Meet the interior design star: Greg Penn (aka @Manwithahammer)


Home renovator extraordinaire Greg Penn talks us through his Herculean project to restore a magnificent 30-room Georgian house in Devon...

Greg Penn – best known as Instagram sensation @Manwithahammer – is quite possibly the most ambitious and hardworking home renovator in Britain. Entirely self-taught, and having only one previous restoration under his belt (a Victorian terrace in the North East), he somehow found himself in possession of Admirals House, a magnificent ex-Naval townhouse in Plymouth, spread over five floors and complete with extensive gardens. The only snag was that it was falling to bits. Eighteen months on and Greg is slowly turning it into a stunning forever home, one beautiful room at a time - all virtually single-handed and in his spare time. Cheering him on is a huge following of interiors enthusiasts and DIY nuts, who love his sense of style but also his funny, self-deprecating approach (there are a lot of shots of Greg in improbably-positioned bathtubs, and cocktail-sipping also features heavily). And since Admirals House is also steadily filling up with Pooky lights, we thought we’d better interview him before he becomes too famous to talk to us. Here’s our Q&A...


Admiral's House in all its glory. Photo: @Manwithahammer

So what possessed you to take on the five-year renovation of a dilapidated 5-floor, 30-room Georgian naval house single-handedly?

Ahh,...madness perhaps? An inflated sense of optimism in my own abilities? Haha, well – a combination of lots of factors but, above all, I fell in love with the old girl. She was in quite a state. Lots of water ingress, plants growing through walls… but she had incredible bones, was in a beautiful location and because no one else seemed brave or stupid enough to take her on, she was comparatively good value too - if you ignore the mountain of work to do!

How far through the project are you now? And have the Covid lockdowns helped or hindered your progress?

Well, I’m 18 months in and have done something like nine of the 30 rooms, though nowhere is absolutely finished. I tend to get the renovating and decorating done and move onto the next space… the finishing touches can come later! But beyond that, the exterior is going to need some serious work too. And the gardens, about two-thirds of an acre of once grand, formal Georgian walled garden, will probably take me a couple of years too so I would guess I’ve maybe five to six years still to go. Lockdowns have, in their way, been a blessing for the progress: a combination of being furloughed for part of it (I work full time at a bakery) and having far fewer distractions have meant far more time to work on the house.


Incredibly, Greg is doing the entire renovation virtually single-handed Photo: @Manwithahammer

Do you have a masterplan for how each room will eventually look, or is it all more improvised than that?

Definitely more improvised – I really admire interior designers who can pull a whole scheme together right from the outset but that’s sadly beyond me. I always start with a ‘feel’, more often than not dictated by the space, and then the layout and use of space. Then usually I turn to either the paint colour, or wallpaper and go from there. Often I’ll get the painting or papering done and then work out the next bits once I can see the space properly. I rather enjoy the way it slowly evolves and comes to life. The joy of doing pretty well everything yourself is that you really get to know a space and spend a lot of time on every minute detail. I can say every single inch of a space has been touched and toiled on by my own hands.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome so far?

Well… there are lots of individual challenges that tend to be ongoing. When I moved in (which I did straight away - it’s been my home right from the day I got the keys) there were I think nine toilets to choose from, none of which worked. The heating and plumbing systems had minds of their own, various unwanted animal lodgers had to be dealt with and there was water in places there definitely shouldn’t be. I think the main thing though is just the enormity of it… There are (I think) 60 windows and 84 internal doors… that’s a lot of stripping and sanding! Beyond that, the roof is terrifying and needs attention. I have a really tight budget so anything that is sadly beyond my DIY abilities is terrifying from a costs perspective but so important to safeguarding the house for the future. The scaffolding bill alone is eye-watering when you’re five floors up!


Photo: @Manwithahammer

You’ve become something of an interiors superstar on Instagram, with a hugely entertaining mix of gorgeous room shots, renovation stories and pics of you in a bath sipping cocktails. Has the size of your following surprised you - and does it help to have so many supporters cheering you on?

It blows my mind if I think about it for too long - but thank you! I certainly don’t take myself too seriously – after all, doing up Admirals is what I do in my spare time so I have to have a giggle and enjoy it, and it’s beyond heartwarming that other people enjoy it too! I am very much just a normal chap. Before my last place, I had zero practical knowledge - I don’t even think I’d ever hung a set of shelves. Nor did I have any background in design or interiors… Friends and family were shocked to say the least when I said I was taking on a renovation, and even more shocked when the first one turned out not to be hideous - or fall down! Instagram is now a huge source of inspiration. But also it’s like having crowd cheering you on too. It doesn’t happen often, but if ever I’m lacking motivation they spur me on hugely with their kindness and enthusiasm. I also turn to them when I aren’t sure about say a colour or pattern – it’s so interesting to get other views!


Beautifully finished rooms (featuring Pooky's (l) Lillee and (r) Ellie table lamps) Photos: @Manwithahammer

To what extent does the history of the house inspire your approach to the interior design?

Ah, the house definitely ‘speaks’ to me in terms of the style. I think it’s quite easy to see the differences between my choices in Admirals versus my last place (a Victorian terrace). Certainly, where possible I am doing my best to reinstate some of the important features of the house: uncovering fireplaces (often stripping many layers of paint to reveal beautiful, original marble surrounds); unpinning and restoring the shutters etc. At the same time, it’s a home, not a museum. It needs to be comfortable and I think some modern touches are important both in terms of function and style. But overall I am doing my best to be sympathetic with my approach. It’s also important for it to be (hopefully) timeless. I have zero intention of redecorating the moment I’ve finished (haha!) so hope I’m choosing things that will age well, and that I’ll love for many years.

Which other interior designers or experts inspire your style?

Before I got the keys to Admirals, I did a lot of research into Georgian interiors and the styles that would be appropriate for the house - and immediately was drawn to the way Ben Pentreath seemed to combine said appropriateness with pieces from different eras. He has an ability to make spaces look effortless, comfortable and classic without being old fashioned. Robert Kime, Nicola Harding, Kit Kemp and Carlos Sanchez-Garcia are other favourites. It’s also been absolutely fascinating working with Anna Hayman on the party room. A different style to mine, which was perfect for the space. She’s a whizz with pattern and colour and I’ve learned a lot from her.


More gorgeous rooms (featuring (l) Melivillous chandelier and Stucco table lamps and (r) Larger Trafalgar table lamp with Caribbean Jenga shade) Photos: @Manwithahammer

We’ve enjoyed seeing some Pooky lights pop up in the house. Do you have a favourite one? And how important is good lighting to you?

Blimey I love a something about all of them, but it feels the Trafalgar base should get a special mention given Admirals Naval history… The original occupant was honorary surgeon to King George and it’s said Nelson’s body was brought here after Trafalgar, before making its way to London. It’s such an elegant base, and it’s scale is really fun to play with! Lighting to me can really make or break a space. Lights add a warmth and cosyness to a space (a lot of the rooms here are fairly big, so this is really important to me to make them feel homely). Lamps are also one of my favourite ways to bring in colour, pattern and texture to a space and help create layers. It’s also amazing how different a space can feel when you change up the lamps. In many years, when the house is finished it’ll be fun to try pieces in different spaces to keep me interested and them feeling fresh!

And finally, once Covid is over, how much are you looking forward to having a massive party in your Grand Salon?

Ahh ha ha – I cannot wait! It’s a house that feels like it needs to be shared with people…. At least by then there’s going to be more than one functioning toilet for people to use! They’ll still have to pick their way across gaps in floorboards in the landing though...


Greg with Pooky's larger Ambrose table lamp with 45cm Straight Empire shade in pink block printed cotton. Photos: @Manwithahammer

Follow Greg's adventures on his Instagram account here.

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