This Elstree cottage is a masterclass in making white rooms feel cosy – an all-year-round look that really comes into its own at Christmas…
By Natalie Flaum
With a longstanding passion for interiors, Sally Underwood has enjoyed making her mark on all the homes she has lived in. “When Nick and I rented a tiny student flat near Regent’s Park in London, I designed window seats and wallpapered everywhere,” she says. “I remember saving up to go on shopping sprees at Heal’s and the incredible interiors department at Liberty. I’d buy a metre of Designers Guild fabric at a time to make covers for scatter cushions.”
After eight years of renting a small flat in Fitzrovia, Sally and Nick decided it was the right time to invest in a property of their own. “Having lived in very cramped quarters in London, where we both have relatively intense jobs, we made the decision to move away and enjoy life in the countryside with our rescue dogs, Tinker and Rascal, near where I grew up in Hertfordshire,” says Sally.
The couple rented a two-bedroom house in Radlett to use as a base for their property search. Just two months down the line, they found their dream home – a three-bedroom Victorian worker’s cottage in Elstree village. As there was no chain, the couple were able to move in five weeks later.
“We’d been living in small spaces for so long that I couldn’t wait to begin furnishing and enjoying having a spacious home,” says Sally. “The cottage had been rented out for ten years and was empty for eight months, so it was very unloved, but we instantly fell for its charm and the view of horses in the adjoining fields. The property came with all sort of land access and backs on to a livery yard, with plenty of open space and fields, which is great for walking the dogs.”
It wasn’t all positive though. “The kitchen was like a dumping ground,” says Sally. “It had three disused washing machines, a chest freezer and old carpet that was riddled with damp.” The clinical bathroom wasn’t much better. “Nick said it reminded him of the cold shower cubicles at boarding school,” says Sally.
The couple’s first challenge was to open up the ground floor by removing the wall between the kitchen and utility room. The cottage had previously been extended with an outbuilding attached the kitchen, so Sally and Nick replaced the roof of this extension and converted the room into a pantry, before turning their attention to the kitchen. “As it was our first project we didn’t do it the boring and sensible way,” Sally confesses. “We did it within budget… but pretty much by the seat of our pants – and had fun with it!”
They used local tradesmen to complete the building work and carpentry. “We used the same team to fit the kitchen, as we were really pleased with the finish of their work and they were very reasonable,” says Sally. “As the building work was done in July, we spent a lot of evenings in the garden eating Chinese takeaways, while the back of the house was a concrete shell. I designed the kitchen, which wasn’t an easy task, as we were working with difficult dimensions and I’m not great at maths, but we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to look like.”
All the decorating and furnishing was done on a strict budget, and the kitchen units and worktops came from Ikea. “I wanted a tongue-and-groove design for the unit doors and Ikea was the only place I could find them,” recalls Sally. “The doors had to be custom-fit into a frame made by our carpenter, so that we got the design we wanted in a way that worked in the space.”
The couple moved the washer-dryer to a utility cupboard created in the alcove beneath the stairs. Sally found the wall and floor tiles for the kitchen, which were also used in the bathroom, in Fired Earth.
“Magda Freeman at the showroom was wonderful and we spent many hours with her selecting the right limestone tiles for the floors,” says Sally.
A love of antiques has inspired Sally to upcycle pieces of Victorian furniture bought in junk shops and on eBay. “We spent a total of £850 on all the furniture in the dining room,” she says. “When we went to the south coast to collect the dining table from the sellers, we got on so well they invited us to stay for dinner!”
Sally and Nick have created a feeling of calm throughout the house by painting walls white and adding soft accents in dusky pink and chalk blue. “Our main priority was to create a sense of space and light while still making it feel homely,” says Sally.
The couple got stuck in with decorating, painting walls in their spare time. “I’d say it’s best to try to do everything in one go rather than concentrating on a room at a time,” says Sally. The tiles in the living room fireplace were in poor condition, so Sally plastered over them and tiled the hearth, and also painted the Victorian cast-iron fireplace in the main bedroom white to tie it in with the soothing, pale scheme.
White-painted furniture and storage give the overall look timeless country style and mirrors have been used all around the cottage to make the rooms appear bigger and brighter. Sally has added colour and interest with artwork and landscapes. “I love moody painting of nature with atmospheric skies,” she says. ‘And I love collecting silverware – my favourite pieces are a Georgian cruet set and a silver 19th-century christening cup that
I picked up at the Mill Hill Antiques Fair.’
The couple couldn’t be happier with the outcome of their decision to move to the countryside. “As much as we love London, when you live in the centre of it you never really switch off,” says Sally. “Here, it’s so easy to relax. The light is fantastic, we get the most incredible sunsets and we are surrounded by nature.”