TV presenter Ben Hillman has spent the past year renovating the Sussex house he shares with his wife, Gaby, and his daughters, Hope Blossom, who is four, and two-year-old Honour Willow. Ben’s TV career began in an unusual way when he entered a competition on ITV’s This Morning back in 2010. Billed as The Next Big Thing, the producers were looking for someone with design flair and a talent for presenting. Ben’s mother was
adamant he should have a go.
At the time he was doing property renovation and maintenance and wasn’t really that keen on the idea. “My mum hounded me,” he says, “and eventually I made the video clip. You had to pitch yourself down the barrel and say why it should be you. I got down to the shortlist of two and eventually won. The prize was six slots on the show and £2,000 of Matalan vouchers.”
It gave Ben a taste for television so, once it was over, he put together a show reel, sent it out to hundreds of production companies and got a couple of slots on shows which led to a presenting job on Channel 4’s The Renovation Game. After that he was offered A Place in the Sun, which he is still doing.
He’s also trying his hand at guest presenting on BBC Radio Sussex, which he describes as “a bit scary”. That’s not surprising perhaps as he self-confessedly avoids the phone. “I do embrace the challenge and the fear though,” he says “So if I’m scared of something I always have a go.”
He loves working on A Place in the Sun, a show where people looking to buy a property abroad are given expert guidance by the team. “We show them five properties,” Ben explains. “They’re either buying a holiday home or sometimes they’re actually moving there full time. Some people have been dreaming about it for years and have put all their life savings into it. They genuinely rely on us to do all the research and that’s a lot of pressure.
“My first ever episode was in Spain. This woman had a nice house in North London and she just wanted to completely change her life. She walked into this beautiful house in a village in Spain and it was an amazing moment. The house had a Moorish feel and an inner courtyard. It had beautiful bones to it and could have been stunning. She just cried when she walked through the door. Having this happen on my first programme was quite something.”
Ben found his own dream home while he was away working. “I was in Costa Rica filming and saw the house on Right Move and asked Gabby to come and look at it. She sent me back pictures of Hope, who was around one-and-a-half at the time, running around in the garden. That really sold me. Whenever I look at a house online I Google map it to get an aerial shot and I could see instantly it had potential.”
The house needed a lot of work and the build took seven months. The original intention was to live in it while the building work was happening, which Ben now describes as “madness”.
“If you saw it when it was at the start and they’d stripped all the walls out it was literally on steel stilts. There was no running water. It was a complete impossibility.”
One thing Ben was sure of was that he wanted an AGA wood-burning stove in the sitting room. “There’s so much to be said about a natural flame: the smell and the ambience it creates and it’s just a draw, everyone loves to sit by the fire. Because of the design of the house, and the quite stark architectural windows we have either side, I wanted something that was really bold but had height and was really strong in structure.
“That’s why we went for the AGA Dorrington stove. It looks stunning and I think it has a bit of a 1930s Art Deco vibe about it. “I’m loving it. It’s a beautiful thing to have a real flame there and the design fits the space so well. It feels like it brings perfect balance and it’s the first thing people comment on when they come in. Because it’s in such a large space it has great impact.”
This interview was first published in AGA Living Magazine Summer 2019