Through the keyhole in Westerham
PUBLISHED: 18:00 27 July 2014 | UPDATED: 18:00 27 July 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
The founder and artistic director of the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain, Jill Tookey, opens the doors to her beautiful home
With her background in dance, fashion, art and design, the founder and artistic director of the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain’s house was always going to be pretty special. I first encountered Jill Tookey’s Grade II listed cottage on the green in Westerham in 2010 when I interviewed her as a Kent Character for this magazine.
I remember my keen-eyed photographer later commenting: “If you ever do a ‘through the keyhole’ piece in Kent Life, Sarah, this one would be perfect.”
How right he was. Four years on, Manu Palomeque and I were back at Jill’s delightful house and learning about its fascinating history and the changes that had been made since our last visit.
In this century alone it has had three very different owners: an antiques dealer who created a grand, theatrical home when he took it over in 2000, then a designer who made the interior very modern and masculine.
Now it’s the turn of Jill, who moved in 10 years ago and has brought the cottage back to its homely, country living roots.
Jill Tookey, MBE, founded the National Youth Ballet in 1988, a company that involves talented young dancers from all over the UK in every aspect of creating and staging a ballet and encourages children from all walks of life to become involved (for news of NYB productions this month, turn to page 14).
“I came here after my husband’s death,” she explains. “We were in a big family house in Limpsfield Chart surrounded by woods and we had 4.5 acres. I didn’t want to stay there on my own, so I sold up.
“I didn’t know what I wanted but I did know what I didn’t want – a flat, because then you close the door on the world.
“I did consider part of a house and then by chance this popped through my letterbox and my eldest daughter
and I came to have a look.
“I was only just over the threshold when I thought ‘that’s it’, and it was such a surprise to discover it was so big.
“It ticked all my boxes, as it had the business of the green and all the shops and life to the front – plus my own parking, so rare here – and the privacy of the garden overlooked by the church to the rear.”
Jill gets on extremely well with her neighbours and loves the close-knit community in Westerham.
But, as she sagely puts it: “Because I’m so busy I’m not living in anyone’s pocket. And I love being busy, it keeps you young.”
She works three days a week in her office on a farm in Edenbridge and has a little study in the front of the house so she can work on her laptop from home.
The cottage has had many different roles – that study was formerly a sweetshop - and it was the home of prison warder when it connected to the former prison next door in a former life.
But its origins are actually medieval, as studies by English Heritage have revealed, who were thrilled to discover behind the boarded-up panelling in the sitting room motifs on the plaster of a mermaid brushing her hair, a sign that apparently indicates the cottage was a ‘House of Fun’ in Cromwellian times.
Jill swears she hasn’t heard any noises in the night or bumped into any ghosts, but today it’s definitely a fun house to be in.
Full of lovely things, it’s a wonderfully happy place for all generations of her family to visit their glamorous, creative and very hardworking mum and granny.
The sitting room
“In the winter the sitting room is particularly gorgeous when the gas fire is lit,” says Jill. “I put this lovely big fireplace in and I have the fire on remote control.”
While that fireplace is filled at the moment with a magnificent display of fresh flowers, it’s not hard to imagine its wintery charms too.
Nor to be absorbed into Jill’s world of ballet with a wonderful painting greeting you as you walk in depicting the ballet inspired by The Old Man of Lochnagar children’s book written by Prince Charles
“I wrote a letter asking Prince Charles if I could create a ballet inspired by his book and after two months I got a reply saying he was ‘touched and excited’ that wanted to do it and would I consider a composer he knew called Nigel Hess to write the score,” recalls Jill.
“Nigel had just won a BAFTA for his score for the Ladies in Lavender and he is a very well-known professional, so I had to find the money to sponsor him, but I did it and he created the most magnificent score.
“Prince Charles did the voiceover so before the curtain goes up you hear his voice reading the first paragraph of the book. The children were very excited, as was I – and my young granddaughter Gabriella made her debut there as a duck!”
Jill added the conservatory when she moved in to maximise the light and provide extra security at the back of the house.
“I am in here a lot, so I am very fond of it, you’ve always get the light, whatever time of year it is,” she tells me,
The elegant sculpture of a ballerina is a new acquisition, discovered in France. “I won a competition a long time ago in Good Housekeeping, it was something about being ‘a real woman who makes things happen’ and my youngest daughter nominated me,” says Jill. “I was up against some quite interesting women and didn’t think I stood a chance, but I won.
“The prize was money, with the stipulation that you had to have it for yourself and I didn’t spend it. I just thought ‘one day I am going to buy something I really love’ and, 20 years later, the ballerina was just that.”
There is also evidence on the walls and propped up on an easel of Jill’s re-ignited passion for painting. Always artistic, her father would have loved her to go to art college and indeed she did a course in design at St Martin’s School of Art before the world of ballet absorbed her.
Now Jill has just returned from a painting break in Majorca and can’t wait to return in September. “I’ve always dabbled and doodled and have always enjoyed doing the designs for my ballets, as for me ballet is about all the arts: the music, the drama, the costumes and the scenery.”
The kitchen was the last area Jill tackled and is currently her favourite. “It was very masculine before, very dominant with its black tops and I wanted to make it light. Now I just love it,” she says. The only thing she has retained is the tiled floor.
“When I first came there was nowhere to sit in the kitchen, there was an island unit in the middle, which looked very grand but you couldn’t sit there. I found that really crazy because I didn’t want to go and sit in the dining room to eat my meals, so this is a real family kitchen now, with a big table and rattan chairs that link in with the patio.”
The dresser was a one-off from her near-neighbour The Vintage Home Co. Ltd (“they know me well enough to carry things down here to see if they work in situ”), as is so much else in this house.
Jill tells me that she particularly loves the clean lines of the new kitchen units, as knobs and handles can quickly date: a top tip. Decorations are kept to the minimum, but do include – quite literally – three French hens, Jill’s own exuberant chicken paintings on wall-mounted tiles, and a strikingly handsome ceramic artichoke.
The guest bedroom
This room is used a lot by Jill’s family and her grandchildren when they come to stay. Boarded up in the sixties, the beautifully timbered roof space is now gloriously on view, as is an arched alcove with its original brickwork back on show that she has turned into somewhere where her little ones can curl up and read a book.
Proudly displayed on a pretty chest topped by a mirror with shuttered frames is a shoe found in the rafters that English Heritage has identified as medieval. Its purpose was to keep evil spirits away.
Jill adds: “The chest came from my own original bedroom suite and it looks lovely with the new shuttered mirror, which I added because when my daughter comes to stay she pointed out there was no mirror in the room. I’ve slept in all the bedrooms and chose the back one for me as it’s got the garden view, but this has the atmosphere.” n