A renovated 17th century house

Over many years, Jane Nellis-Pain has restored a run-down period property to its original beauty while modernising its use of space. The four-bedroom, detached Grade-II listed property was originally built in the 17th century and now boasts restored sash windows and a new garden room, as well as the original exposed beams

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Jane Nellis-Pain’s idyllic country home comes to life at Christmas, when she adorns its period architecture with her own colourful, handmade decorations. With its lush purple-and-pink colour scheme, the dining room in particular becomes a lavish backdrop to Christmas Day celebrations, when the table is laid ready to receive a roast lamb, duck or goose with all the trimmings. Christmas at the Nellis- Pain house is a family affair, and Jane’s extended family, which can number up to 11 people, gathers round on Boxing Day for another special meal.

The old house may have played host to many other similar celebrations in its past, but it has probably never looked more enchanting than it does today, thanks to the hard work and effort of Jane and her ex-husband, Tim. From the start, it was a large renovation project, which has taken many years to reach its current stage.

Fact file

The owner: Jane Nellis-Pain, who runs The Festive Dresser (festive-dresser.co.uk), an online company selling handmade Christmas decorations, lives here with her children, Josh, 23, Millie, 20 and Gabrielle, 18

When Jane and Tim decided to move from their two-bedroom terraced house in north London around 20 years ago, they knew exactly what they were looking for. ‘We wanted a period property to renovate,’ says Jane, ‘and we needed more bedrooms.’ Their two eldest children were still little, and their youngest daughter, Gabrielle, had not yet been born, but Jane and Tim’s home had already started to feel too small.

The house they eventually fell for was set among fields in rural Essex but it was still convenient for commuting into London. ‘As we drove along the drive, we said to each other, “This is the one,”’ says Jane. ‘It was a beautiful, sunny day and the house seemed to fit perfectly into its environment.’

Even better, from the couple’s point of view, was the property’s condition. ‘It was a wreck,’ recalls Jane. ‘It had been rented out for years and was very run-down. I remember gulping when I read the survey.’

After moving in, the couple quickly set to work. All the old beams had been covered up and centuries of dirt fell down when Jane exposed them by removing the plasterboard ceilings. Jane was working from home having just set up her company and found she had enough time to juggle her job with some serious DIY. Unafraid to take on the messy jobs, she began scrubbing by hand, waxing and polishing until the beams returned to their original glory.

Jane stripped and waxed the window frames in every room until all traces of the old paint had disappeared and the original sashes were restored. ‘The worst moment was when we had just finished the main dining room window and put it in position temporarily to have a look at it,’ she says. ‘A gust of wind blew in and smashed it!

‘I had already renovated a few properties before,’ continues Jane, who is a hands-on homeowner. ‘My first property was a gut and rebuild job in Hammersmith when I was 21. Then I bought an Edwardian terraced house, which I had renovated. Finally, when I married, we moved to Islington and that proved to be another huge project.’ As a result, the countryside property offered little in the way of unknown renovation challenges.

Gutting the kitchen was one of Jane and Tim’s first jobs. ‘It was very basic, with an orange colour scheme that wasn’t to our taste, and it looked decrepit,’ Jane remembers. ‘We took out the units and replaced them with a kitchen that I bought in a sale. I wanted a Siematic design so I phoned various kitchen companies, got a list of their showrooms and asked if they had any ex-display models for sale. Eventually I found exactly what I wanted.’

Jane and Tim closed up a door between the kitchen and the study to rationalise the space. They also blocked up the door from the main entrance hall into the living room, creating a new entrance at the other end of the room using a double door found at a local auction. ‘This enabled me to have a view of the bay window and the garden as soon as I entered the room,’ says Jane.

The footprint of the house has remained intact, and most rooms are still the same size. However, there is one big exception. Five years ago, Jane decided to alter the function of the Victorian wing of the house, which is accessed from the kitchen.

‘It had been used as a scullery, an outhouse and a coal shed,’ she says. ‘I hired contractors to knock them into one, to create the large garden room. I also added a new roof as the old one was set at the wrong angle and the tiles were crumbling.’

Other repairs had to be made elsewhere in the house. As there were problems with damp in a corner of the study, land had to be dug away and a dampproof course was installed in the brick walls. Jane and Tim were divorced by this point, and Jane found that the challenge of renovating the rooms was a therapeutic activity.

Around the same time, aware that some of the rooms had started to show their age since the renovation work years earlier, Jane decided to start modernising the kitchen, bathrooms, living and dining rooms. ‘I chose to go for another ex-showroom kitchen by Siematic,’ she says, ‘but I re-planned the layout, using extra units for storage. Even though this is a period house, I still like a clean, sharp-looking kitchen.’

She divided the existing bathroom into two spaces, to make a family bathroom and an en-suite for Gabrielle, as well as adding a bathroom off the master bedroom, stealing space for it from under the eaves. ‘This area had all been boarded up and was originally inaccessible,’ says Jane. ‘When I knocked on the wall it sounded hollow and, after taking down the stud wall, I found there was enough space to create another en suite.’

Two years ago, Jane then turned her attention to the remaining rooms. She wanted a cosy wood-burning stove to replace the conventional fireplace in the living room, so she asked the builder to drop a flue down the chimney and install the stove. ‘They hired a cherry-picker to do the job and left it behind over the weekend,’ she remembers. Never one to miss an opportunity to economise, Jane bought some exterior paint and spent the next two days painting the outside of the house. ‘It was a challenge learning to operate a cherry picker, but it saved me a fortune,’ she says.

The bathrooms were also given a contemporary makeover with all new fittings, and last year Jane opted to give the dining room a dramatic new look, with a bold, peony-patterned wallpaper replacing the old, neutral colour scheme.

At Christmas, Jane’s unique decorations provide an extra shot of colour. Although she initially set up her business as a modest fundraiser for her children’s junior school, Jane started trading as The Festive Dresser 15 years ago. Now she sells her own designs for wreaths, garlands, candle rings and gift boxes online and through Christmas fairs. Drama, colour and texture are the basis of her decorations, and her choice of dark red, purple and blue shades bring a richness and depth to her rooms.

‘Everyone seems to love this house at Christmas,’ says Jane. ‘They comment on how cosy it is. And I actually feel very proud that I have managed to do so much to it myself. It’s such a special place.’

The costs

Conversion of Victorian wing£54,000
Garden room windows£10,000
En suite£6,000