Jane Pikett enjoys breakfast with Simon Young, co-owner of the quirky Northumberland homewares store RE, prior to the launch of its new concession at Liberty’s of London
Vicky Young is carefully creating perfect cubes of toast, inside which she will arrange chipolata sausages, roast cherry tomatoes, buttered button mushrooms, baked beans (Heinz) and extravagantly orange-yolked eggs provided by her favourite hen Christine, who is presently happily scratching the ground under the kitchen window.
It is a feast for the eyes and the stomach, and when Vicky sprinkles on a garnish of home-grown parsley it is apparent that it would be a shame to spoil it by eating it. Obviously, however, we do.
Vicky protests that she is not to be included in this article, which is actually about her husband Simon, co-owner of the restored, reclaimed and recycled homewares emporium RE in Corbridge, which has just been granted a permanent concession at Liberty of London following a hugely successful pop-up shop there last summer.
But while Simon has a passion for vintage kitchen and dining paraphernalia, he is not as accomplished a cook as his wife, and breakfast boxes are very definitely her preserve, so she can’t avoid being a part of this story, whatever she says about it.
The boxes are a speciality of the kitchen here in their old farm cottage in the Tyne Valley, where entertaining is more often done at breakfast or brunch because it is so much more relaxed than a full-on dinner party.
If dinner is served, however, the division of labour is established – Simon makes the table look amazing and Vicky does the food.
I can cook from a recipe, no problem,” he says, “but I can’t just absorb ideas and food combinations and go into the kitchen and create something wonderful. I need precise instructions.”
He does, however, have an intuition for making things look spectacular and his dinner tables are the stuff of lore among their friends.
For Simon is not just a collector of wonderful and often eccentric things, he is also, unsurprisingly for a former fashion designer, a natural-born stylist, as evidenced by the treasure trove that is the RE store and its immensely successful online shop.
For Simon, who describes himself as “able to fluff cushions for England, but no great business brain”, RE is a labour of love rooted in a lifelong passion for collecting.
RE sells anything that corresponds with Simon and his business partner Jenny Vaughan’s idea of what is beautiful – “…not precious or prescriptive, offering the unexpected in unusual combinations,” says Simon. “We love utility, both old and new, and sell cared-for second hand pieces like garden tools, lighting, textiles and furniture because they are functional and still work. We also have recycled and fair trade products and our own exclusive range designed in house under the REgd. brand.”
The love of old things began years ago, when he was a boy growing up in Preston. “I loved Art Deco as a teenager,” he says, “which I suppose was a bit peculiar in 1970s Preston, but my mum and dad were into antiques and I just got the bug. Mind, I don’t hoard stuff; I’ve always been able to sell it on to trade up. A Clarice Cliff tea set paid for our porch.”
The kitchen, which is painted a warmly welcoming shade of orange, is home to countless collected items, including a1962 Wurlitzer Lyric jukebox Simon found in a Blackburn junk shop when he was16.
I love things that have a story or a memory attached,” says Simon, “like these little hand-painted garden seed signs I bought from a woman in a market in Latvia. And this tin factory sick notes box. Every time I look at something I remember getting it and where it came from; it’s lovely.”
He has a sizeable collection of ‘disaster glasses’, engraved with the dates and names of pit disasters and other terrible episodes, which were sold in aid of families bereaved in tragedies. There are also old glasses with pub regulars’ names engraved, which were kept behind bars for their owners’ exclusive use.
Simon says if there were a fire, it’d probably be the glasses he’d save – “after Vicky”, he adds swiftly with a glance in her direction, but she’s absorbed by the intricacies of arranging the chipolatas and hasn’t noticed.
Their home is the product of many months hard graft when they moved north 20 years ago after several years working in the fashion industry in London. They spent many months restoring the house, uncovering, restoring and re-introducing classic features which had been ripped out or covered up by those 20th Century ideas of good taste, chipboard and Formica.
It was a labour of love which has created a gorgeous home full of the quirky accessories for which RE has become famous.
The kitchen table bears china plates fired with images of skulls, skeletons, scorpions and insects. The range was created a couple of years ago by RE’s co-owner Jenny Vaughan, who has the images fired onto vintage white china plates. She has now progressed into mugs, some fired with images of a skull and others with a poignant image of Christ in a crown of thorns juxtaposed with a vibrant red rose. They’re mildly macabre, but rather beautiful all the same.
Simon and Jenny have become renowned for creating trends with their restored and reclaimed goods. Vintage glass cake stands were relatively easy to find when RE first started stocking them. Within a year or so, they were a rare commodity (though RE still provides – for now).
I’m not sure gaudily painted plaster casts of the Madonna will ever become quite so popular, but there are high hopes for the skull-shaped glass tea light holders and the pearly king scatter cushions.
And while much of the stuff in RE is eccentric, lots of it simply harks back to a simpler life, and the re-used and restored textiles, quilts, vintage cutlery, kitchenware and garden tools reflect an irresistible heritage.
RE printer’s block letters were one of my sons’ most unusual, and loveliest, christening gifts; I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t appreciate the notebooks bound in old Ordnance Survey maps; and currently I am mostly craving a reclaimed chair upholstered with vintage needlepoint.
When I sent a friend who now lives in France RE’s British Isles-shaped biscuit cutters, she was so thrilled she now shops at RE online whenever she craves a bit of home. Meanwhile, I have a weakness for RE’s vintage French stuff. Funny how things turn out…
RE, Bishop’s Court (behind the petrol station), Main St, Corbridge, NE45 5LA, www.re-foundobjects.com
BREAKFAST IN A BOX
Vicky and Simon Young credit a former acquaintance from their London days, Johnny Roxburgh, with the breakfast box.
Roxburgh, who co-owns the internationally acclaimed events company The Admirable Crichton (and had a little terrier dog charmingly named The Baby Jesus when the Youngs knew him), was profiled years ago in The Sunday Times, which mentioned his breakfast recipe. Vicky and Simon have been making it ever since.
One shop-bought large un-cut white sandwich loaf is enough to make three boxes. Here’s how:
Leaving the loaf whole, slice off the crusts. Divide into three and then hollow out each section to make a lidless cube. Paint with sunflower oil inside and out and brown in a hot oven for 10 mins. Fill with food of your choice.