The lives of interior designer Francesca Rowan-Plowden and her children will forever be enriched by their unique experience of being the last tenants of the National Trust’s Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex. Francesca tells Rosalind Sack the story of the decade she made it her home…
(LEFT) THE EXTERIOR OF LAMB HOUSE. IMAGE: WEALDEN TIMES, PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID MEREWETHER, STYLING LUCY FLEMING; (RIGHT) FRANCESCA ROWAN-PLOWDEN AND HER FOUR SONS AT LAMB HOUSE
Marriages, births and divorce; Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, was the backdrop to all of life for interior designer Francesca Rowan-Plowden during the ten years she and her family were its tenants. And as Francesca’s life played out within its four walls, her narrative naturally became entwined with that of this historic National Trust property, once home to author Henry James.
It began with an innocuous property advertisement in the back of The Sunday Times in 2007. Rent for the Grade II listed Georgian house, tucked down one of Rye’s pretty cobbled lanes, was £1,100 per month – the same as Francesca was paying for her two up, two down in Teddington, South West London. The tenant had to have literary connections and they would be required to open the house to the public for two afternoons a week.
Then aged 28, an out-of-work actor with a toddler and a new-born, the advert ignited a wistful daydream in Francesca. It was a house she had admired from afar on a romantic weekend in Rye when she and her husband Dominic had first started dating and she couldn’t resist its allure. “I was starting to feel a bit itchy – I wasn’t really digging the suburban life,” explains Francesca. “I was looking for something to be creative about; I craved open space and doing something different.”
After a rigorous selection period, which included written essays and several face-to-face interviews, Francesca and her family were eventually chosen from 180 applicants to be the house’s tenants for the next decade. “I was hugely excited by the opportunity, but I was completely terrified because I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. The sense of responsibility was huge,” she confesses.
(TOP) THE KING’S ROOM; (BOTTOM) VIEW TO THE KING’S ROOM AND GREEN ROOM AT LAMB HOUSE, DECORATED BY FRANCESCA ROWAN-PLOWDEN. IMAGES: WEALDEN TIMES, PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID MEREWETHER, STYLING LUCY FLEMING
On the ground floor, the Dining Room, Oak Parlour and Telephone Room – which display some of Henry James’ personal belongings – as well as the acre-large walled gardens were initially open to the public two afternoons a week from March to October. Francesca and her family had private use of the large kitchen downstairs – similar in size to the entire ground floor of their Teddington home – as well as the roped off living quarters upstairs. This space included the Green Room, where Henry James had written during the winter and which became their TV room, and the King’s Room, where King George I had stayed in 1726 after taking shelter from a storm and which became their formal drawing room. They also had a play room and, in what had been the servants’ quarters, were five bedrooms and a number of bathrooms.
It was a huge undertaking. Francesca was trained in preservation and was required to run the shop, oversee the gardens and the volunteers who helped to run the house and cash up at the end of each day. Her home was effectively a business, with Francesca at the helm, and hers was a sharp introduction to life as a National Trust tenant.
“The volunteers basically chewed me up in the first week,” recalls Francesca. “They said I wasn’t polishing the brass properly and a few resigned because none of the previous tenants had had a family there and it suddenly changed. On the afternoons that the house was open I would do a mad rush around to pick up all the wellies, coats and toys from downstairs before we opened the doors! Then my son occasionally wandered around dressed as Fireman Sam, or there would be a stray football in the flowerbed that I had forgotten to clear away. It was a steep learning curve.”
Adjusting to the reality of having your family home open to strangers added to Francesca’s initial unease: “At first I became paranoid about the kids. I didn’t want people to see them because I was worried they were going to get kidnapped.”
The more that people were picking at me, the more determined I became. I had this incredible opportunity and I decided that I was going to make it ours.”
She adds: “It was all very daunting and I suppose at first I tried to be something I wasn’t. I had all these ideas but I just didn’t have the confidence to put them into action. But the more that people were picking at me, the more determined I became. I had this incredible opportunity and I decided that I was going to make it ours.”
Francesca’s fresh resolve came just as her personal life hit crisis point and, 18 months after moving in, she and Dominic separated. Enduring the breakdown of a marriage is a devastating time for anyone, but while most people can take time to heal behind closed doors, that wasn’t an option for Francesca.
“It was like a goldfish bowl. I was the gossip of the town, I was stuck in a big house and at times it felt like a gilded cage. On some days I just wished that everyone would go away,” she confesses. “But I just had to get to the end of the season, then I would have six months to hibernate when the house was closed through the winter months. At that point, the house became our fortress.”
There was a get-out clause every two years, yet Francesca was determined to forge ahead at Lamb House. “If I hadn’t have been a mum, I probably would have bolted. But I weighed up my options and I wasn’t about to take this opportunity away from the children. We were so lucky to be there and I thought, I can do this on my own if I just stick with it.” She adds: “I remember telling the National Trust that it was just me and kids now, and I was convinced they were going to kick me out. But I persuaded them that I would make it work and the following March I started again. And, actually, the whole experience gave me ambition and drive and bravery.”
LAMB HOUSE’S GARDENS AND KITCHEN, DECORATED BY FRANCESCA ROWAN-PLOWDEN. IMAGES: WEALDEN TIMES, PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID MEREWETHER, STYLING LUCY FLEMING
Francesca started a theatre company which would perform in the gardens. The proceeds from the shows would help her to pay the rent. She also organised annual Easter eggs hunts and jazz festivals and the house started opening for three full days a week. As Francesca breathed new life into the place and her efforts began to be recognised by the local community, so her confidence and her sense of home flourished.
That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing over the years that followed. There was the time that Francesca tried to save some money by attempting the topiary in the garden herself. It didn’t turn out well, she says: “Now I know why topiarists are so expensive!” There were several occasions when she had to cut trapped seagulls out of the protective netting on the roof. There were the occasional complaints she received about her son who had developed a penchant for dressing up and standing at the top of the stairs addressing the visitors below with, “Hello people, I’m Spartacus!”. And there was the time that she received a phone call saying that someone from the Tate gallery was on their way to inspect the bust of Henry James in the Oak Parlour, which was still draped in pink bunting from a gathering the weekend before.
Francesca even called in a team of ghostbusters after feeling a presence and hearing mysterious noises. “It was very funny. I had to sit in the garden with the kids while they worked their way through the house,” she recalls. They claimed to have discovered seven ghosts in all, including the ghost of Henry James’ butler who wasn’t keen on other men coming in to the house. “It never felt sinister. I felt that they liked me and the children, even if they weren’t so keen on my partners!” says Francesca who, by this time, had married again and had two more children before, sadly, separating. “It just felt like Henry James was keeping an eye on things.”
(LEFT) PEPPA PIG BUNTING ADORNS A PORTRAIT OF HENRY JAMES AT LAMB HOUSE AFTER A CHILD’S PARTY; (RIGHT) FRANCESCA’S SON DRESSED FOR A PARTY IN THE HALLWAY AT LAMB HOUSE. IMAGES: FRANCESCA ROWAN-PLOWDEN
The Dining Room was often used for family gatherings and children’s parties, while the Oak Parlour was occasionally strung with fairy lights and turned into a makeshift disco room. Francesca would learn to relish the private tours she would give to visiting academics, soaking up their knowledge, and when there were plays in the garden, the house would be strewn with mattresses for the cast to sleep on. “It was bursting with theatrical and literary people, which is what the house was always all about. I think Henry James would have approved,” says Francesca. Indeed, he hosted many of the English literary establishment during his time at Lamb House, including Rudyard Kipling, Ford Maddox Ford and H.G. Wells.
It was bursting with theatrical and literary people, which is what the house was always all about. I think Henry James would have approved.”
“I saw Henry James’ writing as a kind of guidance on how to cope. He and his best friend, writer Edith Wharton, wrote a lot about independence. And even though their writing is old, it’s very modern in their approach to women. He would really champion female characters who were strong, independent thinkers. Even now, when I return to his writing I feel a connection.”
(TOP LEFT) THE PLAY ROOM; (TOP RIGHT) VIEW TO A BEDROOM; (BOTTOM) CHILD’S ROOM, ALL AT LAMB HOUSE, DECORATED BY FRANCESCA ROWAN-PLOWDEN. IMAGES: WEALDEN TIMES, PHOTOGRAPHY DAVID MEREWETHER, STYLING LUCY FLEMING
Not only did Francesca experience a unique sense of home during her decade at Lamb House, she also forged a new career as an interior designer, specialising in historic properties. After redecorating the private rooms of the house and attracting press coverage for her style, she took on some local clients and worked alongside Lamb House’s curator to redecorate some of the public areas of the house. Francesca’s knowledge led her to work on the renovations of Goodnestone Park stately home in Kent. She has since worked on Battel Hall medieval manor house on the Leeds Castle estate and the 18th century Kingshill Farmhouse on the Elmley Nature Reserve in Kent.
Towards the end of Francesca’s ten-year tenancy, the National Trust decided to open up more of the house to the public, so it became clear that her family would be the last tenants to make a home there. “It was so emotional leaving. But it wasn’t real life, it was almost like acting a part. By that point I had a business and I knew it was the end of an era,” she says.
“Henry James was a failed playwright and when Oscar Wilde took his thunder he retreated from London to Lamb House. It became his safe place and he decided never to go back to London, and I’m exactly the same. Making a home there made me independent, it gave me a career and it put a fire in my belly. It was such an amazing experience and it’s something we will always carry with us.”
Discover more about Francesca Rowan-Plowden’s Design Havens for Heroes charity here and read more from The Home Page below…