Hospitable though home-owners are when the Wealden Times team visits, not many could match the welcome afforded by Flora, the wire fox terrier puppy who greets me in Stella Wilson's garden. Flora races around in circles before jumping up to get a closer look at me. But her paws seem to have invisible springs attached to them, for she hardly seems to touch the ground before boinngg", up she comes again and again… and again. As I try to calm her, a claw gets caught in the fabric of my coat and she yelps. It is just at this moment of course, that the door opens and I find myself looking sheepishly at her owner. Thankfully, Stella realises that it's a friendly encounter and scooping Flora up into her arms, takes us both into her house.
Soon we are seated at the dining table with a pot of tea. The Wealden Times is partly responsible for my new business venture," Stella tells me. I went to the WT Midsummer Fair with my previous fox terrier, Paddy, and was admiring Claire Fletcher's pictures of dogs at the Made in Hastings stall when another wire fox terrier fan, Pippa Carter introduced herself. Pippa runs The Tower House B&B in Tenterden and is involved with all sorts of things like the Tentertainment concerts in the park. We found that we had loads in common and arranged to go dog walking. On one of these rambles we came up with the idea of Happy Hampers. We both love vintage stuff and know where to sniff out treasures so we thought that we could offer something unique. We make themed gift hampers, call them things like More Tea Vicar?" and fill them with pretty tablecloths, china tea sets and special provisions. We were too late for the WT Christmas Fair but we took them to St Ronan's and people loved them. We make bespoke gifts too, so they're really personal and all made from vintage and recycled items."
The dining room offers plenty of evidence of Stella's affinity for vintage style. A red gingham tablecloth covers the oak table that was lovingly made by Stella's grandfather during the lean 1930s and we sit on wooden chairs from Forge Antiques in Appledore. The dresser on the wall behind combines a set of wooden shelves found in a junk shop with a waist high cupboard that had belonged to her grandmother. At the top hangs a ribbon wreath made by her friend, Claire Richards of Two for Joy Originals". Stella then points to a slightly kitsch figurine of a child feeding some chickens. It's the kind of thing that's instantly recognisable to any child of the 60s and early 70s. Styled rather like a Mabel Lucie Atwell character, the little girl is exaggeratedly rosy-cheeked and has since been combined with a felt pincushion studded with pretty hatpins. Claire makes these too and I really admire the way she's taken something so old-fashioned and given it a useful life again."
In the corner of the room is a 1950s Rayburn Regent" woodburning range. It looks as if it came with the cottage, but Stella found it through a local free paper. I think it's important to go with the style and the scale of your house," she explains. And this is great because if we have a power cut we can still keep warm and cook, as it's got a hot plate and an oven." The house does have other cooking facilities of course, but even the kitchen is a recycled one. £40 on ebay!" Stella triumphantly reveals. My husband Rob put it together and we painted it in Farrow & Ball's Bone. I think it's important to give things a new lease of life."
I suppose I got that idea from my dad. In the 1970s we were one of thirteen families who won the opportunity of building their own home in an innovative scheme run by Lewisham Council that utilized derelict land. The architect Walter Segal designed a post and beam timber framing method that anyone could use without previous building experience. It was a great achievement for my dad, Ken Atkins, who took on the role as chairman of the Lewisham Self-Build Housing Scheme. His passion for community architecture soon saw him lecturing all over the world, including with the UN. Self-build changed his and our lives forever. My mum still lives there and may even take part in the Open House Scheme later this year."
While Flora snoozes, we tiptoe around the conservatory. Once rather brown", Stella painted it off-white and added some of her own signature touches. A cabinet displays vintage Old Foley china in blues and lilacs. Above the window felt fabric hearts sit in the centre of a string of floral bunting. A red and white quilt bought in Antibes in the South of France covers the sofa and on the wall above are colourful gouache paintings by Peter Richards, Head of Art at Eltham College, who has now retired.
The sitting room is more muted in tone, I suppose I have to have one grown-up room," Stella admits. But here too, there is evidence of thrifty resourcefulness with a chair covered with a wartime blanket, made from austerity brown wool on one side and a jolly green and gold tartan on the other. I've been doing an upholstery course and I've got a Victorian chaise longue to go in front of the window which I'm covering – no, not in gingham – but with a great Ian Mankin fabric." Up the stairs in the first of the children's rooms, canopies have transformed the twin single beds into Princess" beds. In the second children's room, an original oak Waring and Gillow triple wardrobe doubles as clothes and toy storage. The delightful sleigh bed was bought at Sissinghurst Antiques for just £30. It was covered in graffiti," explains Stella and looked terrible, but after several experiments I found that bicarbonate of soda got rid of it."
Nestled in the eaves is the double bedroom and en suite. The bath and taps were ebay bargains and Stella has made ingenious use of limited space to create what feels both intimate and luxurious. The iron bedstead had to be cut down to get it up the stairs, but has not suffered for it. A bow-fronted white oak chest of drawers and mirror was a present from Stella's mother-in-law when she downsized, and a flamboyantly feathered lamp that stands on it, was from her own mother. Just one wall is papered in a dramatic black with silver blooms. On the door hangs a cornflower blue and white spotty dress and 1950s floral apron. Pippa and I dress up for Happy Hampers," laughs Stella. You have to go a bit over the top though, because if you do it half-heartedly people don't get that it's vintage, they just think you dress a bit weirdly! We've bought a caravan too. My girls, Scarlett and Honor, called her Bluebell and we're going to take her to fairs and shows."
Once inside the caravan I feel as if I've been transported into a Famous Five adventure. There are floral curtains at the windows and crocheted blankets over the bench seats. An original picnic set for motorcars" stands open on the table and will be smartened up and given some extras to make a special Happy Hamper. Stella shows me some sample books as she and Pippa are considering commissioning their own line of picnic blankets. It's hard to find vintage ones in good condition and these are really soft and well designed, so I'm quite excited. We're also looking at making windbreaks called Windy Millers" in vintage fabrics. The caravan was another bargain, and Stella has so enjoyed restoring it that she's thinking of offering the service to other enthusiasts. She's good at turning her ideas into reality having worked in television for Channel 4 and Discovery Channel. I began as a production assistant on Blue Peter, so perhaps making things from recycled stuff just got into my system – must have been all that sticky-backed plastic!" Stella is happily steeped in nostalgia and is planning to take Bluebell on holidays and to music festivals too. My husband sells drums and percussion instruments at Footes Music in Soho and he plays drums in local rock band The Black Sheep who gig mainly in Kent and Sussex, but just recently supported Wilko Johnson at the 100 Club in London. I felt like a real rock chick!" she giggles. I organise the bands for Waddfest, a rock festival for families held on a working sheep farm, Wadd Farm in Frittenden, owned by Nicky and Guy Aldhouse, to raise money for a great cause, Demelza House Hospice for Children. It's taking place on the weekend of 5 June this year, the weekend before the WT fair! Their rare breed Suffolk lamb provides the feast and local bands generously play for free. There is overnight camping and fun for all – it's an affordable rock festival for families. Lots of families camp, but this year we'll take Bluebell and make sure we sleep in style!"
Happy Hampers can be contacted on 01580 292684. See their website www.happy-hampers.com.to find out more about their eclectic collection of homewares, gifts and outdoor essentials.