Designer Cressida Bell: ‘My house had been invaded and I felt vulnerable’

When designer CRESSIDA BELL’s home of 40 years was left devastated by a flood, she found herself displaced and helpless.

Cressida at home today
Cressida at home today

The last thing designer Cressida Bell thought she would ever experience was a flood. ‘I thought it could never happen to me because I live on the top of a hill in the middle London,’ she says. And yet in the dead of a cold winter’s night on 6 December last year, suddenly all she held dear was at risk.

Cressida and her long-term partner Paul, along with a friend staying the night, had gone to bed late. ‘At some point in the early hours of the morning I heard a lot of noise – banging and crashing – and I thought it must have been somebody coming home late. We often get drunken lads coming down the road from the nearby high street to fight,’ she says. ‘But then I heard water and thought, my God, it’s raining hard. There was shouting outside so I opened the window. A policewoman was trying to alert us that a water main had burst and a massive flood was coming our way. She told us to get out as soon as we could,’ she says.

The emergency services alerted Cressida in the early hours of the morning
The emergency services alerted Cressida in the early hours of the morning

Much to Cressida’s surprise, her late 1700s-built house, tucked away on a side street off Islington’s Upper Street, was at risk. After she had gathered her iPad, a pair of shoes and a bottle of water – ‘even then, I didn’t do anything else because I didn’t think I was going to be flooded’ – a policeman helped them wade through the torrent of water outside. ‘It was knee-high, like walking through rapids,’ she says. They escaped into a nearby pub and were given tea while they dried off. Everyone watched as the water continued to gush nonstop, up to 12 feet deep.

One local, who had reported the burst main to Thames Water at around 4am, said he’d seen the water shoot up like a geyser, almost three storeys high, Cressida says. As every minute passed, the grim realisation sank in that if it didn’t stop soon, her home was going to be deluged.

The flooding was caused by a burst mains pipe on London's Upper Street
The flooding was caused by a burst mains pipe on London’s Upper Street

‘If your space is suddenly and unexpectedly misplaced, you feel quite desperate,’ says Cressida. Having lived there for four decades – it is one of only three places she’s lived in her whole life; ‘very few people I know can say that’ – the threat to her house felt like an attack on herself.

Cressida was born in Newcastle, then her family spent eight years in Leeds before moving to Sussex. Her father, art historian and author Quentin Bell, was the son of Clive and Vanessa Bell, both key members of the Bloomsbury Group (Vanessa was Virginia Woolf’s sister).

Cressida’s mother Anne Olivier Bell was the only female officer among the Monuments Men after the Second World War. ‘I’ve lived in this house since I was 18 and it’s become a huge part of my life and who I am.’ If she carries any Bloomsbury legacy with her, it’s most certainly in the way ‘everything in the house has been created by me,’ she says of the handpainted wallpaper, her designs adorning the rugs and lamp shades, furniture painted in her signature graphic prints, and the row of her brand’s scarves (Joanna Lumley is a fan) on the wall where you come down into the kitchen.

Gardens submerged in flood waters 

It’s a skill Cressida learned at an early age in the family home in Sussex, near Charleston, the iconic Bloomsbury Group house where her father had grown up. Cressida was given the freedom to paint her bedroom and everything in it. ‘No one bothered whether it was done the right way – it was important to do it how you wanted to do it.’

Four and a half hours after the mains pipe burst, the leak was fixed and the slow process of returning to her home began. You can imagine the impotent fury Cressida felt as the residents were subjected to roll calls and ‘treated like schoolkids, told what we weren’t allowed to do and where we couldn’t go. We were even instructed to put our hand up if we wanted to say something,’ she says. ‘It was disempowering and I was desperate to find out what damage had been done to my home.’

Cressida's stripped-out hallway
Cressida’s stripped-out kitchen and hallway
Cressida's stripped out kitchen
With hindsight, Cressida realises it hadn’t been necessary to leave so quickly. ‘One of my neighbours spent three hours stacking her furniture,’ she says.

Once they were out, however, they couldn’t go back in. ‘I felt I’d relinquished control of my life,’ she says. Worse still, as hers was the last house on the street to be affected, Cressida believes it ‘probably wouldn’t have been flooded at all’ had the water been stopped half an hour earlier.

Cressida in her redecorated kitchen
Cressida in her redecorated kitchen

By the time the water had drained away later that day and the residents were finally allowed back in, it was after 4pm. ‘I walked down the stairs and couldn’t see much – the power was still turned off. I tried to tidy a little. Of course, there was stuff all over the place, but I honestly don’t think I realised how bad it was. Perhaps it was shock and denial,’ she says. Thames Water had offered to put up residents in a nearby hotel for the night but ‘all I wanted to do was shut the door, light some candles, open a bottle of wine and burrow in,’ she says. It was damp, the carpets were soggy, ‘but at that time of night, there wasn’t much I could do. I simply wanted to be in my home, whatever state it was in.’

The next morning, the people from Flood Call, a water damage mitigation company, arrived. ‘There were no niceties, they just started to rip up the skirting boards and pull the house apart. I had to shout, “Stop!” It was frightening because suddenly my house became theirs, not mine.’

Damage to the walls is still there today
Damage to the walls is still there today

The water had reached waist-height in the basement kitchen and the whole room needed to be stripped back to the brickwork and the floors removed. The cupboards were full of water. ‘At first, I thought I’d roll up the rug and put all the things I could rescue into the bath to dry off but after a day or two I realised it was all going to go mouldy,’ she says.

Over the days that followed, keeping track of what had been lost, dealing with insurance brokers and finding tradesmen to repair the damage became like a second job. It was Cressida’s busiest time of year – fulfilling orders for her online shop and launching new collections for the Royal Academy of Arts and Museums & Galleries – but the flood had taken over her life.

After numerous wranglings with insurance brokers and Thames Water, the last straw came when they tried to condemn all her appliances. ‘Without those I couldn’t function,’ she says. She broke down and asked them to leave her alone until after Christmas. ‘It makes me cry even now,’ she says. ‘My home had been invaded and I felt vulnerable. My house is the one place I feel safe and it was like I was being completely taken over.’

One of Cressida's distinctive cushion-cover designs
Some of Cressida’s distinctive designs
One of Cressida's distinctive designs

Finally – at the end of May this year – she signed off the repairs. She had managed to stay in the house, installing a temporary kitchen in the first-floor sitting room so she could remain on-site while the builders were there. Friends laugh that her new kitchen is exactly the same as the old one. ‘Maybe I’m boring, but I love my kitchen. It’s the first place I go when I get home from work; it’s where we eat and entertain. I spend a lot of time there,’ she says. ‘When I first painted it [in turquoise, deep blue, cream and coral] – inspired by the colours of the Istanbul bazaar – my sister said that as it is a basement kitchen, the colours needed to be light. The truth is that it’s cosy in the winter and cool in the summer. It works,’ she says.

A few things are still amiss. ‘The boiler in the cellar still isn’t working properly and there’s a slightly odd science-fiction feeling to the house, like being in a twilight zone, because it’s my home and yet it’s not. The new shelves are slightly different sizes from the old ones so I lose things down the back of them; the insides of drawers don’t quite fit all my spoons and utensils. It’s like that Talking Heads song [‘Once in a Lifetime’], “This is not my beautiful house,”’ she laughs.

The thought of losing a lifetime of things – including her beloved collection of vinyl records – is still more than she can bear. Every treasure in her house has a story, and fortunately a great many were saved. ‘I know exactly who gave them to me or where I found them on my travels. Each one holds great meaning and importance for me.’

Cressida realises it could have all been destroyed in the flood. ‘I’m thankful for small mercies,’ she says. ‘No precious photos or paintings were lost; no one was hurt.’ Has the experience taught her not to care so much about her possessions? ‘No! Quite the opposite. I probably love them even more now than I did before.’

By Fiona Mccarthy