PUBLISHED: 18:16 23 March 2015 | UPDATED: 18:16 23 March 2015
Â© Haakon Dewing
When Colin and Christine Thompson bought Highfields in Coggeshall, they knew they were buying something with potential, but had they really unearthed a hidden gem? Pat Bramley explains more
Finding a locked safe hidden under the floorboards when you know your house was once the home of a top London antiques dealer is certainly going to quicken your heart beat.
It happened to Colin Thompson when he was redecorating the utility room a couple of years ago at the Georgian house he and his wife Christine have owned since the mid-1990s.
‘It was an amazing discovery,’ says Colin. ‘I was pulling up the floorboards to replace some that were rotten and suddenly I saw this safe. We couldn’t open it, so we had to call in a locksmith. I stood by him the whole time he was working,’ recalls the retired stockbroker laughing at how he hoped he’d unearthed a treasure trove stashed away by the former owner.
‘The locksmith asked me, “Why are you standing over me? What do you think’s in it?” I reckoned it could be jewellery,’ Colin admits, remembering the mounting excitement. ‘In my head I was already beginning to plan what we’d do with the money.’
Eventually, after what seemed an age, the good guy safe breaker managed to spring open the lock, only to find completely nothing.
It’s one of the Thompsons’ favourite stories about their time at Highfields, their Grade II listed, five-bedroom house at Coggeshall. They’ll never know what was once in the safe, but the dealer, who had a workshop in the same road as where he lived, did leave behind a few valuable reminders of his presence.
According to what Colin and Christine have been told, it was he who put in the 17th century panelling in the hall. It apparently came out of the boardroom at Tate & Lyle. He was also responsible for the stone floor in the dining room, which came from the Tower of London.
‘He was a perfectionist,’ Christine says, ‘he did a lot of work for the Royal family. This is the first old house we’ve had,’ she adds. ‘Our last one was a Bovis home in Chelmsford. We bought that from new because it suited us at that point in our lives, but we’d been looking to move for some time. We were looking for a bit of a project.’
Christine has always admired Georgian houses. ‘The long sash windows let in so much light and the rooms are large and square and they have these high ceilings,’ she explains. ‘Because of the classic style, you can furnish them with old or new furniture, or a mixture of both, but we love antiques.
‘Of course when you’re looking for a house and you have young children, as we had, your main priority is schools. We’ve always liked Coggeshall because it is a lovely area and there are also excellent schools nearby.’
Colin has a son and daughter from his first marriage and two daughters with Christine.
‘I’ve been retired for nine years now,’ Colin says, ‘but when we moved here I was commuting into the City each day. It was certainly important to me that it is only a five-minute drive to Kelvedon station. In those days it was so easy to park, I could park by the platform, actually by the platform, and trains into London ran every half hour. The journey to St Pauls where my office was took 50 minutes door-to-door. The service is even better now and the journey time is shorter.’
By the time the Thompsons came to view Highfields for the first time, the antiques guy had long gone. The house he’d owned was exactly what they’d hoped to find. It needed considerable work to restore it to former glory, but for these buyers, that was ideal. ‘It meant we had a blank canvas,’ adds Colin.
And they knew exactly who they were going to commission to do the restoration. ‘Bakers of Banbury,’ states Christine. ‘They’re specialists at renovating old buildings. While the work was being done, we lived temporarily with my mother and father near Banbury.’
Although the main area of the house is Georgian, there is an older, heavily-beamed part dating back to the 15th century when Highfields was a farm.
‘When we arrived, the oldest part was separate from the main house, it had been used as a two-storey annexe. Before we moved in, we knocked down the wall between the two kitchens where the breakfast room is now to make one, large, open-plan kitchen.
‘The annexe is now incorporated upstairs and down into the main house, although if someone in the future wants a self contained wing for whatever reason, it would be simple to divide it up because there are still two staircases.’
Being one of those houses that has evolved over the centuries, you can trace the history in the style of the rooms. What is now the laundry room was once the brew house for the farm. It’s twice or three times the size of the usual cubby hole where the laundry’s done in a modern house.
There are fireplaces in all the main rooms — in all, there are five principal reception rooms including the music room/library — and each room is about 20ft or more, the dining hall is 25ft.
There are three bedrooms on the first floor, each with its own bathroom — the master suite has a walk-in wardrobe as well as a massive bathroom — and there are two more bedrooms and a fourth bathroom on the top floor.
The games room in the basement is 31ft — Christine and Colin have a table tennis table there and a snooker table. There’s also a wine cellar in the basement and a strong room.
The grounds amount to 3.5 acres and include a hard tennis court, walled garden and orchard with lots of fruit trees and a walnut tree. ‘It’s always been my ambition to get the walnuts before the squirrels, but I have never managed it,’ Christine laughs.