BUILT for the chief agents of Lord Londonderry, Londonderry Dene House is tucked away on East Durham’s heritage coastline. Sarah Millington meets the woman who calls it home

JULIE ANNE PARSONS knew the first time she saw Londonderry Dene House that she wanted to live there. Her cat had gone missing and Julie, who lived near the house in Seaham, had gone in search of her. She stumbled across the elegant sandstone property – built to the highest specifications for Lord Londonderry’s chief agents – by chance. It was love at first sight. “I had this real visceral connection with the house,” says Julie Anne. “I just remember standing there and thinking, Wow, I want this house. It was talking to me even then.”

But circumstances were against her. For one, the house – under council ownership – had been converted to a community college, complete with creche facilities and children’s toilets. Also – and no less prohibitive – were the fact that Julie Anne was only in her 20s and, having recently separated from her husband, set to embark on a new life and career in London.

She left as planned and things went well, with Julie Anne eventually rising to the rank of MD of a branding company. Then, just as she was getting fed up of the rat race, she met her partner, Terry Green, a former CEO of Tesco clothing and Debenhams, renowned for launching the Designers at Debenhams range. They both decided to take early retirement, moving to Bittescombe Manor in West Somerset. But the house never really suited Julie Anne and when she discovered Londonderry Dene House was on the market, she suggested they have a look.

“Terry just said, right, we’re going to buy it, and two weeks later it was ours,” says Julie Anne. “He goes with his heart and he’s a real aesthetic person.” The couple moved in – along with their menagerie of rescue pets – but as the house had stood empty for five years and was in a state of serious neglect, they had their work cut out.

“It had a tree on the roof and there was so much ivy, we had to take torches,” recalls Julie Anne. “We came in and it was black. All the coal dust from when this was a coal community was impregnated in the sandstone.”

Undaunted – and determined to restore the house to its former glory – Terry, now a London trader, and Julie Anne, who works at Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary, embarked on massive renovations. They did everything, from knocking down walls to create a more open living space to landscaping the untamed gardens. Now Londonderry Dene House bears testimony to the couple’s vision and determination.

Spread over three floors is a series of painstakingly designed rooms, each with its own individual character. The bedrooms have a French boudoir feel, with furniture sourced from Village Chic and French Finds and luxurious cushions and accessories – including a lamp with a bird perched on its base – from House of Hackney. There are ensuite bathrooms with freestanding baths and plantation shutters providing views across a dene. One bedroom on what’s known as the VIP floor even has its own sitting room.

Downstairs, the decor is bolder, with gilt and velvet creating a dramatic effect in a baroque-looking area and a bar painted black with mirrors to counteract the gloom. Part of the inspiration was gentlemen’s clubs. “Terry is a member of George Club in London and a few others,” Julie Anne explains. “He likes the feeling of a private members’ club. The ground floor is supposed to reflect what the house is about.”

Once a miners’ convalescent home, Londonderry Dene House was built in 1857 but has two later wings – one added in the 1950s and the other, the 1920s. Terry and Julie Anne live in the latter, where a gallery creates a light, bright space, complete with a freestanding copper bath and an ensuite. On the bottom floor is a room dedicated to artworks by Terry and Julie Anne and, in the 1950s wing, Julie Anne, who has an MA in fine art, has her own studio. “I paint now,” she explains. “I’ve got a dozen pieces in Seaham Hall and three have sold. I want to be a successful painter. My intention is to start on a body of work and find a gallery.”

All the decisions about the house have been joint – even down to the soft furnishings – with the couple aiming to make their own stamp while respecting its heritage. The changes have been both subtle, like the installation of fleur-de-lys patterned glass, and more dramatic, such as the knocking through of several rooms to create Julie Anne’s art studio. When the couple found a supplier they liked, they bought in bulk – which Julie Anne says saved a lot of hassle. “This would have driven us crazy otherwise,” she admits. “We probably used about ten companies.”

Not all of these were local but, wherever possible, the couple did use North-East traders, including Olde Worlde Fireplaces in Newcastle and Sunderland-based Keiths Quality Coving, which Julie Anne says worked wonders with the dilapidated ceilings.

It might have been hard work, but the project has undoubtedly been a labour of love. “We’ve invested a lot, financially and emotionally,” Julie Anne admits. “Terry even designed and planted the gardens. I love it here. You know when a home works for you and this feels so friendly. Seaham is very friendly. The people around here love us because we’ve brought this house back to life.”

It is therefore with heavy hearts that the couple have now decided to move on. With Terry’s four children and six grandchildren mainly living in London, they plan to relocate to the capital, where Terry already has a flat, to be near them. It might be a wrench for Julie Anne, but she remains positive about leaving. “I would stay here forever, but because I’ve got a fisherman’s cottage in Whitburn, I’m comfortable,” she says. “This is a phenomenal house. I love every aspect of it and we’ve put everything into it. I think I just have to trust that the people who move in next will fall in love with it.”

  • Londonderry Dene House is on the market with Bradley Hall, guide price £1,750,000. W: bradleyhall.co.uk