A renovated 17th-century home in Suffolk
Antiques dealers Cathy and Peter Bullen saved their 17th-century Suffolk home from neglect, filling it with bright colours and an eclectic collection of art and fine furniture. Photographs Andreas von Einsiedel
Suffolk towns and villages have a uniquely picturesque quality, and Bildeston, where Cathy and Peter Bullen have lived for nearly 30 years, is no exception. Their house is on the high street and dates from the 17th century, ‘but at some time in the early 1800s it was given a classic Georgian façade,’ Cathy explains.
Peter was in the army when the couple got married and, over the next four years, they moved seven times from base to base. ‘I absolutely hated not having a home I could call my own, so we began the search for a house that was affordable on an army captain’s modest pay, and large enough for our growing family,’ says Cathy. At the time they had two children with a third on the way.
When the Bullens first viewed the house, it hadn’t been lived in for eight years. It had formerly been the home of the artist Elinor Bellingham-Smith, who had transformed the stable block into her makeshift studio. Elinor grew up in London, attended the Slade School of Fine Art and illustrated the latest fashions for Harper’s Bazaar. After her marriage ended, she moved to Suffolk where she painted landscapes and still lifes, and Cathy and Peter have several of her original fashion drawings, which now hang in a bedroom.
Nothing had been done to the property for years when the couple moved in, but that meant all the old fittings and fixtures were still in situ. The useful range of outbuildings and a spacious walled garden were added attractions, but six skip-loads of rubbish had to be cleared before they could think about living there. ‘Conditions were primitive, but I was just thrilled to have my own home, one that I could decorate and furnish as I wanted,’ says Cathy.
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The Bullens made few structural changes to the house, partly because of its Grade II-listing, but mainly because it suited them as it was. ‘We did eventually move the kitchen back to its original location where the very useful larder and pantry still were,’ says Cathy. A local carpenter made the kitchen units to which they added old French brass handles. ‘Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to inherit family furniture and paintings, but we’ve pepped up the wall colours and reupholstered the furniture in contemporary fabrics to update the look.’
Cathy has made quite a few of the cushions in the house, along with headboards, using fabric remnants and trimmings that she’s acquired over the years. ‘I like the way an ornate braid applied along the pelmet and down the leading edge of curtains adds a flourish to plain fabric,’ she says. ‘And now that the children no longer live at home, I’ve had fun refurbishing their rooms for guests, together with a nursery for when the grandchildren stay.’
Cathy, who had trained as a classical ballet dancer, initially combined bringing up her family with teaching and working on productions for DanceEast, based in Ipswich. ‘Then Peter was offered the chance of participating in an Anglo-French officer exchange, which entailed being posted to Provence. So we rented out our house, swapping it for a similar property in a pretty Provençal village.’
To practise her French, and to give herself something to do, Cathy began exploring the local brocantes and vide-greniers. ‘It became addictive and, by the time we returned to the UK four years later, our collection of French antiques was so extensive the house and the barn were overflowing.’ So they stuck a price ticket on everything, invited their friends to bring their friends and, by the end of the weekend, they’d sold it all and a new business, The Boule-in, was born.
That was 11 years ago, and the couple continue their antiques-buying trips to France whenever time permits. ‘We only buy what we like, and fortunately our customers share our appreciation of fine craftsmanship and good design. We hold four events each year and, while we buy everything in France, we’re not purists, so if some gorgeous Murano glass or a length of Belgian linen catches our eye, we buy it.’
Once it’s all back in the UK, Cathy and Peter decide how they’re going to show it – the focus of the spring and summer fêtes is outside dining, garden furniture, planters and statuary. Then they concentrate on lighting, objets d’art and French furniture for their autumn event, while in December the focus is on all things festive, with items that would make lovely presents – ‘gifts we’d like to find at the foot of our own Christmas tree,’ says Cathy.
Each fête also includes items from Faro Home, rugs from The Rug & Carpet Studio based in Long Melford, and beautiful china by Dorset-based ceramicist Miranda Berrow. ‘It takes around a month to create what is really quite a theatrical event, attracting clients from London and all over East Anglia,’ says Cathy. ‘The hardest bit is parting with pieces I’ve fallen in love with, but there is always the next trip to France to look forward to.’
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