Period Property of the Month - November 2009
Polly Pettet has created an enchanting seaside home in Appledore, North Devon, dedicated to her travelling past.
The call of the running tide
Artist and archaeologist Polly Pettet got 'that feeling' when she first walked into her home in the seaside town of Appledore, North Devon. "The house had a very welcoming atmosphere, and the town seemed to be all about having fun," she laughs. "There was sailing, rowing, going to the beach. I loved it immediately." In September 2002, Polly moved into Dora's House, so-called because one of its previous Victorian owners had it bought for him by his aunt Dora. "I moved from the Norfolk Broads, where I used to sail, so Appledore suited me perfectly. I'm very much drawn to water, and I love living just a step from the river."
Appledore is a picture-perfect Devon fishing village, characterised by a little curved quay - where the water sparkles blue on a sunny day - as well as its views onto the town of Instow across the water and out to where the River Torridge meets the sea between Westward Ho! and Saunton beaches. The water is dotted with fishing and sailing boats, and at high tide there's a bustle of marine activity, as sailors launch their dinghies, fishermen eagerly cast their lines and local outdoor activity centres roll up with kayaks and pleasure boats.
Dora's House dates from the early 1700s, with many quirky features such as uneven plaster walls, rafters built from old boats and a slight 'uphill' feel as you walk from the hallway through to the kitchen, because it's built on a hillside. However, it was a very different house back in the 18th century. "This street, Market Street, used to front directly onto the quay," explains Polly. "It's the old Georgian High Street. They only added the street in front, now the High Street, in Victorian times. They didn't have any more space, as they'd built all the way up the hill, so they had to squash in a new street right on the quay."
Before the new High Street was built, Market Street had many shops as well as houses, and boats used to row down it when the tide was high and the street flooded. In the late 1700s, Dora's House was owned by a Master Mariner, says Polly, who still has his title deeds to the property. "The living room used to be open to the quay," she elaborates. "It was used to moor boats, and the family used to live upstairs, where the bedrooms now are. There used to be a well in the garden too, which was used by the inhabitants of the cottages surrounding the house."
Evidence of the house's more recent past is everywhere too. The previous owner, also an artist, commemorated Appledore's last major flooding in 1990 by painting a frieze on the dining room wall of the entire High Street along the quay. While excavating in the garden, Polly found a Victorian child's tea set, almost intact, complete with gold leaf, as well as a collection of tobacco pipes dating from the early 1600s. While moving a garden wall, she also found a Devonshire cream jug buried in the foundations, which she dates at somewhere between the 1600s and 1900s.
Polly has made several changes to Dora's House, mainly in order to allow more light into the rooms at the back of the building. The garden room, the only part of the house which isn't original, has been opened up by taking away part of one wall and moving a window, as well as by adding French doors leading directly outside. "When I first arrived, the garden room was a utility room, with an old outside loo and a boiler in the corner, a breeze block wall blocking it from the garden and even an old shower, which the estate agent told me was very useful for using after you've come in from the beach! I got rid of all that."
Polly has furnished the house with a colourful array of art and furniture from around the world, bought over the years during travels in the Caribbean, South America, China, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Gambia and Turkey. There are rugs from Tibet, an enormous solid wood Columbian dresser, a collection of Jamaican masks and statues, a donkey's saddle from the Sudan, Korean paintings, Russian art and a sweet carved wooden seahorse from the Caribbean. Polly's own paintings and embroideries cover the walls of the hallway and living room too, dating from her very first works as a student in the '60s to present-day projects
"My husband and I went to live overseas for 10 years in 1967 starting in Trinidad, then Jamaica, Sudan, Columbia and back to the Caribbean. We also travelled elsewhere in Asia and Africa. We used to collect furniture and have it shipped back to England."
Polly's artistic flair is particularly evident in her airy bedroom at the back of the house, leading directly onto the garden. There's a low bed draped with an Indian throw and crowds of books on the higgledy-piggledy shelves above the door. In the corner is a tall, compartmentalised leather cabin trunk that used to belong to her grandfather - it is festooned with all his travelling labels from cities he visited across Europe and is now used as a wardrobe.
In the other two bedrooms, Polly has used simple blue and white furnishings suited to her marine surroundings, with the bed in the main bedroom - once the living room - slotted in between what used to be the Georgian fireplace and bookshelves.
Polly is also having a studio built in the garden, where she plans to have a huge easel and a comfortable day bed - a true artist's retreat. "I love the way the house now takes in the garden as well, everything seems to flow into everything else. It's an artist's house - the previous artist left his mark with the frieze and I think I'm leaving my mark with the changes I've made too.
Why I love my house
"I love my house because it's so quirky, because you go uphill when you walk in through the front door, and because all the rooms have a different feel. It has old, thick stone walls built with cob (a mixture of clay and chopped straw), so it's cool in summer, warm in winter, very quiet and private, a total haven from the outside world. I also love the surprise of the river - you walk out of this haven and see that beautiful stretch of sparkling water. It's got an amazing history, and it's an artist's house. I love it because of all these things."