Sarah Kowitz on what it's like to live at Fairlight Hall
PUBLISHED: 16:35 17 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 15 March 2018
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036 01825 841157
Nestled just over the brow of the hill from Hastings, Fairlight Hall is a charming family house that is at once expansive and homely. Alice Cooke spoke to Sarah Kowitz about what makes it such an amazing place to live
At Fairlight Hall classical meets contemporary and traditional meets modern. And it is there that I meet Sarah Kowitz to discuss the vast array of changes and improvements that have been made to the place since the family bought it in 2002.
Both the house and grounds have undergone significant environmental improvements. These include the extensive use of sheep’s wool roof insulation, geothermal heating, garden-wide rainwater collection systems, and full Soil association organic certification for the livestock, park and vegetable gardens.
Although very much a family home, the spirit of the ownership is such that opening it for the enjoyment of neighbours, local communities and visitors from further afield is a key consideration. “It’s too lovely a place to keep to ourselves,” says Sarah. “And besides, I really do enjoy having people here.”
She and her husband David met while studying – he was on a year’s placement here from Brown University in Rhode Island. Sarah laughs that there must have been a degree of trepidation from the local people: “When they found out that the new owners were going to be americans, goodness knows what they thought we might do with the place!”
But far from sending Fairlight to rack and ruin, it has by all accounts been transformed for the better, and quite apart from the environmental improvements there is the art.
The first thing that you see when you walk through the door is the art – it is also the second, third and fourth, because it really is everywhere. To describe it is to do it a disservice though, for when you think of classical masterpieces sitting alongside the most contemporary of pieces you no doubt balk – I only say that because I did at the thought, but in practice it couldn’t work more brilliantly. It is everything that art should be – progressive and interesting, but very aware of its history. “We just adore art,” says Sarah. “David picked up a lot of it while working in asia, but we visit galleries and take in new pieces and ideas all the time.” She goes on to say that they are delighted with their proximity to the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, which, as Sarah puts it, “is coming on in leaps and bounds – it’s just the most fantastic space.”
In recent years the house has become a focus for the increasingly prestigious Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, held annually in early March at the White Rock theatre Hastings. Fairlight Hall’s own purpose-built 80-seat recital room out in the garden hosts year-round piano masterclasses and recitals for competition winners.
The garden today is beautiful, and perfectly in keeping with the house, in the way that it has moved with the times but everything is planted with the past in mind – what has gone before, what was traditionally planted here. “When we looked around the place I thought it was terribly dour,” says Sarah. “It was all very gloomy and foreboding. the garden was a riot of rhododendrons at every turn. It was like something out of a Hammer horror movie – although funnily enough one of those was once filmed here.”
Back inside the house it was the designer John Wright who provided a guiding light. He had worked on many projects and homes with the family before. “We knew that we trusted him implicitly. and of course he didn’t let us down.”
“I don’t know what we were thinking really, buying this place,” laughs Sarah. “But do you know? I couldn’t be happier here now.”
Sarah used to holiday in Hove as a child with her grandparents, and her parents lived in Limpsfield, not far over the border into Surrey, so when London looked “a bit unaffordable”, they began to look around in Sussex.
“We adore this area, but I do think that it’s such an undiscovered gem,” she says. “Hastings has an undeserved reputation for being not all that great, but I challenge anyone at all to go there now and not be pleasantly surprised – the shops are amazing, charming and original, and the people couldn’t be kinder. And as you can see from here the area around it is beautifully unspoilt. It’s a very special corner of Sussex.”
The renovation work on the house began “simply because we couldn’t bear to live in the cold and the dark – that was the only thing that I’ll concede we weren’t at all traditionally British about. We wanted light and heat!”
Originally the family weren’t sure whether they’d stay, so the modernisations were all made with the idea that it might one day be sold as a hotel. “The repair of the stonework was the biggest expense,” says Sarah. “It was the largest scaffolding in the south east at the time – quite the accolade!”
As well as the exterior, low ceilings were taken out to restore the original high ones, most notably in the front entrance hall, and a wall was knocked out in the kitchen to make it nearly double the size.
The result is an exceptionally well-decorated family home that is simply awash with interesting things to look at – you really could spend days here lost in exploring.
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