Art House

The enormous inglenook, like a spine, stretches through the house to the magnificent, vaulted master bedroom...

The best moments in this house often feature a cup of tea, a good book and a cat,'' says Christine Wilding, about Mill House, the beautiful and charming family home she has created. Her sentiments come as little surprise because this cherished house exudes such peace and tranquillity one feels as if one is in a cocoon, safe from the world.

Christine and her husband Barry found the five-bedroom house fifteen years ago when their two children Emma and Mike were small. Christine recalls: "The house was quite dark in those days. In the garden there were leylandii, overgrown to about 40ft. We viewed the house on a freezing cold day in January when the children were still small. We came straight into the lovely kitchen, complete with a cat on a cushion, and I just knew this was the house for us. But the decor in those days was very different, of course, and the carpets made the house quite dark."

When they moved in, the house needed some substantial structural work initially , the roof was re-built, one of the downstairs rooms needed a floor (the carpet concealed bare earth!) and the superb fireplace , the centrepiece of the home , needed to be lined as smoke oozed from the cracks in the master bedroom. "Yes, there were some shocks," says Barry, "but we were not daunted by the challenges."

The house is a delightful mix of the traditional and modern, a melange of the best in Kentish materials - weatherboarding, brick (both painted and exposed) and peg tiles. The front half of the house is 300 years old, originally a pair of cottages, joined on the ground floor by the enormous inglenook, which, like a spine, stretches through the house to the magnificent, vaulted master bedroom. An airy extension was added in Victorian times and sympathetically retains the timbered external wall of the original cottages.

Christine, a former account executive at Saatchi and Saatchi, says: "We did not need to restore the house but we have worked on each room and tried to ensure they are in keeping. We use local craftsmen where we can. Our kitchen came from Martins in Hawkhurst, while the new, oak windows and doors were installed by a local joiner. We put in new bathrooms and also added the conservatory.' The hard work complete, Christine has added her own unique touches to create a colourful home where the walls have become a canvas for her eclectic collection of paintings, jugs, pots and knick-knacks. Christine neatly sums up her style: "Cosy, colourful, a mixture of the old and new, with a strong French influence."

She has always had a strong connection with France , she studied French at Durham University and keeps up her use of the language today. That affection for la belle France is reflected in collections of French spice pots and containers. She even found a beautiful wooden cheese board which now serves as window dressing in her personal sanctuary, the conservatory. '"I love this room in summer. It is light and warm but not stifling. I love to sit here in the morning, with a cup of tea, a book and a cat," says Christine.

Mill House reflects Christine's quirky character. A gentle woman, with great personal warmth, it is no surprise to learn that she has set up a company called the Affordable Counselling Group. Christine and her business partner work in a doctor's surgery, complementing their in-house service by offering counselling at a negotiated rate that the client can afford. "It is a simple idea that fills a need. The NHS have long waiting lists and can only give a certain amount of time, and we fill in the gap, giving people a chance to extend their time with a counsellor or to receive help more quickly. ACG are currently expanding throughout Kent and would welcome contact from counsellors interested in joining them."

Both she and Barry, a company director, work from home, and find that the house manages to combine the modern needs of technology in a beautiful setting. Barry says: "The house has been a stable feature over the years."

The walls of the house are filled with paintings. Several years ago, both Christine and Barry took art courses and while Barry no longer paints, the couple indulge their love of art by continuing to purchase original pieces by upcoming artists. Christine says: "We both agree on the same things when it comes to choosing art. It doesn't matter who has done it." Their original paintings of daffodils adorn a wall next to the inglenook in the lounge , an artistic 'his 'n' hers'. A small picture of poppies by a close relative inspired Christine to paint the wall a dusky, complementary pink.

Art and beautiful things are important to her and she admits that she is a nostalgic, sentimental person. "I love going to boot fairs and charity shops. When I go on holiday, I like to bring back a jug, each one tells a story." In the conservatory, she proves the point by describing the provenance of six jugs lined up on the windowsill.

We move through the house from the modern kitchen with Neff built-in oven, coffeemaker and hob nestled in the old chimney space, to a pretty, light hallway from which you can spy the new, light conservatory to the right and the beamed cosiness of the 300-year-old lsitting room. An old, marked wooden occasional table below a large mirror, bought locally and adorned with fairy lights, is a pretty feature. In the large utility, history, once again, adorns the walls , but this time, the personal history, little lines in ink, plotting the increasing height of the children of the house, Emma and Mike, now grown-up and making their way into the world.

The large sitting room is striking, over looking the lawn, with low beams and one half of the inglenook, with its inbuilt arch and hop bines. Bookcases filled with novels and heavy language dictionaries, family photographs and albums, testify to Christine's nostalgic bent. She says: "We use the fire, of course. This is my favourite room in the winter. It is so warm and cosy."

Upstairs, a corridor draws your eye to a quirky window in front of which sits a wooden crane, another holiday find. "Yes, we found this in Cornwall while we were on holiday." I ask: Was there enough room in the car? A little shrug, a smile suggests that bringing it back was a mini adventure.

The master bedroom is a delight, characterised by the huge vaulted ceiling, the uneven floor, the staggered fireplace and the delicious view overlooking the garden. A modern en suite and a dressing room more than satisfy the requirements for this modern day working mother. The ultra-modern light fittings that sit on the ancient beams are surprising , an excellent blending of the old and new.

There are five bedrooms, one still occupied by 19-year-old Emma, who is planning her next foreign trip to make the most of her gap year.

"I love the house," muses Christine. "I love the little nooks and crannies, the little spaces behind doors. This is a lovely, warm, cosy and happy home, filled with wonderful memories. The children loved growing up here , riding their bikes around the house, playing badminton on the lawn and the sleepover parties."

As we talk in the peaceful conservatory, rain pattering on the roof, we are joined by Izzy, one of the two cats she picked up from the Last Chance Rescue Centre in Edenbridge. The room overlooks the patio area, lined with pots and a trellis of wisteria. "I love to be out gardening in the warm weather. We have planted thirteen trees since we have been here. I like to potter around, but there is still lots of potential and I always have plans for things to do."

Two important features must be mentioned here: the well, topped by sculpture, and the amazing Lucy Williams bench , colourful and a fine place to sit. In fact, the perfect spot to have a cup of tea, read a good book and soak up the summer sun, accompanied by a cat.

For further details of the Affordable Counselling Group, please visit Information about Lucy Williams' work can be obtained from Kitchen and appliance specialists, Martins of Hawkhurst, can be contacted on 01580 753470

  • wordsLesley Finlay
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming