The Isle of Sheppey isn’t renowned as a holiday destination but, in these challenging times, taking a break closer to home has certainly increased in popularity. Situated just off the north Kent coast and linked to the mainland by two bridges, the island is just over an hour by rail from St Pancras. This is hard to believe as you gaze across the marshes from the garden of Kingshill Farmhouse, tucked away at the end of a two-mile track that leads to the Elmley Nature Reserve.


Read our travel review of Kingshill Farmhouse here

‘The nature reserve borders the Swale, a channel of the Thames estuary, which separates Sheppey from the mainland,’ explains Georgina Fulton, who manages the property with her husband Gareth. It is internationally significant as a breeding ground for nesting birds such as lapwings, redshanks and avocets, and an important winter migratory destination for tens of thousands of wildfowl and wading birds.

The Fultons took over running the 3,300-acre reserve in 2013 after Gareth retired from the army. ‘After we were married in 2011, we began to think seriously about the future – ours and Elmley’s – and how we could combine the two,’ says Gareth.

At the time, the RSPB, which had leased Elmley from Georgina’s father Philip Merricks – a farmer and conservationist – for the previous 30 years, was about to vacate the neighbouring farmhouse. No maintenance had been done on the house, or the adjacent farm buildings, for decades and they were falling apart – some more than others.

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The couple moved into one of the farm cottages while they worked out how they could run Elmley in a way that would ensure it earned its keep and was able to continue as a national nature reserve. ‘Facilities were pretty basic,’ says Georgina. ‘We had mains water but electricity was dependant on the generator. After our daughter Ellie was born, I remember always having to think twice before I switched on the kettle – if the washing machine was on at the same time, the generator couldn’t cope and the whole system went into meltdown.’

Five years ago, the Fultons began drawing up plans to restore and extend the farmhouse, the centrepiece of the estate. The 17th-century house was incidentally named after King James II, who spent a night there before his thwarted attempt in 1688 to flee to France on board a ship moored on the river nearby. ‘We’d known the architect Tom Dunn for some years and as he’d already completed several off-grid projects, we felt comfortable that he had the experience to achieve our vision of transforming the warren of dark, little rooms into a warm, light-filled house.’

Francesca Rowan Plowden was in charge of the interior design. Georgina had seen a larger period house that Francesca had worked on and was impressed by the relaxed, non-formulaic look she’d created. At Kingshill, Francesca cleverly retained the period character of the building while adding a contemporary slant with pattern, paintings and colour. ‘We tramped around Ardingly antiques fair with her, choosing furniture and accessories, and helped narrow down the dizzying array of fabrics and wallpapers put before us, but she and her assistant did the hard graft,’ says Georgina.

‘It was fascinating seeing how all the elements were finally brought together and the house became a home once again. Furnishing the house with vintage furniture fits with the sustainable ethos that guides every decision we make, and weathered, time-worn antiques help to create the relaxed, informal look that we wanted.’

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At Francesca’s suggestion, areas of exposed brickwork were retained, emphasising the rustic character of the building. For the informal sitting room, Francesca’s idea to paint the walls a deep shade of blue created an intimate club-like setting, combined with leather and velvet sofas and a kilim.

The drawing room across the hall is a complete contrast – light and airy with palest grey walls, the newly installed French windows take advantage of views across the garden to the marshland beyond. Upstairs, the woodland-design wallpaper transformed the main bedroom along with the four-poster bed and a vintage bath tub placed in front of a window. ‘Having a quiet half-hour to lie back in the bath and gaze at the view is a rare luxury,’ admits Georgina.

In due course, the couple decided to make Elmley the first national nature reserve to offer overnight accommodation. Realising on cost grounds that connecting to the grid was never going to be an option, the Fultons emphasised the positive aspects of the simple life. ‘Ever since we were children, what my sisters and I loved most about Elmley was the overwhelming sense of space,’ says Georgina.


‘The only sounds are the wildlife and the wind.’ There are now six shepherds’ huts on the reserve, which are booked months ahead. ‘Some guests are knowledgeable bird-watchers, others don’t have a clue what they’re looking at, but what they all seem to love is watching the skies rather than the telly.’