Adapted from words by Jo Arnell, Wealden Times December 2014
'The wooden shutters at the windows are closed, to soften the edges of the pared back interior, and weave an enchantment over us, to suck us back through time into a fascinating alter-history....'
‘Come with me, and mind your head as we duck down through the tiny front door (think of it as a portal into another realm), to enter the ‘Christmas’ house and discover a magical story about some elves and a baker. Wait a minute, wasn’t it elves and a shoemaker? Hmm, something’s going on here, I sense a re-telling of a well-known story, a small tweak, some slight of hand – but more of that later on. Let’s just enjoy the moment of stepping out of the gloom of a winter’s day and into, well, the atmospheric gloom of this wonderfully ancient house.
The wooden shutters at the windows are closed, perhaps to keep glimpses of bright and modern from the street outside, to soften the edges of the pared back, essential interior, but also to weave an enchantment over us, to suck us back through time into a fascinating alter-history. It is an alter-history, because Alastair Hendy, owner of the Christmas house in Hastings (and of nearby A G Hendy & Co Home Store) has peeled back centuries of updating and home ‘improvement’ within this house and painstakingly re-instated what might have been, but not necessarily what actually was.’
Hints of the house’s seaside location are found outside at the back, where there’s a small courtyard containing a fisherman’s net shed, or, rather, a cleverly crafted domestic version of one that doubles up as a workshop and outdoor bathroom, complete with alfresco shower. Growing in an old water tank and looming over the courtyard like a huge bird is the most enormous Gunnera plant that makes a cool and contemporary statement. Back inside the fires have been lit in the inglenooks and candles are flaming, casting warm flickering light and rich shadows through the rooms.
The decorations throughout the house are subtle and understated, and also have a European feel. There are branches of blue fir, simple gingerbread hearts hung with red ribbon and pine nut studded ‘trees’ propped on shelves. These biscuit decorations tie into Alastair’s fairytale theme, where the elves have baked wondrous cakes and pastries in the night while the baker sleeps. It’s an appealing touch, this spin on the classic elves and shoemaker tale and, after all, baked goods are more tasty and festive than shoes (most of the time) and so appropriate for a ‘Christmas’ house.
“Somehow that’s how I see it, as a Christmas house, with the fires and the candlelight”, says Alastair, “I tend to stay here much more often in the winter.” An instinctive storyteller, Alastair is also trained in theatre and costume design, and at times, authentic though all the additions are, and meticulously executed, you do get the feeling that you’ve walked onto the set of an elaborate production. Opening the house to the public, especially throughout December, seems like a natural extension of what’s been created here.
Alastair has re-interpreted his house with a rustic minimalism, using reclaimed materials and ancient techniques. The bones are Tudor and the furnishings are from many different countries and periods, but they all share the same raw simplicity and all have been chosen with a discerning contemporary eye, so that everything comes together to make a very effective whole. It is a remarkable achievement. A house is so often just the backdrop to the stories we tell, the setting for our human dramas, but this house has taken centre stage and become the story itself. So if you’re looking for an ages-old, unique, and slightly spooky treat, where elves and bakers creep festively about, do visit Alastair Hendy’s Christmas house.