Alastair Hendy is chasing something—his childhood, his curiosity, his kaleidoscopic imagination. The difference between him and the rest of us is that he keeps catching up to it. After studying theater and costume design at Central Saint Martins, he took up cooking, landing on the BBC’s MasterChef, which in turn led him to food journalism and photography. He became a star contributor—cooking, styling and shooting entire stories—to some of the world’s most stylish and transportive magazines in their golden eras, like the seminal Australian Vogue Entertaining + Travel. More recently he and his partner, lawyer John Clinch, who share a loft in Shoreditch, bought and painstakingly restored a 16th-century Tudor home in the unassuming town of Hastings, on England’s southeast coast. Here he opened AG Hendy & Co, a nostalgic, Victorian-inflected hardware store selling everything from vintage pharmacy bottles to handmade feather dusters—a beachhead of exquisite yet humble taste that has contributed to an influx of creatives who are gradually revitalizing the town.
Every December, Hendy transforms their home into the “Christmas House,” decking it with mince pies, holly branches and crackling fires to receive visitors who can sip mulled wine or sit in a vintage wing chair and read stories aloud. Although the house was only open only a few days in December before Covid restrictions shut it down again, everything within is available to purchase online. He shared his thoughts with us on a cold winter’s night before the holiday.
You are a true polymath. What is the through line that connects all of your vocations?
Back in the day, when Neale Whittaker was editor at Vogue Living, he described me as “a human magazine.” He summed me up in three words. I didn’t have the store then, yet it’s all part of the same narrative, the same story. My store is the window on my world, and a place where others can come and shop my story, what I do. I guess I am a storyteller—that’s the thread.
Have you always been a collector? What are some of your proudest conquests?
Have I. Too much so. I can’t stop collecting. I’d be called a hoarder if I didn’t have a shop. I have collections of just about everything, from Victorian anatomy-school plaster composition models, Ladybird books, suitcases, shop scales, pharmacy bottles, old handwritten ledgers and bills and1920s butterfly-wing pictures, to Edwardian ironstone jugs and dairy bowls, Victorian copper jelly molds, 1940s Fulham Studio pottery vases, outsized breadboards, bone-handle flatware, sinks (yes, sinks) and antique brushes—gazillions of them! I have a plan to produce a book on brushes. It is the less esoteric I get the most reward from. Buying a bag of utility buttons or an old length of chain at a boot fair [yard sale] is always my go-to for the happiest of conquests. I like used things, and things that had use—and still have.
What draws you to these objects?
There’s a poetry in the everyday. The unashamed elegance of the domestic is always pleasing and has been my go-to all my life: from the scrubbed tables and creamware of the below-stairs in country houses—not forgetting their drab painted cupboards, shelved pantries, exposed pipework and batteries of scullery sinks—to the municipal paintwork and solid hallways of old schools, the boarded walls of work rooms, the window casements and cast-iron work of old factories, and the mathematical tiling and brickwork found in Victorian swimming pools, asylums and prisons. As a child I’d visit St. Francis asylum in Haywards Heath, UK, to talk to the patients, and took in the Victorian institutional vernacular. My boarding school was Victorian, with rows of sinks, baths and iron beds, and I spent much time in its large kitchen (cooking the staff supper, age of 10). I’m below-stairs born and bred. Give me an old tap and a massive sink and I’m in heaven.
Why did you choose Hastings as the location for your shop?
I live in Shoreditch, London, yet Hastings is my home of old. My grandparents lived nearby, and a lot of my childhood during the 1970s was spent here—watching the beach-launched fishing boats go out and come home. I now spend all my weekends in Hastings, so it seemed logical to have my shop where I spent my downtime. More to the point, I love Hastings Old Town; it and its denizens are quirky, charming and creative, and I wanted to add my bit and give something back to the town.
I also already owned a home in Hastings, the Tudor house (aka Christmas House), bought in 2006. A house that had been on my radar over the years. Yet when I viewed it, it was really just for a nose around, as I’d no intention of buying a beamy, nooky-wooky Tudor house. In truth, I’d always thought them a bit uncool, like the ye olde English pub variety, decked out with horse-brasses and all woodwork slapped with black paint. Yet it was the first and the last house I looked at in my search at the time. My London flat is large spaces, concrete and steel, and this was the opposite—intimate rooms, wood, lime-plaster. It spoke to me straight away as there were direct similarities: an honesty of materials, of structure—a parallel narrative. In truth, it looked nothing like it does now, yet its bones were sound. My filter saw through the avocado bathroom, the en-suite, the Velux roof lights, the fitted kitchen etc. etc. Yes, the Christmas House once had all those!
When did you start doing your Christmas House and what was the inspiration?
Inspiration came from childhood: traditional Alpine Christmases had while living in Germany as a child (my father was in the forces). Christmas had an Austro-Bavarian slant, with lebkuchen and chocolate marzipan decorations. Gingerbread hearts were hung in windows and on doors; spruce garlanded the streets; and serious icicles clung to snow-clad Alpine chalet eaves. A proper postcard Christmas—yet with a sprinkling of the Brothers Grimm.
The five-year restoration of the house from 2006 to 2011 drew much attention; people would wander in off the street wanting to have a nose around, fascinated. So I let them in, on various planned days through the year, to share in the steady transformation. There are very few Christmas experiences that don’t involve a ton of tinsel and a Santa; it’s rare to find something truly magical, and so The Christmas House was born.
Visitors are blown away it, the attention to detail, the smell, the mood, the otherworldliness. Yet in truth they think it an extraordinary thing to do, to put back what the years have taken away, to reinvent the dust of history—to create and use the house as those who would have done half a millennium ago. Yet we have electricity, hot running water, baths, central heating and even underfloor heating in the kitchen. The pleasure of the past occupying the present is the pleasure of illusion. The house is a living skeuomorph; it mimics the past and fools many into believing they’re stepping into “Tudor times”—when they are so not. There’s not even a stick of Tudor furniture. Because it doesn’t have any obvious modern trappings, it feels unworldly, unrelated to today’s living. Yet it’s totally in sync with everything we need and crave. Bar a telly! It gives the preternatural, the unworldly and the magic we have so little of as adults, and quietly crave. It’s a fairytale for grown-ups, and one that actually works and functions for real—as fashion photographer Tim Walker told me (after renting it). And he should know. Everyone loves a story, loves a dream. I certainly do—it’s all part of Hendy World (as one friend tagged it).
How do you decorate the house? Does it change every year?
Candlelight, log fires crackling, the air filled with spiced wine and wood-smoke, and darkness are the things you notice first as you step through the wee front door—and are all part of the subtle enchantment, the “decorating.” A copse of Christmas trees, plain and unadorned, fill the double-height kitchen, emerging through the rafters, as if they’ve sprung up there; spruce is stacked above the dressers, laid on tables and beams; salt-baked cinnamon biscuits—heart-shaped, large and oddly shaped, are hung with string. It’s pretty raw, simple and knowingly humble. That’s the beauty.
I like to make changes—some in the smallest details, such as to the collection of late 19th-century Bavarian wood carvings of village folk which has been growing on a green painted Romanian dresser, along with Bavarian edelweiss carved boxes and utensils. Old birds’ nests with shattered remains of egg shell now gather on a windowsill; the dried giant leaves of the garden’s Gunnera plant are stacked on the kitchen rafters; and two mummified frogs joined the zoological finds this year. Found things, discarded, find new beauty and meaning in the various nooks and ledges around the home. I like to think it’s like entering the pages of a Brother’s Grimm tale, both unimagined and unprecedented, setting a poetry for the Christmas to come.
Describe a couple of the experiences you create inside.
It is also the home of a Christmas story, “The Elves & The Baker,” and Christmas recipes, all beautifully illustrated by photography and words in my Christmas House storybook. Some of the baked goods feature around the house, and parents are encouraged to read the story to their children while they sit by one of the log fires, then to spot the food around the house—such as the snowball truffles sitting in a little twig nest, which is on a tray with a candle, casually left on the kicked-up eiderdown in a box-bed; and the pine nut trees—biscuits that stand in a small grove, tucked into the spruce that decorates one of the old Hungarian dressers. It’s as if the elves have just skipped out, a few crumbs left upon on the floor.
You’ve described the house as “Unleashing memories of childhood as a source of aesthetic experience.” Can you explain how this manifests here, and why it moves you?
After the completion of major structural repairs came the removing of the ugliness, the jarring additions, and putting in the things that reflected the house’s true character. A reinvention of its past; a reconfiguration of its history. The aesthetic took hold, and it became more autobiographical, drawing on memories of childhood, challenging the conventions of traditional Tudor restoration make-overs, looking beyond each room’s constraints and into its more conceptual and imaginative possibilities. The house awoke my snow-clad Alpine boyhood in Germany—its bones spoke the same language. I started to see and conceptualize it with Alastair’s age 10 eyes. Cathartic really, and almost accidental—possibly part of the healing process from losing my mum.
Can you please share 5 of your favorite items in the Christmas House this year?
PRIOR’s Editorial Director was previously the Features Director at Condé Nast Traveler and Director of Editorial Content for Chantecaille. She started her career as the Paris editor of the Fodor’s guide, and until she found her way back to her favorite subject, she was the Executive Editor of ELLE US and Editor in Chief of Whole Living, among other roles. She loves paper maps and a great big hotel bed.