The Victorian workshop space in Bethnal Green, with low ceilings and a concrete floor, is now a fresh, two-storey house with a little outside yard and a front-to-back living room.
Walker, 28, who last summer married Tom, an insurance broker, went to Oundle School, then Oxford University, earning extra money as a cook and doing “bonkers” jobs up and down the country along the way. She is now the food editor at Reader’s Digest, developing recipes for the magazine.
She and Tom rented, until one day they reached breaking point. “We loved cooking and entertaining, but we only had a tiny, windowless kitchen,” Walker explains. “I was catering an executive breakfast, and had 200 muffins stacked all over the place. We were on the fourth floor, and Tom was racing up and down the stairs putting warm muffins in a cab.”
My home: Rachel Walker
My home: Rachel Walker
1/5 What it cost
Maisonette in 2014: £515,000
Value now: £775,000
Images: Charles Hosea
2/5 Heart of the home
After putting up with a small, windowless kitchen in rented accommodation, when the couple bought their own place they wanted a big space to cook for friends, with the open-plan kitchen absolutely at the heart of their home. They hired architect and friend Hannah Fothergill, who understood their priorities.
3/5 A real Aga saga
Walker's family had an Aga when she was growing up, and in her own home she has had one of the new electric models installed. She not only dries her washing on it, but uses it to cook her breakfast porridge overnight and has become an Aga ambassador, giving demonstrations.
4/5 Industrial-chic styling
The couple and their builders, Propia, embraced the industrial look. Exposed brick was in surprisingly good condition, so it was retained, while new metal conduits were surface-mounted for the electrics. With its workshop bones still intact, the finished maisonette looks great.
5/5 Money-saving solution
Discovering that refectory tables can cost thousands of pounds, Walker asked a local roof rack welding firm to make one for her, with matching benches. They used a steel frame topped with scaffolding planks for a contemporary, pared-back feel - for just £500.
It was time to go house hunting. Walker was determined to stay in the area, so they walked around until they discovered a grid of old workshops in E2, some of which had been converted to residential. They tried to buy one and were gazumped three times, then tried another, just two doors down, to the same effect. At the end of their tether, they made one final offer and it was accepted. They heard that the deal had gone through when they were on their honeymoon.
From then on, things moved fast. The two-storey workshop had a grim basement, with dark-painted exposed brick walls and layers of lino and rotting underlay on the floor. On the ground floor, a huge shower room, almost in the centre of the flat, stopped light flowing through and made the rest of the space feel small. Squashed behind the bathroom was a little kitchen, leading out to the tiny yard through big glazed doors.
They hired a young architect and friend, Hannah Fothergill, who understood their wish for a big space to cook for friends, with the open-plan kitchen absolutely at the heart of things, and just a small loo practically tucked into a cupboard.
Walker wanted an Aga, too. “I was brought up in an old house in rural Leicestershire with an ancient one, the sort you can’t switch off,” she says. So she has had one of the new electric ones installed. She not only dries her washing on it, but cooks overnight, including her breakfast porridge. She has now become an Aga ambassador and does demonstrations on it.
Finding the builders was another stroke of luck — when the architect put the job out to tender, Walker was dismayed by how hefty the quotes were, so she tweeted for recommendations for a good builder and a small company replied, recommending themselves. “They came round that night and we hired them,” she says.
Her hunch paid off. The young team at Propia, headed by Charlie Hurlbatt and James Wells, helped her to save money. Because the home had once been a workshop, it had surface-mounted electrics. Instead of sinking them into the exposed brick walls and plastering over them, which would have been expensive, they embraced the industrial look and had new metal conduits mounted, leaving the brickwork — which is in surprisingly good condition — bare.
Propia was instructed to construct the open-plan kitchen around the Aga, using it as a central theme, to create a cosy and homely space.
The builders fitted an Ikea kitchen and found a cheap solid timber worktop. They also made a wall of lug-pull drawers in the downstairs bedroom and created storage in a sliding wardrobe, which features LED lights inside that come on as the door opens.
The work started at the end of December and took just eight weeks to complete. In March, the couple moved in.
For entertaining, Walker wanted a long refectory table, but was horrified to learn that they cost thousands. “So I went to the guys under the railway arches who weld roof racks and said, ‘If you can weld roof racks, surely you can weld me a table?’”
The result — a steel frame with a top of scaffolding planks, and two matching benches — is a triumph, and cost just £500. “Asking people — and being nice to them — can get you a really long way,” says Walker.
With its industrial bones still intact, the finished maisonette looks great. And the couple love being part of an artisan community. “I know it’s ridiculous, but I’m still pinching myself,” she says.
WHAT IT COST
Maisonette in 2014: £515,000
Valued now at: £775,000
GET THE LOOK
Rachel Walker is an Aga ambassador. To book a demonstration, go via her blog at thefoodieat.org or email her at email@example.com. Agas are available at agaliving.com.
- Architect: Hannah Fothergill at studiofothergill.com
- Builders: Propia at propia.co.uk
- White oak floor on ground floor: Lionvest at lionvest.co.uk
- Dining table and benches: Wilco Roof Racks, Railway Arches, Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green E2 (020 7729 6619)
- Solid beech worktop: Benchmarx, at benchmarxkitchens.co.uk
- Lights above breakfast bar: Horsfall & Wright at horsfallandwright.co.uk
- Bar stools: Tolix-style bar stool from vintageindustrialretro.com
- Kitchen: ikea.com
- Old-style radiator: Mr Central Heating at mrcentralheating.co.uk
- Lug-pull drawer handles in bedroom: etsy.com