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Through the keyhole - Our home from home...

PUBLISHED: 13:54 09 January 2014 | UPDATED: 13:54 09 January 2014

Ken and Ruth Hunt, who run Combe House, with interior designer Meriel Hill, right, in the sitting room at Combe Thatch House

Ken and Ruth Hunt, who run Combe House, with interior designer Meriel Hill, right, in the sitting room at Combe Thatch House


Hidden from view, this 600-year-old thatched cottage is a secret haven and KATE WILLIAMS discovers why its owners have decided to share their dream

Photography by Matt Austin

Our three favourites

Ruth’s favourite room: The sitting room with its soft colour blue, Ruth gets the wow factor every time she opens the door.

Ken’s favourite room: The blue bedroom at the top of the stairs — it gets the morning sun with a lovely outlook over the garden. “Where you can fall asleep to the sound of the running brook.”

Meriel’s design bests: Farrow & Ball paint for its clever shades and effects, and Sanderson fabric for up-to-the-minute designs.

It’s what dreams are made of. Picture-postcard thatch cottage, tucked up in the glorious Devon countryside, recently renovated but still billowing with charm and character.

Combe Thatch House was the former home of Ken and Ruth Hunt, who run the luxury Elizabethan manor hotel, Combe House, in the village of Gittisham, near Honiton.

Complete with cob walls and ceiling beams, the Grade II listed property sits within the grounds of Combe Estate, the family seat of Richard Marker, hidden from view in a secluded haven of its own.

“We were living in the attic rooms at Combe House for six years, and then the opportunity arose for us to take on this property and its annex, a two-bedroom cottage next door,” explains Ruth.

"‘We use local people for the work, who we trust and who we’ve worked with for the last 15 years’"

“We obviously agreed, and part of the agreement was for us to maintain the building. Well, it was in need of an update and some TLC.”

Ken and Ruth worked hard to get the cottage up to scratch, putting their boundless energy and enthusiasm into making the house a home.

The annex was turned into a luxury signature suite for two guests, who could have the privacy of their own cottage but still take full advantage of the wonderful dining and hospitality that Combe House is famous for. And they were happy in their Devon hideaway up until last year when they were offered another Combe Estate property. Also, a thatch, this house was a Devon longhouse, offering more potential with its garden, orchard and farm buildings.

“We decided to take up this wonderful opportunity, it was rethatched and is now our new home,” says Ruth.

"‘The devil is in the detail so we have concentrated on the little things which make all the difference’"

“We needed extra rooms for guests, for weddings and special occasions, so it just made sense to make Combe Thatch House into additional accommodation.”

Combe Thatch House is now a suite but with a multitude of rooms — four double/twin rooms, sleeping up to eight.

“When we started, at the beginning of May this year, to restore and refurbish Combe Thatch, we had to rewire it completely, and that took 5,000 metres of wire!”

With the hugely thick cob walls, the couple were all too aware they were going to find a lot of problems.

Ruth says: “Yes, we knew we would find problems and we weren’t disappointed! So it ran over budget and over time but we finally achieved our goal.”

The chocolate-box cottage is steeped in character from the outset with its welcoming exterior and heavy wooden studded front door to the cosy interior and its country style.

The chequered hall floor leads into the light and airy country kitchen, complete with painted timber units and that all-important dropped china sink.

The pale walls give a clean and crisp feel to the kitchen, giving the perfect backdrop to the beautiful wooden worktops. With a clever mix of country-cosy chic and luxury matching that of the hotel, the sitting room is a tranquil space to relax and chill out. The Farrow & Ball Pale Powder estate emulsion on the walls illuminates the room, but keeps the calm feeling throughout.

“We have worked hard to try to create that mix of comfort and luxury,” Ruth explains. “Ken and I have worked with our wonderful florist and interior designer, Meriel Hill, for the entire project.

“We know each other so well and Meriel understands perfectly what we wanted as the finished result. I think she has achieved miracles everywhere — she’s fantastic! A lot of thought has gone into the interiors and soft furnishings. We’ve kept each of the rooms relatively plain without too many things in them, so as not to overcrowd the house and also not to detract from the character of the property. But the devil is in the detail so we have concentrated on the little things which make all the difference.”

The same opulence is given over to each of the four bedrooms with great thought put into some slick ideas, including a wonderful walk-in dressing room which was once another set of stairs, now not needed.

“That was our idea,” explains Ruth. “Storage is so important, and the room doesn’t lose any space but it creates this lovely dressing room — which makes everyone smile.”

The bedrooms are all carefully decorated, each with fabulous headboards, linen and soft furnishings.

At the top of the stairs, an almost separate ‘suite’ has been made with its own door, hallway, kingsize bedroom and bathroom to cater for parents or grandparents, who may well be footing the bill for a family getaway.

“All the beds are either kingsize doubles or twins, and we have used luxury designer CP Hart for all the bathrooms,” explains Ruth. “We use local people for the work, who we trust and who we’ve worked with for the last 15 years. Ken has a local team on-hand who we use for all our maintenance and building.”

The wonderfully grand headboards on each of the beds are covered in Meriel’s choice of Sanderson fabrics and some of the cottage windows have had shutters made for style and extra warmth.

This graceful ambience is continued through into the attached annex, which sleeps two and can be booked separately or as part of Combe Thatch House.

“There is a beautiful view from the window on the upstairs landing looking out towards Gittisham village,” enthuses Ruth, showing her obvious love for the house. “You see the old weatherboard house, cobbled lane and the winding road alongside the brook …it’s from a bygone era.”

Recently awarded the Condé Nast Johansen UK Award for Excellence, the work which has gone into refurbishing this historic building has not gone unnoticed.

“The award was a wonderful surprise especially since this was once our much-loved family home,” says Ruth. “We knew it so well and were aware of all the little extra details that were needed to make it even more comfortable and special for our guests. This award just confirmed that we had ticked all the right boxes.” n

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