Celia Rufey's Christmas cottage
Downsizing throws up a raft of issues when a spacious house has allowed collecting to blossom and many items hold special memories. Feature Mary-Ellen Gill. Photographs Jody Stewart.
Moving house will always be a moment when decision making is unavoidable. Even more so if the move is from a large house to a much smaller one. When Celia Rufey downsized from a five-bedroom Victorian house in Devon, where she had lived for 30 years, to a small cottage in London, there was a need to be ruthless.
At the heart of the problem was her years of visiting the local market with its vintage and house-clearance stands. ‘This was in the 1980s and 90s,’ she explains, ‘and every week I’d come back with an item, sometimes two. My daughters used to say: “You’ve been buying again, Mum,” and I’d say, “It only cost £1!”’
The imminent move in 2013 presented the difficulty of deciding what to let go. ‘Before the move, I had a big sale at home. It hurt, but I came to London with the pieces that are useful, special in their design or in the memories they hold.’
The easy part was already knowing her future home very well as Celia part-owned the cottage with her elder daughter and son-in-law. By 2013, it was a tight fit for them and their two children and, when they found somewhere larger nearby, she knew it was the moment to come back to London.
As a co-owner of the cottage, Celia knew everything that was wrong with it. Although not listed, permission had to be gained to knock down a rickety lean-to behind the kitchen and re-build an enlarged kitchen on the same footprint. Troublesome drains were renewed, a redundant chimney breast was taken down in the kitchen and bedroom above and the bathroom was refitted as a shower room.
Celia’s interpretation of cottage style responds to the essential simplicity of buildings like this and she has kept and loves the old boarded floors, and painted interior walls and woodwork in traditional unbleached white. Covering windows was a more emotional decision for someone with a passion for textiles and a large collection of vintage pieces under her bed. She felt the rooms were too small for curtains so asked her joiner to design folding shutters for the four cottage windows based on the design of the single authentic door upstairs.
The sitting room
Space for furniture in the cottage is limited but Celia was determined to bring the large Victorian overmantel mirror from her old sitting room.
‘It was a perfect fit for the Devon house and I remember the day a woman I often bought small items from rang the doorbell and said she had something I’d like in her van. When she told me it was an overmantel mirror I said I wouldn’t be able to afford it and she said I was the only person she knew with a room big enough to take it. There was a bit of damage so it was affordable. More of a question was whether we could get it into the cottage but, by taking out the sitting room window, we slid it in. I love over-scaled pieces in small rooms and the light it reflects is a bonus.’
Apart from the mirror, all that could come from the Devon house was an Edwardian sofa, two old wing chairs, the bed, three vintage chests of drawers, various side tables and two large trestle tables made by her Devon joiners from flush doors edged with wood. One is now in the study and the other, beautifully weathered by several years in the garden, is the dining table.
If the small tally of furniture indicates cottage simplicity, Celia is first to concede that is not the case with the collectables that furnish the kitchen-living room. ‘I don’t like wall cupboards in kitchens so only have base cupboards and drawers,’ she explains.
‘Having utensils visible and within reach when cooking makes sense and, for me, graters, measuring jugs, colanders and pans have a simple propriety that’s comforting. Every day I enjoy looking at the china and glass on the shelves, remembering where I found a piece or who in the family owned it.’
The Christmas decorations
This row of cottages was built when the surrounding area was wooded, and windows have a sideways view across gardens with a magnificent range of trees. ‘The outlook keeps me in tune with the seasons,’ Celia says, ‘and, as the leaves begin to fall, I’m already thinking about Christmas and starting to sew presents from the hoard of vintage fabrics. Our family decorating tradition is to pick berried ivy, sprays of bay and red rosehips from the garden to add festive detail to pictures. The zinc jug in the kitchen demands a scaled-up arrangement of greenery and I tie bunches of ivy on the handrails up the stairs. The grandchildren love to help decorate the tree with white, silver and clear glass decorations.’