Some homes open their arms to you when you cross their threshold. Maureen and Chris's 15th century timber-framed town house in the heart of Essex is one of them. Even though the day was grey and wet when I called on them, it was filled with warm, welcoming light. But it hasn't always been like this. A fine large wrought iron bracket hanging from the classical red brick Georgian facade is one of the last remaining clues to the building's previous existence as a public house. Maureen believes, however, that the height of the ceilings indicates it was originally built as a dwelling house. She's also heard rumour it was a house of ill repute but to date has no proof!
Although previous owners had attempted to convert the pub into a family home there was still a long way to go when the couple moved in twelve years ago.
You opened the front door and came straight into one huge room, which was probably the saloon," says Maureen. Now visitors step off the street into a sunny hall to the left of which is Chris's book lined office. "There were nets and 'lovely' brown velour curtains in here," she laughs, her Irish sense of humour bubbling forth. "Terrible. I can't bear net curtains." Shutters were the answer. "We had to get someone up from London to do them at great expense but we are terribly pleased, I've gone off curtains all together now." Walls painted in a soft cream highlight some of the couple's lovely paintings, many of which are done by personal friends. A deep ochre coloured Scandinavian rug adds warmth and it's easy to see why business consultant Chris now works from home.
Opposite is the dining room. It's a bit of a loose term as whilst the dining table and chairs are under the shuttered windows, squashy armchairs and a sofa are grouped around the lovely fireplace. Maureen explains: "When we came the room was painted a hideous dark grey and Chris used it as his office. When he moved across the hall we had to use it as a sitting room because the big room was still such a mess. After a long time I decided to paint it Sudbury Yellow (Farrow & Ball). It was transformed and instead of making it into a 'proper' dining room we just left it as it was." The dining chairs were already covered in a subtle check and the loose covers on other furniture matched perfectly. Maureen thinks the 19th century French dining table is elm and she's especially fond of its small drawer where her young 'scallybag' grandson hides treasures such as a door key that went missing for days. An ornate mirror fits perfectly between the mouldings above the mantelpiece; on close inspection it's obviously been through the wars. "It's French and fell off the wall twice." What about the stunning panelled Chinese painting? "I bought that in Liberty's years ago for Chris's birthday, probably because I liked it. We used it for a long time as a headboard but when we came here it fitted well next to the fireplace. It's funny when you move around houses how things fit in."
One thing that is new is the pair of thick cream damask curtains in the long sitting room. Needless to say they are never drawn largely due to the fact that the room is not overlooked and has a lovely view of the house's patio garden where in summer roses and clematis clamber up the walls. 'Ghastly modern French doors', were replaced by a spectacular full-length window (designed by Maureen) after lengthy negotiations with the powers-that-be due to the building's Grade II listing. "The chimney in here had fallen down so we had to rebuild that but the original surround is still there. It's got thickhead written on the side there. I presume it's where people used to sit when they'd been at the bar too long," she giggled. "A friend gave us the grate, which he said he wanted back if we ever left the house so we promptly bricked it in." Hiding the television is an intriguing leather screen painted with a courting scene. "It's Victorian. I found it in a friend's barn. I don't think I paid anything for it."
Maureen - who was born near the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland - really should be re-named 'Junk Shop Queen'. She's one of those individuals with an enviable knack of picking up bargains - though she admits it's harder these days. "When we first married everything was out of second hand shops. The only thing we ever bought new was beds."
Probably her most expensive purchase was the solid fuel range in the kitchen's inglenook for which she paid £400. Made in St. Etienne, France, the blue enamel stove painted with wildfowling scenes sat for two years until - with the kitchen by now undergoing major renovations - Maureen found an adventuous engineer who rigged up a temporary flue, stoked it with coal and said his prayers. "It went off like a steam engine." Now most Sundays she uses it to cook the family roast while the grandchildren concoct noxious 'soup' in the original water container to one side of the hot plates.
Irish hospitality is justifiably legendary and it's no surprise that the warm and cosy kitchen is the heart of this home. Originally the pub bar it has undergone a real transformation. Boarding put up to hide the central heating boiler also hid the fantastic fireplace and a week of scraping the stuck-on white linoleum revealed lovely old terracotta tiles. A door leads out to the glorious garden and a view of rolling Essex countryside only discovered after an attack on the overgrown jungle at its far end. Close to the patio is a clipped Irish hawthorn tree. "People kept telling me to have it cut down but I wouldn't because in Ireland the fairies live in hawthorn trees," said Maureen offering me another cup of tea. "Now let me show you the cellars."
The Hingston's extensive art collection is intensely personal and includes work by Joseph McWilliams. The furniture has been collected over the years, with the chair and footstool being covered in luxurious red and gold brocade, bringing richness to the room.