I am the child of second-generation Jewish immigrants. There is nothing in my DNA that prepared me for Cornish life. My family thought that having a second home in West Sussex – an hour and a half from Kensington – was quite far enough from the metropolis for anyone to travel. Not for us stoic marches to rocky beaches to eat soggy sandwiches while we huddled behind a windbreak.
When I married my husband Robert, I acquired three wonderful stepchildren. After our first child was born 23 years ago, Robert suggested we rent a house in Fowey in Cornwall, near his two aunts. He used to visit them every summer as a boy and said he would love to show the place to me.
There was a lot of family history entangled there. Robert’s family were all theatre folk living in north London and had been close friends and neighbours with the Du Mauriers. During the Second World War, his young aunts followed their great friend Daphne – whose family had bought a house in Fowey in 1926 – to Cornwall to become land girls working on the farms while the men went to the front. The aunts loved the experience and stayed on after the war ended, farming near Fowey for the rest of their lives.
So every summer, for 10 years, we rented an old rectory, perched on top of rolling hills that led down to a smugglers’ cove. It was relaxing, romantic, chaotic and charmingly behind the times – I loved the fact that to change television channels you had to stick a pencil in the set and wiggle. Somehow it did not matter that it would often rain for an entire week or that I had to drive half an hour to find a shop that sold herbs. It all just worked. We played games, read books, did puzzles, went for long walks, got wet and loved every minute.
Meanwhile, in my London life, I was an editor at Vogue, flying round the world photographing glamorous people in beautiful houses and writing about them. My quirky Cornish life seemed a million miles away, but increasingly struck me as the essence of normality – especially compared to the different universe I was exploring through my work. I would dream of swimming in the exhilarating sea with its gullies of warm water brought by the Gulf Stream. And of the coastline, the steep winding paths bordered by myriad wildflowers, which led down to the secret beaches Robert had first discovered as a child. It was an enchanted Cornish world, waiting there for us. We were building memories on top of memories.
One day, when Robert was visiting his aunts without me, he called me on my mobile: ‘I’ve bought a house.’ Just like that. I fell over. And when I first set eyes on our new home, I didn’t like it one bit. The 18th-century stone farmhouse was inland – a 10-minute drive from Fowey and from the beach – with no winding paths in sight and, among other drawbacks, it had a plastic porch and a nasty Formica-clad kitchen. I held my tongue but eventually asked him, ‘Why?’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘I saw a black-and-white photograph in the window of the estate agent in Fowey and had a feeling. Then I brought the aunts over and it felt right to them, too, so I bought it.’ I wanted to cry but, as it was the most spontaneous and creative thing I’d ever known him to do, I found it touching. He wanted his family to share in the parallel existence he loved most in the world in a house that was his own.
The house changed everything for all of us, but the person most responsible for the practical aspects of turning this wreck into a serene family home was my stepdaughter Louisa Byng. She had just set up a project management company, Aristeia, and she and her husband Tom spent five months living on a building site, while it poured with rain, brilliantly translating my garbled intentions and dreams into reality.
They did a wonderful job and the layout was transformed, including a stylish new shower room, but I wouldn’t say the house is decorated – its character is more inadvertent than that. In pulling it together, I always came across things that called to me: whether found by the light of a torch at 6am at Kempton flea market, in a Lostwithiel antique shop, a junk emporium in Hammersmith or an Indonesian warehouse. Now, it is a comfortable mishmash, which is just how I like it.
I have never set foot in a fabric shop, looked at wallpapers or made any kind of mood board. That is not my style. For me, there’s nothing to beat the thrill of stumbling upon a box of Fifties patchwork wallpaper samples, as I did one rainy Friday in Portobello Road Market – I spent happy hours with a bemused wallpaperer from Plymouth collaging Robert’s office walls with them. Though staggering home with the Berber straw and wool rugs that I found on the back of a fruit stall on nearby Golborne Road comes close. They are perfectly at home now in the entrance hall. The ancient doors discovered in a local reclamation yard and turned on their side became headboards. Every plate, mug, jug and vase has been made by local potters and each has a charm of its own.
The house already has our family history embedded in it. I am a storyteller by nature so, for me, every single item has a significant provenance. Even the string from which I like to hang photos with clothes pegs was an idea copied from a house on Formentera, which I shot for Vogue. The only thing that is really state of the art in this house is the television. No pencil required.