From the first time she visited her little home in Richmond, interiors shop owner Alyson Savage envisaged exactly where she would put her Christmas tree, she tells Sharon Griffiths
THE front door is tantalisingly open.
So are the two doors leading from the tiny hall – little more than a space at the bottom of the steep stairs.
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On one side is a sitting room with a cosy welcoming fire, panelled windows, an intriguing mix of furniture and pictures all lit by the soft flickering glow of candles, while over the mantelpiece is a Christmas garland The other door opens out into the kitchen, a light modern room with cool fittings, a high cupboard painted in that Farrow and Ball’s Pigeon, which is neither grey nor green, and filled with elegant Suzy Cooper Wedgewood china. A sofa in navy and orange is both stylish and welcoming.
It’s a perfect reflection of owner Alyson Savage as she comes rushing back from an errand.
Alyson, who owns Niche Interiors in Galgate, Barnard Castle, grew up in Richmond but was divorced and living in Darlington when she spotted the house for sale in Richmond.
“My Darlington flat was lovely, a really nice flat, but never seemed quite right. I was in Richmond, about to go off on holiday, when I saw this house for sale and I knew I had to look round it. When I walked in, I just knew exactly where I would put my Christmas tree in the corner of the sitting room. And that was it. I knew I wanted to live here and said so immediately,” says Alyson, who’s a grandmother with two grown-up daughters.
One look was just about all it took. A series of family illnesses and upheavals meant she couldn’t come back to look at the house properly, but made her even more determined to buy it.
It’s a small house, built in 1780, a cottage really, two rooms up and down, but the rooms are high and well proportioned.
“It was perfectly liveable in and I moved into it as it was. I knew I wanted to make it mine, but it’s important to live in a house before you make any changes. You have to see how a house is going to work for you,” says Alyson.
“For instance, there was a breakfast bar in the kitchen and I thought I’d get rid of that straight away. But then I realised that I liked standing there in the middle of the room, cooking, talking to people, not having my back to them when I was preparing a meal, so now I have the peninsula so I can cook and be sociable at the same time.”
The navy and orange sofa is typical Alyson, bought second-hand in a pretty parlous state and then reupholstered by B& J in Darlington.
“I love recycling furniture. We do quite a bit of vintage furniture in the shop, working with B&J,” she says. “It gives you the chance to have something that’s original and individual and suits your personality – and it’s much cheaper than buying new.”
The table in the kitchen was another smart buy – “£45 from Thomas Watson salerooms. It was very polished, but we stripped it back and then painted the legs navy. It extends to seat ten so that’s great when we’ve got all the family here.”
The kitchen’s big surprise doesn’t hit you until you’re right inside it and turn around. In contrast to that cool Farrow and Ball elegance, one wall is an absolute riot of colour and pattern, papered in a huge design of bright pink flowers tumbling over urns.
“I know. I saw it and thought ‘yes!’,” says Alyson. “You don’t always have to be safe. You can put colour and be dramatic and make it work.”
THE kitchen is a room for daytime, bright and airy. The sitting room doesn’t have as much natural light and the instinct was to make walls and paintwork light to brighten it up. Instead, Alyson chose a wall covering in green. “I can’t make it what it’s not.
It’s cosy, an evening room. On my 50th birthday we didn’t use electric light, but had candles everywhere throughout the house. You can get away with things like that in a cottage.
Things don’t have to be perfect.”
There were very few original features in the house when she bought it. “I thought there was an original beam, but it turned out to be a pretend one, so we took it out,” she says.
She restored the panelling around the sitting room window and very stylish it looks too, giving it depth and making it a real feature, “though it’s only MDF or something”.
Again, much of the furniture in the room has been recycled. The wooden frame of an elegant, but battered sofa was stripped back.
“We could have recovered it with satin and made it very grand, but it would have looked out of place, so we chose linen instead, more in keeping with the house and what I like. Then I chose a coarse stripe for the armchair for the same reason. No one really designs furniture for cottages so you have to adapt. Nothing in here matches – things don’t have to match – but it works.”
The walls are covered with family photos and pictures that mean something special to Alyson.
“Everything has to matter. This house is so small there’s no room for filling shelves with things that are just okay. You have to love things or lose them, so these are all things I really like, that are part of me,” she says.
“Too many designers try to inflict their taste on people. What’s the point? It’s your home and has to reflect you, not someone else. When people come into the shop, I try to discover what they like, what their tastes are and what they’re comfortable with, then help them choose something that reflects their personality, not mine.”
After many years running a garden centre – “which was very much about colour and design”
– Alyson worked for Fired Earth, but always had the dream of her own business. She finally opened Niche Living to great success in September last year. “Last year was all about the shop. This year I’ve concentrated a bit more on the house,” she says.
Everything is a mixture of old and new, antiques, hand-crafted pieces and arrangements of silk flowers. When Niche Living goes online, their first venture will be Niche Flowers, top-quality silk flower arrangements.
Having a shop full of beautiful things, it must be very tempting to bring them all home.
“One or two pieces, of course, like these small candlesticks, but apart from bed throws, not as much as you’d think. My son-in-law always asks ‘Has this been Niche’d?’, but I like consistency at home, not constant change.”
Upstairs are just two bedrooms, one the entire width of the house, both light and airy, a bathroom with a free-standing bath and, in one of the bedrooms, a shower built into what was once a cupboard, “otherwise my son-inlaw was going home to his mum’s for a shower.”
Alyson loves Christmas “I’m really the most Christmassy person you can imagine,” she says. Unveiling the transformed Christmas window in the shop is pure retail theatre, while at home, getting the house ready for the family Christmas is an annual treat.
“It’s always a mixture of old favourites and a new theme. In the past I’ve gone for lots of glitter and bling, and one year I used oranges and lemons. This year is a bit more traditional, mainly red and green with plenty of sparkle.”
And, of course, a proper Christmas tree, from Croft Trees, right in the corner of the sitting room, exactly where she envisaged it when she took that spur-of-the-moment decision to look at the little Richmond house.
Niche Living 42 Galgate, Barnard Castle. For more information, call 01833- 638911 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Christmas trees: Croft Trees, Grange Farm Cottages, Jolby Lane, Darlington DL2 2TF. Tel: 01325-720673
BJ Upholstery, 23 Clarks Yard, Darlington DL3 7QH. Tel: 01325- 483817; bjupholstery.co.uk