Home movies: how a coaching inn became a family house – and tiny cinema

An 18th-century pub in Somerset has been converted into a quirky home – and one of the smallest cinemas in Britain

When David and Juliet Mclay opened the door to their new home, an 18th-century coaching inn in Axbridge, Somerset, in 1997, they got something of a shock. “There were half-empty pints on the bar and fag butts in the ashtrays,” says Juliet. “The pub had been neglected and was a complete wreck. It was daunting.”

Today, when you walk into the front door of what locals still fondly refer to as the Red Lion, a stand-up Chas and Dave-style piano greets you, in homage to the building’s roots, and there are flashes of colour everywhere. The curtains are electric orange and turquoise enamel lamps dangle above the brilliant blue baize of the pool table.

David and Juliet moved back to London from New York in the mid-90s with two young sons. Only able to afford “a pokey two-bed flat in south London,” they decided to make the most of their links to the Glastonbury Festival, where they work behind the scenes, and searched for a family home in the west instead. Now their kitchen, which was the bar, has a 1930s fishmonger’s marble sink (found in an Italian market) as the inspiration for the rest of the room. The units are Ikea, but the doors and counter tops are covered with Durat, the Finnish rubber made from recycled plastic usually used for flooring. “We steal from wherever is necessary,” says Juliet, whose passion for collecting includes vintage toys and miniatures, old wooden tennis rackets, glass bottles and music scores. “Ours is a kind of 60s look, we don’t like those perfect matching interiors. We love mixed-up, high-colour and drama.”

David and Juliet and their colourful Scala cinema.
Screen stars: David and Juliet and their Scala cinema. Photograph: Claire Worthy/The Observer

The first floor reveals the scale of the building as rooms peel off in all directions. A large bathroom pays tribute to Juliet’s grandmother’s love of hoarding, a habit that appears to run in the family. A framed box displays the original contents of her medicine cabinet, including her menstrual belt from the 1920s. An 18th-century nursing chair sits beside the bath and 1920s glass doors from a Glastonbury reclamation yard enclose a cupboard stuffed with ancient perfume bottles and doll’s house furniture.

In complete contrast, the library opposite is painted entirely in Farrow & Ball Light Gray, creating a serene effect. The units and shelving were designed and built by David, a sculptor and photographer who went to art school in California with David Lynch and marched with Martin Luther King in the 1960s. His design is based on the early American style of the 17th century and reflects memories of his grandmother’s colonial house in Boston. “Each room was developed differently, apart from the boys’ bedrooms,” says Juliet.

The couple transformed the building in stages, starting with the library, followed by a dark room, and then a cinema. Their decision to build the cinema was fated. Back in the 1970s, David had worked in the Castro district of San Francisco restoring art deco cinemas. When they moved into the old Red Lion they discovered a large room originally used for coaches and horses, with a sloping floor into the stable where the horses would be fed and watered. David often joked about turning it into a cinema. Then one day a neighbour drove past Bristol’s Colston Hall and noticed its original cinema seats in a skip. David and Juliet rescued them, providing them with the makings of a real cinema.

Pool table and stand-up piano in the kitchen/bar/rumpus room.
On cue: pool table and stand-up piano in the kitchen/bar/rumpus room. Photograph: Claire Worthy/The Observer

The Roxy is a not-for-profit cinema, run by volunteers and adored by locals. The venue includes an art deco box office, designed by former Aardman set designer Sarah Laborde and built by David, a 1950s cocktail bar and a lovers’ sofa at the back. Juliet reupholstered the old bar stools with vintage fabrics and covered the back wall in a 1950s Sanderson print wallpaper she found on eBay.

Up on the second floor, a guest bedroom is dominated by David’s childhood bed, an early American canopy four-poster. The walls are painted a rich inky blue, with an ornate Cole & Sons wallpaper on one wall. An old bow-fronted display cabinet is filled with more toys, including Juliet’s great uncle’s china dolls, her mother’s 1930s bucket and spade, and time-worn postcards.

David’s American four-poster bed with dark blue picture wallpaper
Pillow talk: David’s American four-poster bed. Photograph: Claire Worthy/The Observer

Down the hall, past the boys “relatively normal” bedrooms, another bedroom is home to a rainbow collection of Sylko cotton reels in their original cabinet. Juliet, who loves haberdashery, hunts the reels down in charity shops. Hatboxes sit neatly on top of one another like a supermarket display. “The depth of colour on print is unmatched by anything modern – there is a richness to the hue. I cannot explain my love of cardboard.”

Juliet adds: “A small budget makes for a more creative approach to design. Without money you have to use art and artifice. At the time it is frustrating, but I think the end result is often better. Then you gain confidence and realise you can do wonderful things.”


Hannah Newton

The GuardianTramp

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