How to tile it?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
There are few people who can pick up their children from school on a boat – so the fact that Lee Thornley can “putt putt” from the bottom of his garden on the River Ouse to collect his daughters was a thrilling discovery when he moved to Poppleton, a village just outside York. It’s an activity the founder of handmade tile company Bert & May relishes, along with paddle-boarding, kayaking, wild swimming and Sunday jaunts to the local riverside pubs. Thornley moved to the property with his partner Phil, daughters Lyla, 13, Iris, 10, and dogs Molly and Tilly in 2022, and has since transformed what were originally two separate 1650s workers’ cottages into a serene, functional space. They’ve filled it with reclaimed materials, vintage furniture and the brand’s own tiles, which pepper both the interior and garden. “You’re winning when you come home and just want to hang out,” he says. “For me, being here is all about the lifestyle.”
Thornley, who first trained as a barrister, discovered a passion for reclamation in 2004 when he moved to the Andalucían city of Cádiz to learn Spanish and found himself renovating an apartment in the hilltop town of Vejer de la Frontera. A larger project, Casa La Siesta, a boutique hotel in the Cádiz countryside built almost entirely using salvage, followed in 2008. The experience inspired Thornley to establish a reclamation company, focusing on tiles. Struggling to meet demand, he began working with a local factory to cast encaustic designs. A decade later, he works with the same craftspeople to make the Bert & May range – he’s celebrating the 10th year in business by introducing pieces inspired by Casa La Siesta, while other new designs include bold stripes and marbled tiles. “We’ve also opened a showroom in Manhattan as we’ve been shipping to the US for many years,” he says.
The home’s welcoming ambience is palpable as soon as one steps into the entrance hall, where a vintage German stove sits – a bolt of green enamel in an otherwise neutral space. To one side is a comfortable living room, formerly the utility room and office, where the false ceiling has been stripped out to reveal the original beam work; a stained-glass window, once boxed in, now gleams in the sunlight. Bauwerk limewash paint was used to lend a suede-like softness to the walls and an ottoman made from a worn Danish gym mat sits in the centre of the room. “It’s massive, so we can all fit round and play games,” says Thornley. “It’s been in every house I’ve ever owned.”
The family spend most of their time in the open-plan kitchen-dining area – either at the table, constructed from reclaimed Spanish shutters battened together to create a generous surface, or around the marble-topped island, sourced from kitchen manufacturer deVOL. A well-patinated copper worktop bears the scuffs and marks of use – testament to a love of entertaining – and unsurprisingly, they’ve used their own tiles on the walls and floor. “The floor is our Raw Thick Bejmat terracotta tile. Although they’re neutral they’re handmade, which makes them wonderfully textural,” Thornley says. “The same goes for the Clear Glazed Bejmat tiles on the splashback, where chips and unevenness make them really interesting. We debated whether to use pattern but in the end we put our decorative salvaged tiles on the chimney breast, which actually feels more exciting.” Adjoining the space, the snug, clad in reclaimed timber, has a log burner and a wall of bespoke shelving that invites cocooning. “This is where we watch a movie and relax,” he says. “It’s a proper family room.”
The biggest transformation has taken place upstairs: what was once a three-bedroom, two-bathroom layout is now a four-bed, four-bath space. “Reconfiguring it was a huge challenge,” Thornley recalls. “It was like a warren and felt really average, so we ripped out the ceilings and walls to see what was behind.” They discovered beams, windows and architectural details including structural braces and hooks. “The landing now has a super-high ceiling. Plus everyone has their own bathroom, which the girls love.”
Both new and salvaged fittings are teamed with more tiles in the bathroom to create the same sense of warmth, and the principal bedroom, with its panoramic view across the Yorkshire countryside, is the couple’s sanctuary. “It was a living room but we wanted to wake up first thing and feel really good about life,” Thornley says. “Being there or in the kitchen is the next best thing to being outside.” Clad in reclaimed whitewashed timber, it feels cabin-like and cosy: vintage-inspired Deia tiles by Bert & May inject a dash of pattern.
Thornley’s favourite place to be is the newly designed garden that has a greenhouse, outdoor cooking facilities and a deck with a hot tub, leading to a natural swimming pool: “I’ve always wanted a pool, but we didn’t fancy a big blue rectangle filled with chemicals and plastic.” Instead, the water is cleaned naturally, by both the plants and a UV filter. “It feels as if you’re swimming towards the river, which is gorgeous as the sun sets. I’m so proud that we live in this alternative way – it’s pretty cool.”