Years of care and patience have gone into Sophie Swift’s meticulous restoration of her beautiful watermill in Kent.
With creative family heritage on both sides and a passion for antiques, it’s little wonder that Sophie and Rob Swift’s 18th-century mill-house is brimming with character. Located in rural Kent, along a winding country road, the old mill – with its waterwheel still attached – has been a labour of love: the couple carried out the renovations themselves, to a soundtrack of the babble of water audible from every part of the house.
Not many people can claim they’ve been renovating their home since they were 10, but Rob can. His family bought the dilapidated building in the late Seventies. ‘Soon after, the timber part of the building fell down, so my dad and I rebuilt the whole house by hand,’ he explains. ‘Some of my earliest memories are of helping fit beams and lay bricks after school.’
By the time Rob and Sophie had met and married years later, the mill had become a burden to Rob’s parents, and so they decided to buy it from them. ‘It’s a wonderful place for our son Monty to grow up,’ he says. ‘I’m thrilled he’s spending his childhood in the same environment that I did. Renovating it has been – and continues to be – much work, but we truly love it here.’ Rob’s early involvement in carpentry definitely influenced his career choice. He is now a joiner specialising in oak structures and, along with his wife, has never stopped working on their home. ‘We’ve had to repoint all the brickwork, add walls, ceilings, staircases and install heating, electrics and plumbing,’ explains Sophie. ‘Luckily, Rob’s brother is a brilliant builder and he helped us complete the work,’
While they made the mill habitable, the family lived in a mobile home in the garden for four years. Crucially however, the couple had a clear idea of how they wanted the finished house to look – a vision that still defines their planning for the future. A mill has existed on the site since medieval times and the current one was built around 1780. It sprawls over three levels, with the ground floor comprising a large entrance hall and also a garage and workshop for Rob’s business. On the second storey, there’s currently a stylish country kitchen, but most of this space is yet to be renovated. The third floor is the main living space where the bathroom, bedrooms and living room are. ‘Eventually, this floor will only have bedrooms and bathrooms on it and we’ll use the middle floor for our kitchen, dining and living room,’ Sophie says.
The mill-house is decorated in a classic country style with carefully chosen vintage items. The family own a second home in France and often pick up antiques on their visits there. ‘I have a love affair with Gallic culture and design,’ she admits. ‘It has a certain sophistication that I try to emulate in my own home.’ Sophie achieves this effortlessly, without anything feeling themed or contrived: for example, in the entrance hall guests are welcomed by a wood burner and rustic antique bench that she has draped with French linen throws and cushions. Potted herbs, platters of lemons and scented candles also sit on a simple white table, waiting to greet visitors.
Another design influence is the time Sophie spent in Scandinavia as a child. ‘My memories of marble, and open-plan, pale interiors originate in Denmark,’ she says, ‘and I have attempted to bring that calm look into our home.’ This cosmopolitan combination of European influences meld seamlessly – lime-washed wooden walls provide a neutral background so the couple can show off their collections of crockery, linens and artworks, for instance. Dotted in among their family heirlooms is also evidence of Sophie’s own handiwork. A dedicated crafter, she has made many of the cushions, covers and curtains herself, and also sews her own lavender sachets, which she uses to spread fragrance throughout the home: ‘I use scent in every room,’ Sophie explains, ‘whether that’s in the form of fresh flowers, perfumed candles or my own creations.’
The family shares a plot of land with Rob’s parents, which has its perks. ‘Monty can pop over to play Scrabble with his grandparents whenever he wants, and of course it’s always handy having potential babysitters so close by,’ Sophie says. The picturesque land around the mill is also put to good use: as well as the al fresco eating area by the millpond and the wooden shepherd’s hut built by Rob – and used as guest accommodation – nestled under the trees, the couple utilise the outside space in other creative ways. ‘In the summer, we set up outdoor cinema screenings, lit with fairy lights and candles,’ she adds.
It’s clear that the Swifts enjoy all the bene ts of living in a house that affords them the opportunity to have a life focused on family, but their unique home remains an ongoing project: when asked, they can reel o a long list of jobs yet to be completed. ‘All of our spare time is absorbed in house projects. I don’t think we’ll ever really be finished,’ Sophie admits. ‘But it’s so worth it for the wonderful life we have here.’
Photography: Narratives/Kirsty Noble