“A large and dismal house” is how the ‘Great Expectations’ protagonist Pip describes Satis House. This atmosphere was undoubtedly down to the terrifying and sadistic owner, Miss Haversham, who had not taken well to being left at the altar. I do sympathise. Thankfully, Restoration House, the building that Dickens took inspiration from, is anything but. One Friday a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to visit. A short train ride from London, Rochester makes the perfect day trip. As an avid follower of the Restoration House Instagram, I thought I had a fair idea of what I was in for. Seemingly I do not learn however, as I had the same experience when visiting Kettles Yard, Charleston and the Soane Museum; one step in, and I was bamboozled by an adoration that far exceeded my (great) expectations. You may think me hyperbolic, but it will happen to you. Any lover of interiors will be struck when walking into the Restoration House. Seeing the attention to detail, the craftsmanship and the extraordinary items collected is a treat to behold. This, coupled with the passion and kindness of the volunteers who manage each room, will leave one feeling that all is right with the world. It is a rare feeling, but it does seem to come upon me when cocooned in the excitement of a terrific house.
Enough with my glowing sentiments about this great structure. Let's get down to the brass tacks of the place. The house is formed of two separate Tudor and medieval houses. These were linked by the Great Hall and high chamber in the early 17th century when Sir Francis Clerke, a Royalist lawyer, added the red-brick facade and plenty of windows as a statement of wealth. In 1660 Charles Stuart, the deposed King's son who had been exiled to France, returned to England to reclaim the throne. On the night of 28th May, he stayed at Restoration House. The following day, 29th May, his 30th birthday, he triumphantly entered London to restore the monarchy as the King of England. It is this royal sleepover that gave the House its name and Francis Clerke his 'Sir'.
Speeding up, not quite to the present day, but to the 20th Century, Rod Hull, the entertainer known for his attachment to a puppet Emu, bought the House for £270,000, thereby saving it from being demolished to make way for a car park. He adored the House, throwing Miss Havisham-themed banquets in the Great Chamber and having ‘Magwitch's nightclub’ in the attic. He spent thousands on restoring the House, but after the unfortunate cancelling of an up-and-coming TV series and a hefty bill from HMRC, the bank repossessed it and cleared the House of everything they could carry. The only remaining piece from the Hull tenure was a brass chandelier, which must have been just out of reach as it still hangs there today.
In 1993, the House was back on the market. Jonathan Wilmot and Robert Tucker were looking for a Georgian house preferably in London and preferably something they could restore. As fortune would have it, they picked up a copy of Country Life and saw the Restoration House. The pair instantly recognised the beauty, but were also pragmatic about a property that they could see was “exceptionally run down”. In an article with Great British Life in 2010, Robert explains that '"This was certainly not something we undertook lightly. In the property's defence, however, it had several factors in its favour. The most important of these was that it was a relatively open book. Most of the problems were obvious, which in budget terms is important."
There will always be surprises, but the foresight and understanding of both Jonathan and Robert meant that the issues were much easier to navigate. Navigate it they did. They partnered with Richard Flegg, a builder who agreed with them on the best way to forge ahead. As Richard tells Great British Life: "Of vital importance is the mortar used; if we had used cement then in time that would have created more problems. These buildings need to breathe, and cement stops that, leading to issues such as damp and erosion. From the beginning we used lime mortar on the brickwork and lime plaster on the internal walls. By doing so we have ensured that not only has the House been restored sympathetically, it's also protected from new problems in the future."
Flegg was one of the many who helped bring this building back to life. Jonathan Hunt, who had just graduated with a degree in photography, undertook much of the stonemasonry. He enjoyed it so much, that he decided to retrain. After seeing a play at Sevenoaks, Jonathan and Robert asked the costume designer Clare Southern to help with repairs to the frieze and some of the fittings such as the blinds.
The House is a masterpiece to behold. This is not only visible in all the work documented above, but also in all the surrounding facets such as the garden, their eye-wateringly beautiful collection, and the bustling tearoom. It is not just worth a visit; it is imperative that you visit. If you can't make it before the House closes for the winter on the 29th September, put it on your list for next May.
Please check the website for opening times before planning your visit.