Call to Alms

Originally built to house the poor in the nineteenth century, Cheyneys Almshouse is now home to Fortnum & Mason in-house milliner Adrian Howard and his partner Sven. After stumbling across it in The Guardian's 'Wreck of the Week' feature and falling in love with it, the couple tranformed the once boarded-up, derelict property into a spacious and unusual retreat

The first impression of Cheyneys Almshouse is of a neat Dutch-gabled cottage of great charm and character, but as you reach the front door it becomes clear that this might not be the modest little country home it appears to be from the outside.

Stopping to admire the two elegant stone dogs on either side of the front step, you notice that the multiple pairs of boots and shoes scattered around it, as if just discarded after a walk, are all planted with the tiny hardy succulents known as houseleeks.

Once owners Adrian Howard and his partner Sven welcome you in - and a very warm welcome it is - your eyes and brain go into overdrive, trying to take everything in. Interesting objects and visual puns abound.

The vestibule is pretty much filled by a huge chair like a carved wooden throne. There's an equally outsized Venetian glass mirror in a very small sitting room to the left. Above is a lampshade made from a straw boater. Stepping through into the kitchen extension, you are met by a male shop window dummy dressed in a guard's uniform and a crash helmet, next to a station map from a Jubilee Line underground station.

Hanging from the tiny mounted horns of African game animals are rows of exquisite hats. In the kitchen itself, there's a lady mannequin wearing a chic red cloche hat, her torso covered in postage stamps… (I later find out her name is Gladys.)

Like the Tardis crossed with Gringotts, Cheyneys Almshouse is much bigger than it looks and a secret repository for a treasure trove of fascinating stuff, all of which has been sourced, scavenged and sought out by Adrian and Sven, who are Olympic standard bargain hunters, scouting the legendary boot fairs of nearby Icklesham village and the many antique emporiums of Hastings Old Town, among more obscure sources.

They clearly have the 'eye', that particular talent of spotting diamonds in the rough - and the house itself was just such a find. "It was in the 'Wreck of the Week' feature in The Guardian," says Adrian, laughing, showing me the original press cutting, which they have proudly framed in the downstairs loo.

The fact that the boarded-up property was so derelict and rat infested the estate agent refused to step through the door and they had to make their first inspection by torchlight did nothing to put them off. "It was love at first sight," says Adrian. "It took us ten years to do it up on a very strict budget, but it was so much fun. It was an adventure."

The main structural work was to add a new two-storey extension at the back to create the large kitchen/breakfast room and two extra bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs.

"The original 1842 building, put up by an alms trust which was created in 1611 to provide housing for the poor, was built as two tiny houses with a shared staircase," says Adrian. "When we took it on, it was still set up as two dwellings, with a flat-roofed 70s single storey extension at the back containing two miniature kitchens and a bathroom. Luckily, the front is listed but the ugly extension wasn't so it was fine to knock that down and start again. Although the outside loo is listed…"

The main feature of the lovely spacious new kitchen, with French doors out onto the garden, is a huge classic kitchen dresser, which Adrian's parents bought at an auction in Rye. "It was so big we had to have it cut down to fit in the space," says Sven.

And it needs to be that size to showcase just a tiny fraction of their collection of china. The day we visited Sven had it dressed ready for Easter with figurines of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck and various sheep, decorative eggs in egg cups and a whole set of china resplendent with running bunnies, alongside at least four other china services - and that's just the tip of the porcelain iceberg.

Adrian opens one of the cupboards and takes out a plate which he holds up to the light of the French window, revealing the head of a geisha painted on the underside. "It's Japanese," he says, "I got the whole set at Elm Tree boot fair…"

Under the kitchen's central work table there's a glorious Fortnum & Mason crate, full of more china treasures which are in everyday use - and the provenance of both the crate and the table are keys to the very interesting life Adrian and Sven have shared.

Sven is German and they spent six years living there, in the city of Halle, twenty miles from Leipzig, while he was finishing his studies. The kitchen table came from there. "We found it on the street," says Sven, laughing. "In Germany we have this thing called Sperrmüll [NB capped first letter is correct for nouns in Deutsch, jawoll, bitte] where large waste objects can be left out on the street one day a month and we found this."

"It's fantastic," adds Adrian. "You can get a calendar from the council to tell you when it will be in each neighbourhood and I would tour them…"

Sven shows me that the wooden table has a large drawer with two large enamel basins set in it. "Once this would have been the kitchen sink," he says. "Now it's perfect for preparing food. When your friends arrive and you don't want them to see the mess, you just scrape it in to the bowls and close the drawers."

Adding to the interest in this one piece of furniture - and we still have the whole house to see at this stage - Adrian then explains the provenance of the slab of slate on top of it."My father found it in a wood near our house where I grew up in Sidcup and it was just too good to leave there, so every time we went for a walk he would drag it a few more metres until finally he could collect it in the car. He kept it for years and now it's just perfect on top of this."

And remember the Fortnum & Mason crate sitting underneath the table? That's a hint to Adrian's current life - he's the in-house milliner in that most fabulous of London retail institutions, the first they've had working on the floor of the store since 1958.

Then taking it on again - a key to how he came to have such an extraordinary job is sitting on top of the slate worktop: a tea cosy made out of old ties.

"When we lived in Germany," Adrian explains, "I had a shop called 'Brit Bits' selling bric-a-brac I would bring over from England. I used to get bored sitting in there, so I got a sewing machine and started making cushions. That led on to door sausages and aprons and then I made some tea cosies out of bits and pieces I had lying around. People would always put them on their heads, so I started making hats..."

"When we lived in Germany," he explains, "I had a shop called 'Brit Bits' selling bric-a-brac I would bring over from England. I used to get bored sitting in there, so I got a sewing machine and started making cushions. That led on to door sausages and aprons and then I made some tea cosies out of bits and pieces I had lying around. People would always put them on their heads, so I started making hats…

"When I began to see people walking round the town in them I thought maybe it was something I should follow up… Really, it was a hobby which spiralled out of control."

When Sven finished at university - he's now the head of a school languages department - they moved back to the UK and Adrian enrolled to train as a milliner. When he'd finished the course he went to see Philip Somerville, the Queen's milliner, to ask if he could do work experience with him.

"He gave me three weeks and I stayed five years," says Adrian. "It was wonderful. One of my jobs was dropping the hats off to Buckingham Palace for the Queen."

"Philip was a very good friend and mentor. Until he died two and a half years ago, I would have tea with him once a week and he kept giving me guidance."

Indeed Mr Somerville's presence pops up around the house in the form of a lovely Parker Knoll chair in the kitchen and a beautiful purple shamrock plant with its borscht-red leaves cascading down a jardiniàre upstairs, which were both presents from him.

But perhaps the Royal milliner's greatest gift to Adrian was his professional finesse which is gloriously apparent on a table in the area between the kitchen and the sitting rooms.

Presided over by the male mannequin spotted on the way in (whom I'm told is called Major Lynch, after the father of a friend whose uniform he wears) is an array of Adrian's amazing hats and the tools of his trade - hat blocks, feathers, rolls of special textiles. These are works in progress which he brings down from London to work on. "I thought about arranging it ready for the photographer," says Adrian, "then decided to just leave them…"

He was right, that tablescape couldn't have looked more enticing if a stylist had laboured over the arrangement for hours. I try on a Jackie O style pillbox and immediately feel I could mingle convincingly at a royal wedding. "That style is very good for ladies who travel," says Adrian, adjusting it to fit perfectly on my head, "because they can put it in a cake tin in their luggage and it won't get squashed…"

Tearing ourselves away from that bounty, we head upstairs, my head swivelling to look at all the interesting things - not least their many collections, of egg cups, cruet sets, German bottle stoppers and the biggest, Adrian's ongoing collection of silver nail buffers.

With the second storey of the extension there are now four bedrooms, each with its own special character. Adrian and Sven's room has a genteel Edwardian feel with a suite of furniture from that period and a quilted bedspread Adrian - one of life's natural makers - created from some old curtains of his mother's.

One of the spare rooms - home to another mannequin, called Charlie, the first Adrian acquired - is used to store their large collection of fancy dress outfits. It's their family tradition for everyone to dress up for Christmas dinner and they spend the whole year thinking about it.

A pale blue 1930s bell boy's suit, with the traditional chin strap hat, which Adrian wore a couple of years ago, hangs on the end of the bed. It looks like something from the Grand Budapest Hotel, but he found it in a vintage clothing shop in Norman Road, St Leonards.

The bathroom opposite is packed with more finds, including an amazing bright blue 1920s washbasin - not actually plumbed in, they had a working basin already, but too beautiful to leave in the second-hand yard in Hastings Old Town. Its vibrant colour is matched by a pair of pale blue grosgrain mule slippers Adrian couldn't resist from Fortnum & Mason.

On the landing outside two small runs of stairs face each other. The one to the south was the original and they copied it for the extension. Adrian made the stair runners himself, using scraps of old carpet. "It all cost about £80."

The other two guest rooms, in the original south side of the house, are packed with more found treasures too numerous to mention. In the pink bedroom, hat pins, hat boxes, Victorian laced boots, tiaras, bow ties, Klaus the bear, and in the green bedroom, a Fortnum & Mason biscuit tin showing a cross section of the store, which includes Adrian at his millinery table on the second floor (where his professional name is Adrian Phillip Howard).

The floor plan - and equally fascinating contents - is repeated in the two original reception rooms below. The sitting room on the right is a pale primrose yellow, the snug on the left is a slightly deeper pink than the room upstairs.

The wall colours throughout the house are beautifully subtle, but unlike the litany of Farrow & Ball paint names most of us spout, Adrian and Sven can't remember what any of them are. "Our decorator came with some paint charts and we chose them all in twenty minutes," says Adrian. "I think they were mostly Dulux. Then I added a bit of extra white here and there…"

The wall colours throughout the house are beautifully subtle in this way, but unlike the litany of Farrow & Ball paint names most of us spout, Adrian and Sven can't remember what any of them are. "Our decorator came with some paint charts and we chose them all in twenty minutes," says Adrian. "I think they were mostly Dulux. Then I added a bit of extra white here and there…"

This is what you can do when you are naturally blessed with an aesthete's eye, which, in Adrian and Sven's case, are starting to roam… With this project lovingly complete, their fancy has turned to a new wreck and there can be no doubt that even if it's infested with vermin and hot and cold running damp, it will end up a treasure of wonders.

Address Book:

  • Adrian Phillip Howard, Fortnum & Mason, London
  • 20th Century Funking Junk, Courthouse Street, Hastings Old Town
  • Elm Tree and Robin Hood Boot Fairs, Icklesham (Sunday mornings from Easter onwards, weather depending)
  • Harborough Nurseries Guestling, Hastings TN35 4LU 01424 814220
  • Kaisen Antiques Rochester 01634 814132
  • Robert’s Rummage, High Street, Hastings Old Town
  • The Yard, Courthouse Street, Hastings Old Town