Looking for a period property to buy, with all her belongings packed up ready to go, Sheila Soulsby found her dream home, only to discover that someone had beaten her to it. The beautiful Georgian townhouse had a sold sign outside. ‘I remember saying to myself, they’ve got my house,’ Sheila recalls, so sure was she of its rightful ownership.
In the circumstances, she did the only thing she could do: went to see the agents and asked them to call her if the sale fell through. A few weeks later they rang her to say the sale had encountered a few hurdles and Sheila arranged a viewing.
Read on to find out how Sheila's perseverance paid off, as she renovated her handsome home from top to bottom, giving it an elegant and glamorous new look, then browse the rest of our real home transformations. Don't miss our guide on how to buy an old house.
Owner Sheila Soulsby lives here with her Bengal kitten, Ety. Sheila previously owned a vintage business.
Property A Grade II-listed five-bedroom, double-fronted Georgian townhouse in Herne Bay, Kent, built in 1833.
What she did Sheila renovated the whole house from top to bottom, removing partition walls to open up the kitchen. She installed central heating, updated the bathrooms, decorated throughout and made all the soft furnishings.
‘Before my foot was through the front door I just knew, whatever problems it had, I would take it on,’ says Sheila. ‘And there were lots of problems. It was totally unloved and very dated. Everywhere was 1970s style – scroll wallpapers, brown kitchen units, and so gloomy. But I just knew the house could be amazing if I put it back together again.’
Montague House is one of a trio of elegant summer seaside residences built by a wealthy local landowner. Its chequered history included many years as a girls boarding school, before it reverted to private ownership and gradually slipped into disrepair. It must have been a fine sight in its heyday with carriages sweeping through the gates from the bay, and it was with that image of Georgian glamour in mind that Sheila began its restoration.
Part of putting things back together actually involved taking things apart - at least in the kitchen, the first room she tackled. ‘I removed a partition wall, absorbing an unused lobby to add width and light, and to give a more welcoming space,’ she says.
Sheila was lucky that the home’s most distinctive Georgian trademarks, the huge sash windows, were all in good condition and allow the coastal light to fill the kitchen. The fresh white walls, cabinets and flooring all add to the bright new look.
It took sheets and sheets of sandpaper to remove the dark treacle-like finish on the original glazed cabinets either side of the fireplace, before reviving them with a calm grey shade Sheila mixed herself, along with the striking mustard for the fireplace wall.
The major building work took a year as Sheila set up camp in one of the top bedrooms in the freezing cold. ‘I worked morning, noon and night, seven days a week for months and months. My friends thought I’d vanished,’ she says.
From there it became a family affair as Sheila enlisted her father’s help in fitting new kitchen units and worktops, and her son James's help with the central heating and bathrooms.
Sheila regularly swaps pieces of furniture with her mother and daughter Hannah, who runs an architectural and interior design company, Anima & Amare (opens in new tab).
‘For as long as I can remember everyone in our family has been renovating houses. We all like to make our mark on the homes we live in and between us we specialise in different crafts. We bounce ideas off one another and help each other out,’ says Sheila.
Once the basics were in place Sheila set to work putting the rest of the house to rights, working from top to bottom, appropriately starting with the staircase. She uncovered its graceful curves from hundreds of layers of paint, sanding and staining each step and painting each spindle over the course of just a few evenings.
Sheila sanded the staircase, stripping it of years of chipped white paint, and then used a dark oak stain. She also sanded and painted the stair spindles over the course of a few evenings.
Not afraid to experiment with colour and pattern, Sheila found the process of decorating and furnishing the home's elegant bedrooms both challenging and rewarding.
Sheila had a clear vision for the upstairs décor right from the start: ‘The back of the house lent itself to lighter rooms while the front needed more drama,' she says. The glamorous French-style bedroom schemes certainly are dramatic and are just the look Sheila had in mind.
If you also like French-inspired bedroom schemes, check out our 18 beautifully romantic looks.
At an antiques fair in Crewkerne, Sheila spotted an exquisite embroidered sheet that she knew would be perfect for the honeymoon guests booked in to the chintz bedroom that evening. The only problem was, she had forgotten her purse. The kind stall holder allowed her to take the sheet home with her and pay the following day.
Sheila has a real eye for a good find and her perfectionist's attention to the finishing touches sometimes sees her working through the night to get things exactly right. Like the time she decided to check whether there was a fireplace in one of the back bedrooms. Luckily there was but she had to redecorate the room in a hurry, ready for guests arriving the next day.
Sheila often finds inspiration from the many vintage fabrics in her work room - her ‘happy place’ - where she sits and sews and dreams up her decorating schemes.
That happy place may soon have a different look though as Sheila, having decorated twice over, is searching for another period home to transform. ‘There were times during this renovation when I felt I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but I kept going – and the satisfaction at the end was immense.’