well as a large vegetable basket. It occasionally holds an additional supply of logs for the Rayburn, although the majority of these are kept in a huge log basket by the boot room door. The island unit is now a great piece of furniture and looks really comfortable in its surroundings.
Additional kitchen features include a home-made shelf above the back door, which contains an eclectic huddle of objects, both old and new; a Rackmaster plate rack, which seems to become home to a different selection of kitchenware every week (an ever-growing colander collection being one example) and a beautiful brass desk lamp (bought from Semley Reclamation and reconditioned by a local electrical shop) which sits on the larder cupboard, offering a moodier lighting option for times when the three ceiling lights just aren’t necessary.
During this type of project, there are always elements that could be refined or re-thought. This situation occurs because a compromise had to be sought the first time round due to insufficient funds, lack of inspiration or just that the right item wasn’t available at the right time. In our kitchen, there are a few such areas, ripe for refinement in the future. But, in the meantime, this is this kitchen!