The Ellis family’s passion for wine and design have collided to create their dream home just a few miles from the East Sussex coast, writes REBECCA PITCAIRN.

A shared passion for Champagne and sustainable design led husband and wife, Ben and Sam Ellis, to build their dream home on the outskirts of the picturesque East Sussex village of Ditchling.

The couple moved from London, where they had met working as town planners for a city consultancy, to Lewes when their three children, Georgia, Ollie and Eva, were small. With a wealth of property planning experience between them, they soon felt it was time to start looking for the ideal spot to build their perfect home.

But for the Ellis’, that vision wasn’t just one of an idyllic residence in the country in which to raise their children, it was also one that would allow them to realise another dream – making their own sparkling wine.

It all started in 2010, after the family found themselves stranded in Asia due to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull.

“We were stuck in Thailand, unable to get home for six weeks, so Sam had the idea to cash in our flight tickets and travel the other way on the map and we ended up in Perth,” explains Ben. “We found ourselves sitting in this idyllic vineyard in the Swan Valley and I had the idea that ‘we could do this – make wine – at home in England’.”

Sam adds: “I was drinking sparkling wine, because I love fizz, and it was the first time that it really dawned on me that you can get sparkling wine outside the Champagne region – the French don’t have the monopoly.

“When we came back to Lewes, it clicked that in fact we lived in what is the epicentre of English sparkling wine region and so we started exploring the local wines and were so impressed with the quality, we decided to give it a go ourselves.”

Fortunately for them, an old farm on a 13-acre plot in the middle of The South Downs National Park in Ditchling – just a few miles from the couple’s home in Lewes and not far from Brighton’s bustling coast – became available. The land had the exact soil types required for growing the three traditional Champagne grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and in 2015, Sam and Ben bought the site and set about building their dream.

They worked with Lap Chan of Brighton-based Morgan Carn Architects to ensure their vision for the site was something that would sit well with the South Downs’ Design Review Panel, which oversees every element of planning within the national park. But while the pair have years of construction experience between them, transforming what was a collection of shabby barns and associated agricultural land, into their dream was still a daunting project to embark on.

“The barns and buildings that were here before were a real mismatch of uses, a really eclectic mix, and they were all completely run down and hadn’t been looked after at all,” explains Sam.

Despite the enormity of the project and strict planning legislation, the project was approved quickly ­via delegate powers without having to go to committee, and the house took just 18 months to complete with the family moving in by Christmas 2016.

“I think we were favourable because we weren’t seen as someone just coming in and building a big house, we were sensitive to the surroundings and showed that we wanted to come and be part of the community,” explains Ben.

The new house had to follow the footprint of the previous buildings, which sat at right angles to each other, but it was also important to pay homage to the agricultural heritage of the site, which straddles the South Downs Way path.

“We wanted a contemporary design but the idea was to build a home that would resemble an organic collection of agricultural barns to make sure it was in keeping with the South Downs, hence we used traditional materials as much as possible,” continues Sam.

Alongside local Sussex flint, larch from Scotland and black-painted cedar, zinc was used to clad a tower in the centre of property, designed to look like a grain silo. Glass is also a central part of the design with a huge panel of glass – the biggest and heaviest the architect had ever put into a design – positioned at one end to mimic a barn end elevation.

“While we wanted glass to be a key part of the design, we had to be really careful of any light reflection onto the South Downs and ensure we abided by dark skies policies,” says Ben.

To that effect, on the opposite side of the house, smaller picture windows have been carefully used to frame views of the vineyard and Ditchling Beacon beyond.

“We get the most beautiful sunsets but also the sea mist from the coast,” adds Ben. “You can sit and see it rolling over the Downs towards us and, if you’re outside, you can literally taste the salt in the air.”

The outside areas have also been designed to make the most of these vistas. A formal courtyard-style garden provides a special spot to watch the sun setting and is complemented by a wild garden, orchard, vegetable garden and bocce (like boules) pitch, as well as what at first glance looks like a walled garden but in fact harbours a swimming pool.

“We put a wall around it because another element they don’t like from a planning point of view is urbanisation of the countryside so this helps keep the pool hidden away and also acts as a bit of a wind break,” explains Ben, adding that the three large wooden doors had been designed to pivot on an axis and allow light inside when the sun drops in the evenings.

Adjacent to the pool are a series of practical rooms – a gym with shower, plant room storing the ground-source heat pump and a boot room, with pantry off, which is supposed to be where the three dogs – Coco, Biscuit and Bean – sleep, although they rarely use it, Sam admits.

This leads to the main section of the house and the heart of the home, which retains a barn-style feel with a double-height ceiling and open plan living space incorporating the kitchen, dining, living area and, through a crittall-style doorway, the orangery, complete with custom-made bar, which the couple say is everyone’s favourite part of the house.

At opposite sides of the main living space, there are two spiral staircases leading to the upstairs accommodation, which is joined by a galleried landing walkway. One of the staircases, which sits in the in the central tower and is hidden away by pocket doors, is modern and minimalist while the other is open and iron framed.

In one of the linear ‘wings’ of the house, is Sam and Ben’s bedroom suite, which overlooks the vineyard and Ditchling Beacon beyond, while the other side sits the girls’ bedrooms, guest room, a movie room and snug with Sam’s study on the mezzanine above.

“Even though it’s a big house, because of the open plan layout and the glass, you can actually always sort of see what other people are doing all the time,” says Sam. “We designed it foreseeing what it might be like when the girls are older and wanting their own space, so we effectively have one side of the house and don’t need to use the other.”

Although Sam worked with a lighting consultant to ensure that aspect of the design was seamless, all the interior design was her work, using Pinterest as her muse.

“I did all the internal layouts and gave them to the architect on my little square pieces of paper,” she explains. “I have a big folder of all the cuttings from interiors and property magazines I’ve been collecting for years so that was also inspiration. It was a lot of fun.”

As well as the views a constant reminder of the sense of place within a vineyard, there are nods to the wine business throughout the home – a large riddling rack sits against the wall of the kitchen and an offcut from a piece of wood they used to create their wine tasting room last summer, can been repurposed into a shelf in the guest room.

It is these little touches, as well the details such as adding triple basins to the bathroom shared by their daughters, ceiling roses from their old house in London and nautical flags outside each of the girls’ rooms representing their birth dates, that make this home feel much more than a Grand Designs-style home.

In 2020, Chalk House was awarded a Sussex Heritage Design Award and Sam now sits on the judging panel. But it’s not just the couple’s home that has earned them accolades. Since the release of their first vintage of sparkling wines under the Everflyht brand in 2022, they have been awarded five silver medals across competitions, such as the International Wine Challenge, the Wine GB Awards and the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. For Sam and Ben, it really is a dream come true: “We are just so super lucky that we found this site.”