Oak Tree Barn stands in the Somerset countryside on the edge of Burrington, a village not far from Bristol. Vanessa Dennett grew up there and following international travels returned to convert the barn from an outbuilding.
Prompted by her curiosity about people and craft, she set up her own business, The Simpson Sisters, and runs hosted workshops there. In the latest instalment of Objects of Desire, my series featuring the things used and loved by creatives, Vanessa explains what she enjoys most about the barn:
I can’t host an event without other women! I’m equally happy to welcome men, but it’s fair to say that to date it has been almost universally women who have spent a day at Oak Tree Barn. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many friendly, kind, inspiring and interesting women who have come along to a real variety of events. Social media has meant that I have been able to maintain a connection with quite a lot, and have even met up with some socially which has been wonderful.
My essential kitchen gadget is the kettle! It was a Christmas present from family many years ago and has been around the world with us. I haven’t always had an appropriate hob to use it on, so being able to light the flame on the gas burner here still feels like a treat.
It’s so much quieter than an electric kettle, reassuringly heavy and has been instrumental in many, many cups of tea over the years. From the warmer-uppers after an afternoon in the garden to the sit down with a cuppa and a box of tissues type.
The interior of Oak Tree Barn is inspired by the many places we have lived over the years. I had a vague notion of the way I’d like it to look while we were renovating, and decided that the styles that influenced me added up to something like ‘Rustic Skandustrial Chic’, if such a thing exists!
Much of the furniture has been part of my life for many years. The pew underneath the window was in our kitchen as a child, and spent quite some time living outside before we renovated it and brought it in again. The trunk on which the TV sits was my father’s from his days in the army during National Service. The sofa came back with us from South Africa, my desk from Belgium, the sheepskins from Sweden, and some bedroom chairs from my first holiday with my now-husband in Portugal some 26 years ago.
The staircase is probably the most striking part of the interior design-wise, and I have to credit my husband with the idea of a spiral staircase which saved us a lot of floor space. It was built by a slightly taciturn local ironmonger who was entirely bemused by my excited enthusiasm at seeing it take shape as it was constructed on site.
Interestingly, it’s almost always the atmosphere that people talk about at the end of a day, although many people walk into Oak Tree Barn on arriving and comment on what a lovely spot it is. It is somehow a very calm and peaceful space. I think its position beneath the oak tree has something to do with it, myself, though the view across the Wrington Vale is one that is easy to stand and soak in too.
I’ve had many nice comments about the food I serve too, which is always rewarding, and I love the opportunity to experiment with new recipes. I sometimes regret it when I panic that it might not be as delicious or look as beautiful as I hoped, but I haven’t had an unmitigated disaster yet!
My favourite spot in the barn pretty much depends upon the time of day and where the sun is shining in. Early morning means the sunshine is on the kitchen table. Afternoons mean the sofa can be a rather heavenly spot, and as the sun sets the view from the kitchen sink is hard to beat. The other spot you’ll find me most happy is the bath, there’s just nothing like a good soak after a day in the garden.
But, very excitingly we have just had a shepherd hut delivered, and I suspect that much as I love the barn itself that this will become a favourite place for me to hang out. I plan to offer occasional personal retreats later in the year, just as soon as we’ve made absolutely sure for ourselves that it’s truly comfortable and welcoming!
I have a slightly irrational love of the little outbuilding that we call the donkey barn. It’s the place we store chicken feed and garden stuff, but I have Pinterest-inspired dreams of its greater potential as a traditional potting shed in the future. I happily imagine shelves stacked with a variety of beautiful terracotta pots, rustic antique seed trays, spools of string hanging neatly and every tool in its place…one day!
My advice for welcoming people to your home is:
From a practical perspective ensuring that I know any dietary requirements ahead of time is really important, as is letting people know how to find us and how to contact me. Oh, and loo paper – nobody wants to run out of that!
I do love interiors and care about how things look, but I absolutely don’t worry about every last detail being perfect to the extent of letting myself get into a flap about it. It’s much more important that I’m on hand to welcome visitors with a smile and a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of homemade cake.
I always reassure myself that almost everybody is kind and good at heart, and that anyone who arrives looking otherwise has probably had a difficult start to the day so simply needs a little extra tlc.
Most importantly though, relax and be yourself for the calmness and warmth you exude will dictate the atmosphere of the day.
For more information about events at Oak Tree Barn, or if you would like Vanessa to host one of your workshops, have a look at her site The Simpson Sisters. She shares her beautiful photos of the barn on her Instagram account @simpsonsisters using the hashtag #oaktreebarn.