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Our forever home on the Kent coast

Remodelling an old house by the sea gave this family the chance to shape their future – and meet the community

Our forever home on the Kent coast
‘We really struggled to find a place we could call home’: Mel Payne, pictured in the open-plan kitchen. Photograph: Jo Bridges/The Observer

Marine Parade is a dead-straight road that faces the cliff-top lawns of Tankerton Slopes just outside Whitstable on the north coast of Kent. The grassy slopes, popular with cyclists, dog walkers and joggers, lead down to a row of wooden beach huts and a quiet, shingle beach divided by wooden groynes. At low tide, a natural causeway known as the Street appears, making it possible to walk along the shingle spit with the estuary’s waters on either side. Six miles out to sea, the turbines of the Kentish Flats wind farm are just about visible. This is the view from Mel Payne’s first floor.

“We were looking for something that was a bit life-changing,” she explains. “We’d lived on an island for quite a long time. Autism and twins will do that to a family, I think. You can be accidentally isolated, and this house takes us off that island.” Mel lives with her husband, Steve, a project manager for the NHS, their 11-year-old son Gus, who is autistic, and their seven-year-old twins, Tess and Elsa.

“Previously, we really struggled to find a place that we could call home with everybody getting what they wanted and needed,” she says. “Now, we can have friends coming round all the time and anyone who wants to not be around can hide and do their own thing, or be part of the action. This house does it all. The seafront is the icing on the cake, really.”

Sea change: the dining room with Ercol table and Carl Hansen Wishbone chairs. Photograph: Jo Bridges/The Observer

The family moved to Whitstable in 2015 before noticing the detached house for sale. Built in the 1970s, it was being sold by the family of the couple who had built it. “That family are still local,” says Mel. “They’d obviously lived here so happily. What we wanted to do was keep some of that love in the house.”

They bought the house in 2016 and enlisted the help of their friends, Sonya Flynn and Mark Baker, founders of the local architecture firm Meme. “We sat in their garden and talked about what the house could become. They listened to us so carefully. They knew us and how we wanted to live and the first design they had is pretty much what we’re sitting in now.” A year later, work began.

The house has been completely remodelled with extensions to the front and rear. The exterior is clad in dark render with black timber fins at ground-floor level, and expansive glazing and balconies on the first floor that maximise the views of the sea and sky. The architects have kept the original pitch of the roof, opening up the loft space and inserting two glass triangles into the roof gable. Dark and “stealth-like” on the outside, the interior is full of light and blocks of bold colour.

Open spaces: partition walls, slats and sliding doors create separate areas in which to ‘hide’. Photograph: Jo Bridges/The Observer

Mel, a former deputy headteacher, made all the colour choices, starting with the pink, green and gold kitchen by Rochlin Bespoke. Dark greys and navy blues are counterpointed with rooms in yellow, mint green and peach (“Straight out of my 80s bedroom”). Bespoke, brass-trimmed cabinetry features throughout the house, while furniture is a combination of high-street and high-end: rattan Ikea rockers for the kids, Fritz Hansen easy chairs for the grown-ups.

Where possible, the couple have spent much of their budget locally. The architects, joiners and the kitchen company are all from the area. Even the main contractor was a dad from the twins’ school. “We felt that was really important,” explains Mel. “You don’t expect it, but it did mean we got such personal touches.”

Room with a view: a bedroom looks out on Tankerton Heights. Photograph: Jo Bridges/The Observer

The floorplan is cleverly divided into generous day spaces (there is a 6m opening from the kitchen-dining area to the rear, south-facing garden) and cosier, more reclusive areas: there’s a playroom on the ground floor, a family snug off the kitchen where the kids can lie on the floor and watch telly. Upstairs, there’s a library and workspace for the children. The house has also been future-proofed for family life, Mel explains.

The downstairs guest room and family snug will eventually become Gus’s bedroom and front room, should he decide to live with them as an adult. If he wants more independence, there is a studio space at the end of the garden, which they could convert.

The design-and-build process took two years from start to finish. Six weeks after completion, Mel was still finding spurious reasons to call the builders back in. “I got really upset when the work finished, because the buzz had gone and the people had gone.” In the end, she held a party to thank everyone for their input on the project. “I got real energy from it,” she remembers. “Nothing was a bind and I never felt stressed: I just loved every part of the process. And now we get to live in it!”

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