Creating joy in every room: designing an eclectic Devon B&B

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

5 min read

How do you turn a beloved family home into a boutique hotel, but still have it feel the same? That’s the challenge Olive and Hugo faced when they took over the running of Hugo’s parents’ B&B, Glebe House, near Colyton in Devon. We spoke to Olive about the planning, painting and wardrobe-related confusion that went into updating the look without losing the heart of a place she knew so well.

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What did Glebe look like when you came to own it? 

It’s always been really special, a lovely place. Hugo grew up here. His parents had it for about 40 years before we moved. They ran it as a B&B and it was really homely, but that was exactly it, it was like a family home that hadn’t obviously been set up in the same way that we’ve done it, with the restaurant and so on. You know, as more… I guess more of a boutique hotel. 

Where did you start with the design? 

We didn’t! We started with the basics. It needed a lot of work. None of the plumbing or electrics would have been able to support what we were doing. It was one of those places where you had to race to get the first shower.  

So once that was all in place? 

They hadn’t really done anything to it since they moved in all those years ago but it’s always had a distinctive soul. The soul of a family home. We wanted to retain that and respect it. They always had really nice art, antiques and furniture and things. So for example, the Greek tiles behind the aga, they’ve always been there. There were armchairs and pieces of furniture that were always there, but we’ve had them reupholstered. There’s little nods to the history of it in quite a few different places. 

But the rest is quite eclectic… 

Yeah, that’s the result of having so many different ideas and being excited about giving every room its own character. We didn’t want to have that kind of homogenous feel, “here’s Room 1, here’s Room 2”. Glebe has always had that eclectic character to it. 

So it was all done by feel? 

It was quite an organic process, but we did have a plan. We knew we wanted to have a lot of colour and pattern. Then it was a process of going, “how do we take all of these ideas and organise them in a way that has flow, and gives you surprise and delight without it feeling over the top. I worked with one of my friends who is an interior designer and runs Studio Alexandria, because I was confident with colours and patterns but actually, for such a big project, I needed help putting those schemes together and making it flow.  

You thought about the whole thing before you started? 

Everything was planned and visuals done up. So we could really picture it. What we really wanted to be conscious of is how the experience of being at Glebe is such a holistic one – with the countryside and our passion for growing flowers and vegetables. We were sort of inspired by the outside really, the garden, the views, so it felt very instinctive from that perspective.  

What was your inspiration? 

We were quite inspired by Charleston House, not so much any particular style or colour, but the spirit of the place. We work with local artists and have a gallery on site and we sell some of it. And people come here for that, we attract the sort of guest who like art and people quite often take it home.  

And each room has a theme, a character? 

In a way. We would say, “we love this wallpaper. Let’s use it in the smallest room to give that one loads of character.” Then we had what we called the morning room. And we thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to have a yellow ceiling, because you see the sun come up in the morning through that window.” There’s something really nice about that kind of harmony.  

Was it hard to restrain yourself? 

I feel like it’s a massive puzzle. When you introduce something that’s quite bold, you then have to look at everything else and take something away. And this almost has to happen before you’ve gone into the space, which is quite hard sometimes. Then the moment all the rooms are ready to be plastered and wallpapered and everything, you try and get the furniture in just to see if it definitely does fit there.  

Do you find the things for the space or the space for the things? 

A bit of both. We get so attached to objects we find and there are plenty of places round here to go looking for them. Having lived in London for so long, we were used to just, you know, going to a shop and trying on a pair of jeans, but we don’t have that out here so going to antique shops is our retail therapy if you like. And the beauty of doing six or seven rooms is that you might buy a wardrobe for one room, then realise you can’t get it up the stairs.  

Sounds like a true story… 

It is! We bought a lovely wardrobe. Really beautiful, hand painted like a piece of folk art. We had it in mind for one of the bedrooms, but we had six people and we still couldn’t get it up the stairs! Thankfully it fit in the annex and suited that space really well. We couldn’t bear to get rid of it. We got away with that one, but when we’re doing smaller spaces I spend a lot of time with cardboard, making furniture shapes to see if things really fit. 

Do you have a favourite room?  

I think the sitting room is my favourite spot. When it was Hugo’s family home and we used to come down on weekends we’d sit around the fire and play games in that room. It’s always been where the fun happens. And the way we’ve designed it now, with things like James Daw tapestry from Slowdown Studio, it reflects that. It’s very joyful. It’s really spacious and it’s just a really comfortable place for people to come together. 

So you still get to enjoy the space yourself? 

On a day-to-day basis, not so much, but I still feel so happy when I walk into it. The house has always been a refuge for us from our busy lives and I like being able to provide that for other people. We did close for Christmas though and we had all of Hugo’s family down, 19 of us. It was amazing. Chaos, but amazing.    

Finally, the big question… when the family saw what you’d done with the place, did they approve? 

We were really nervous about what Hugo’s parents and his brothers would think once we’d renovated. But actually, it was the ultimate approval when they came and said, that even with everything  we’d done, it still feels homely. It still feels as welcoming. It still feels like Glebe. 

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.
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