Nestled in the grounds of the Sissinghurst estate, author Vanessa Nicolson’s Victorian gamekeeper’s lodge has strong ties to her family history
At Home With Vanessa Nicolson
What’s the story behind your home?
It’s a former gamekeeper’s house on the Sissinghurst estate, owned by my grandparents and surrounded by beautiful bluebell woods. My grandmother, Vita Sackville-West, occasionally used the house for her romantic liaisons with various girlfriends, including her sister-in-law. I inherited it from my father when he died in 1978. He had never lived there – it came with a sitting tenant. We moved in in the mid 1980s.
What was your inspiration for the design?
I was lucky enough to inherit furniture and objects from my British father, along with pieces from my Italian mother. There are old Elizabethan tables, painted Italian cabinets, Bloomsbury paintings, blue glass, and some other things I’ve picked along the way. We added an extension and a conservatory, but have otherwise stayed true to the style of the house. I love the plank of wood we discovered when the builders lifted a floor, signed by the workmen who built the house in 1863, and the original floor in the kitchen which has the imprint of a Victorian cat’s paw in one of the bricks.
Do you have any interior brands that you love and always go back to?
There is no one brand I always return to. My style is eclectic. I like a quirky mix of objects, old and new. I have 1950s tea sets, Mexican bowls, Persian rugs, some inherited glassware, and crockery that is often chipped but well loved. I’m drawn to weathered objects that hold memories.
What’s your favourite room in your house and why?
I always follow the light. I like the conservatory as I can sit and write in it during mild spring and autumn days, and it has a beautiful passiflora growing up the wall. There’s also a small glass walled extension at the back where we can sit and drink coffee overlooking the rose garden. A friend of ours calls it a ‘rural Starbucks.’
Does your house in any way reflect your profession?
There’s a fair bit of art, as (like both my parents) I worked for a long time as an art historian. And books, as I inherited quite a few. So many of my family are writers that books are inevitable. Sometimes I think it might have been a more useful if one of them had been a plumber or electrical engineer…
What’s your best view?
We turned one of the bedrooms into a bathroom. My favourite view is from the bath in summer, looking out at the line of eight foot tall oak trees that run down the bridle path near our house.
What’s your signature dish – can you share the recipe with us?
Soup, especially for lunch. Lentil, spinach, roasted squash or noodles and greens added to a homemade chicken stock. I make a classic minestrone too: a base of celery, carrot and onion simmered with any other vegetables to hand, adding a bit of pesto and grated parmesan at the end. As children, my daughters loved my mother’s signature dish, known as Nonna’s Meatballs. I never manage to reproduce it quite as well as she did.
Share your top five books with us if you were to start a book club – and why:
- Summerwater, by Sarah Moss – the book I’ve read most recently. It’s set within a group of holiday cabins around a Scottish Loch during a day of relentless rain. A beautifully written tale, about unhappy, trapped people – one of my favourite subjects
- Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys – so percipient, so deft in how it moves between points of view. A classic, worth unpicking
- A Month In Siena, by Hisham Matar – which is about love, loss and the comfort looking at paintings can bring
- Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler – an old favourite about a woman walking out of her life (which is sometimes quite tempting as a concept)
- Io e Te, by Niccolò Ammaniti – I was brought up in Italy and love the claustrophobic feel of this story about a boy hiding from his parents in the basement of their apartment block
Share your must-see TV and movie list:
Call My Agent was my addiction during lockdown, along with The Queen’s Gambit. I like strong female characters and no violence. And I Ladri di Bicicletta (Bicycle Thieves), which is an Italian classic from 1948.
Describe your office space?
I move around with my laptop, in the winter I’m by the wood burner, in the spring and autumn it’s the conservatory, in the summer under the shade of an apple tree (wishful thinking because actually there’s usually too much light!). A comfy chair, good eyeline to the screen and a window with a pleasing view are all necessary.
What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning:
My husband brings a a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon, unless it’s my turn to make tea. Then I have a boiled egg and toast, and maybe later do some online exercise. If it’s not raining I’ll go out for a walk before finally getting to my desk.
And how do you love to spend your evenings?
In the bath! Or watching a film on Netflix.
If you were to throw a party at home, what are the key ingredients to make it go with a swing?
Probably leaving me off the guest list, as I don’t like parties. The only upside of the pandemic is that no-one is having them. I prefer seeing one or two friends over a coffee or a meal, with nice food, warm conversation and no showing off.
What gadget could you not live without in your home?
I like my Nespresso milk frother as it perfects a reliable cappuccino. Perhaps I should add my aluminium Bialetti – I’m an Italian girl at heart and a good cup of coffee is essential in the morning.
How’s your garden behaving at the moment?
The garden is my husband Andrew’s domain, I’m in awe of what he’s achieved. I particularly like the floppy oriental poppies and the wisteria over the door set into a brick wall at the edge of the garden. And I mustn’t forget Andrew’s giant cockerel (the punchline of many jokes). Like many men, he loves a bit of topiary.
Whose home would you like to be a fly on the wall in and why?
Most of all, I’d like to be a fly on the wall of my mother’s bedroom at her Italian care home, which Covid has prevented me from visiting. I missed her 100th birthday, which was heartbreaking.
Has lockdown made your reassess your work and home life balance?
As a writer I am often at home anyway. But it has curtailed my monthly trips to Italy to see my mother and ensure that her apartment in Florence is still in one piece. It’s precious and beautiful, with amazing views of the cathedral from the roof terrace, at the top of a very old building in the historic centre with no lift. There are 94 steps up to the front door! I expect that’s one of the reasons she has lived so long.
What makes a house a home?
My black and white cat Dave, who was rescued as a kitten from the streets of Hastings. He’s shy of most people, but he climbs into bed if one of us is watching TV and falls asleep, head on chest, drifting off to our heartbeat.