Inside a restored Norfolk cottage filled with quirky vintage finds

renovated norfolk cottage front room
Tour this charming and quirky Norfolk cottageBrent Darby

Despite having been one of the first Norfolk villages served by a railway line, Docking has been without a passenger service since the devastating North Sea flood of 1953. Now, the only evidence that remains is a row of modest cottages built to house workers who constructed the original line, and it was one of these that Zara Dawson spotted on a visit to see her parents who live nearby.

'We were looking around the whole of North Norfolk for a bolthole where we could escape from London and spend more time with my parents,' Zara explains. 'The property's flint walls and unusually shaped rooms really sold it to us. We didn't even view any others.'

a brick cottage with green window frames
The cottage has a distinctive rounded front, and is one of a row built to house the workers who constructed the original railway line in the villageBrent Darby

Zara grew up in Norfolk but left to attend drama school in London, where she met her husband Lex James. Today, the couple run a property company that finds homes for actors to live in while on location shooting films. 'My day job is spent inside some really beautiful houses,' she says, 'so this all feeds into my passion for homes and love of interiors.'

renovated norfolk cottage front room
Flint stone walls and flooring made from train carriage boards add rustic charm. A reclaimed barn door has been transformed into a table top, and old benches from a pottery workshop slot underneathBrent Darby

It was partly the fact that Zara's father and brother run a nearby renovation business, Dawson Building Contractors, that persuaded Zara and Lex to choose this three-bedroom Victorian cottage, and throughout the four-month renovation there was plenty of help on hand. The work entailed stripping the cottage back to its stone shell, replacing the electrics, plumbing and pipework, and installing new uPVC windows in sage green.

sofa with copper churn
The curved wall of the house is a feature of this roomBrent Darby

The previous owners were relocating to a retirement home and had left behind all their furniture. 'The cottage was crammed full of burgundy crushed velvet sofas and furniture on dark pink carpets,' remembers Zara. 'We removed the kitchen island and sold all the units as they were brand new,' she continues.

tour restored norfolk cottage
The bespoke shaker-style painted MDF units and scaffold-board open shelving emphasise the country cottage feel. Units in Green 02, LickBrent Darby

Zara created a bespoke kitchen from MDF, with flooring made out of train carriage boards from a local reclamation yard. 'I love the fact that the kitchen doesn't have a single shop-bought item in it,' she says. 'I enjoy using reclaimed wood – the more rustic the better. I've inherited my dad's love of history and we enjoy going to vintage fairs and flea markets together,' she adds. 'The shelving is made out of repurposed scaffold boards – I'm forever tinkering with the arrangement, which includes a collection of my nan's vintage recipe books. And Dad did a great job converting some old potato chitting trays into kitchen drawers – they're totally unique and hold so much.'

bedroom with pale pink panelling

A mix of pastel shades and various styles of panelling feature throughout the cottage, as well as interesting finds, including a pair of vintage theatre seats, an American mailbox and an old copper milk churn. Even the dining set tells a story. 'We found a battered barn door at a reclamation yard,' says Zara. 'Our builders removed the lock, cleaned up the wood and it’s now a tabletop. The benches came from an old pottery workshop and are stained in clay powder – I love their soft, worn pink tone.'

room with white iron bed and panelling

The former downstairs bathroom has been transformed into the children's bedroom. Inspired by sleeper train carriages, built-in custom-made bunk beds were constructed. Fresh nautical-style decoration gives the space a bright and breezy feel.

white bunk beds
A tiny downstairs bathroom has been converted into a compact room inspired by sleeper train carriages. Behind a space-saving sliding door, Zara’s dad built customised bunk beds using reclaimed woodBrent Darby

Upstairs, there's a hidden gem inside a bedroom cupboard by the window – a vintage knotted fire escape rope with written safety instructions on a piece of timeworn card. 'It's a little piece of history that belongs to the cottage,' Zara says.

iron bedstead and pastel panelled wall

A fan of panelling, she reveals her go-to place is Decwood for decorative carved wood bobbin strips – an inexpensive and effective option for refreshing panelling. When designing a space, Zara adds one-off pieces that create interest and a quirky vibe. ‘I’d seen a beer-pull lever loo cistern in a Jamie Oliver restaurant and wanted it so much that I hunted one down for her. I'm not entirely sure how you can be in love with a toilet cistern, but I am with mine!

white freestanding bathtub and striped matt
Muted tones together with marble and brass fittings create a calm lookBrent Darby

'Norfolk is such a beautiful place, with miles of unspoilt countryside, vast open skies, golden sandy beaches and the coolest little cafes and restaurants,' Zara enthuses. 'Now the cottage is finished, we love to escape London and stay here for a few days to relax, visit family and explore all the delights of the local area. We enjoy family trips to the Sandringham Estate and Holkham Hall, and what could be lovelier than a walk out to the salt marshes at Blakeney Point to take a boat ride and see the seals? Being here has allowed us to see the area through fresh eyes.'

zara dawson norfolk cottage exterior
Brent Darby

To rent the cottage, check out @littlenorfolkcottage or visit

Look around a little more...


landing area with wire storage on wall
The landing has handy industrial metal wire-hung storage for displaying some of Zara’s treasured findsBrent Darby


scaffold board shelving with new and vintage kitchen items
Open shelving - made from repurposed scaffold boards and decorative vintage castors on brackets - displays a mix of new and vintage finds. Oiled scaffold boards, TC Industrial Vintage at EtsyBrent Darby


a chair and norfolk maps in a room
Maps of the local area and a vintage wooden child’s chair give a homely feel Brent Darby


vintage theatre seats
Zara and her dad enjoy visiting flea markets and vintage fairs together to find unusual homewares including these period theatre seats which are a quirky addition to the living roomBrent Darby

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