Couple transform ex-council house into an 'Alice in Wonderland' home
- Credit: Sophie Harvey
A couple from Suffolk have transformed their former council house near Long Melford into a beloved family home, packed full of weird and wonderful treasures that they've picked up, secondhand.
For creative Sophie Harvey, home is not about living in the grandest house or the biggest home, but about what’s in it. “Having thousands of pounds in your bank account doesn’t determine the lifestyle you need,” she says. “It really is about the journey that you take together, as a family – whether that’s in a tent or an ex-council house or in a mansion.”
She says that she and her husband and two children are just a normal family doing everyday things. She and Harv have known eachother since they were 13 years old and are both teachers, but around 10 years ago, they decided to sell their Bury St Edmunds home and look for something different.
They wanted some escapism, she says – some boundary between work and home life, where they couldn’t bump into their students.
“We’d been looking and looking for about a year,” Sophie says. “Our house had sold in Bury, which was amazing, but we had driven past this particular house for about a year.” It was over their budget by around £70,000, she says, and had been on the market for a long time, but they still decided to view it.
“Stupidly we went to go and view the house in the dark - I don’t know why. The lady who owned it, the first thing she said to us was ‘our house is a home’ and I instantly got it.”
It needed work, she says, but it didn’t deter them. “We fell in love with the oddity of how it was laid out. Now, thinking about it, it was a nightmare!
“But we fell in love with the garden, we fell in love with the view, the location. We’re so lucky - our garden has this beautiful apple tree and it’s got a swing on it, and then just at the bottom of the garden, I’ve got my studio and then we’ve got a horse paddock where the horses come up every evening and we’ll come and say hello.
“It’s so quiet. It’s so quaint. We’re a stone’s throw away from Long Melford and Lavenham, we’re near Boxted, which is a tiny, beautiful little village and we’re close to Stansted Hall, which is huge.”
She says the couple were surprised when their “jammy” offer was accepted, but Caroline, the owner, had really wanted to sell it to them. Ten years on, Sophie says there is still work to do. “I don’t want to be one of these sorts of families that just wants it to be done because it needs to be done – I want to appreciate the journey. If and when we have the time and money, we can redo it.
“There are things in the house that are half done. I painted our hallway and then I went into labour and it’s not been redone.” Her son, she laughs, is now eight years old.
Other things they have completed, like installing a new barn porch and re-doing the windows. “For a council house, you can do so much to it. You can give it character. You can change the way it looks, the stigma about it, the taboo.” This includes their bespoke fireplace, made out of a huge oak tree which they salvaged and then split in half.
It’s a point of pride for Sophie that everything, inside, is secondhand. “It’s become a kind of crazy Alice in Wonderland house,” she says. “Everything in the home is sustainable and pre-loved. There is not one new element in our house, so from our sofas, they’re secondhand, to the table I’m sitting at – we rummaged an old pub because they were getting rid of it!”
They regularly trawl car boot sales, pick up things from online marketplaces and even find appliances like tumble dryers and washing machines, pre-loved, and it’s all sourced locally. “There are times where we go ‘oh, no we need a new one’ but we just can’t afford new,” Sophie admits, but the result is more personal. It’s not Pinterest-ready or inspired by the latest trends. “We’ve thought quite hard about how we can interject our own personalities within the home.”
Three years ago, inspired by her love of pre-loved items and her late nana, a “London lass”, Sophie set up her own online business, Stone & Sage, selling pre-loved and vintage homewares. She started the shop with just £50 but since then has grown it. She has launched her own magazine, called Preloved, given thousands to charity by buying secondhand and amassed almost 30,000 followers on Instagram – but she still does everything from home.
“People always say to me ‘you’ve founded such a great business’, but the reality is I’m still pushing my business at this very table. Still wrapping orders here, still coming up with my mind maps here, still communicating with people here. I go down to my rackety old studio and do all my photography. It’s all in one place and it’s the size of a square – but you don’t need a big premises, you don’t need money.”
Now Sophie supports others, too, offering styling and photography packages for other independent businesses, and she’s also working on an ecourse.
“There are so many people – there are so many women, particularly – that are working full-time jobs and running businesses because they want the niceties of life.
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“They want to be able to provide family holidays, they want to be able to support or decorate a new room in the house, they want to gain some independence and freedom and sometimes when you’re in a corporate job, you’re not given the reward that you so deserve,” she says.
Building her brand, even launching the magazine, has been a way for Sophie to improve her wellbeing while giving back to others. Last year, she stepped down from her management role. “Covid had absolutely done me in,” she says. “I was done. I just couldn’t manage anymore, I didn’t have the headspace. I needed to look after my wellbeing, I needed to be a happy mum and I wasn’t.”
She used the extra day she gained to launch Preloved, an editorial-led magazine which explores sustainability. “Pre-loved doesn’t just have to be in your home – it’s about your mentality, it’s about your methodologies and the way you approach life,” she says.
Stone & Sage – and the online community she has built alongside it - has allowed her to connect to people and to forge meaning, which is exactly what she had always wanted to do. “I didn’t want to just be a business. I wanted to be a business that meant something.”
Find out more at stoneandsage.co.uk or follow Stone and Sage on Instagram at @stoneandsageshop.