Many have bought things on a whim; it’s quite something for that thing to be a huge country house which once played host to royalty and celebrity. When plans don’t work out and problems mount, it can be understandable for a family with generations of emotional attachment to a house to doggedly carry on, but the owner of Chapel Cleeve Manor in Somerset, who features in this weeks ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Thursday 21 June, 20:00, Channel 4), displays a rare level of stoicism.
Chapel Cleeve would be a fascinating house even if it wasn’t on television, but sadly its decline is all to familiar. The origins of the house lie as a medieval inn for pilgrims visiting the now lost St Mary’s Chapel and travelling to the Cistercian abbey at Cleeve, which owned much of the land in the area until it was surrendered to the Crown in 1536. The estates then passed to the Earls of Sussex in 1538 who held it until 1602, after which it passed through a number of owners, including Lord Foley of Kidderminster in the early 1700s.
When the new house was built, the remains of the inn, dating from 1423, were then incorporated as part of the north-west wing of the house as it is today. The house, built between 1818-1823, was designed by Richard Carver (b. c1792 – d.1862) whom Colvin believes to be the ‘R. Carver’, a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatville who submitted work for display in The Royal Academy in 1811 and 1812, before establishing his practice in Somerset and eventually rising to be County Surveyor. Best known for his many churches, Colvin is critical saying “…though occasionally showing some originality in plan (e.g. Theale, and the octagonal Blackford), are poorly detailed, and were despised by serious Gothic Revivalists.” He was damned by the Ecclesiologist in 1844 as having “…proved himself entirely ignorant of the principles of Ecclesiastical Architecture.” He may have been grateful that his Tudor Gothic design for Chapel Cleeve Manor was outside their remit and so escaped their ire.
Just under a century after Carver finished, the house was enjoying what was to prove to be its heyday. Bought by the Lysaght family, wealthy from their corrugated-steel business, the original five bay house, featuring a central octagonal entrance hall with a top-lit staircase, was extended between 1913-14 with a sympathetic addition which increased the size of the house to over 27,000 sq ft, with salons, a ballroom and a 100-ft long gallery. Of particular note are the high-quality interior plasterwork ceilings which were created by one of the leading Arts-and-Crafts sculptors; George Percy Bankart. Staffed by 50 servants, the house played host to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and with Fred Perry staying for tennis parties.
The death in 1951 of G.S. Lysaght triggering punitive death duties which forced the sale of the house and, worse, the sale of parts of the grounds as building plots. The dense woodland which had thus far shielded the manor was now largely obliterated with housing claustrophobically creeping up on three sides. Perhaps the expectation was that the house would not survive and further housing could be built, but the house then enjoyed a resurgence when it became a hotel in the 1960s and 70s, becoming the place to be in the area. However, when that business closed, the rot, both metaphorically and physically, set in, so that when it was bought by the current owner for 14 years of Chapel Cleeve, Jeannie Wilkins, in 1998 ‘there was not one habitable room‘.
Having spent £360,000 purchasing the property with her partner and with the help of two skilled friends, they started the mammoth task of restoring the house. Correctly starting with the roof, it took two years to complete the task of making it watertight, with the restoration of the Edwardian wing taking many of the subsequent years. The restoration was to a high standard, with care being taken to reinstate the many various mouldings and panelling, with the overall intention being to create six flats in the house, five of which could then be let – but, as with all the best laid plans, it went awry.
The inevitable challenges of finding an agreeable path through the stringent planning rules governing this Grade-II* listed house caused delays, and, sadly, Ms Wilkins relationship ended, following which she bought out her ex-partner, leaving her in sole charge of a vast partially-restored mansion with its 150-ft façade and spectacular views over the nearby hills. With an income of just £5,000 per year from renting out a cottage in the grounds she faces a huge backlog of repairs (only 18 rooms are habitable out of 45 in total) and the costs of restoring it, which she estimates at around £500,000 (so, at least £750,000 – as anyone who has watched Grand Designs will know!).
Chapel Cleeve was offered for sale in early 2010 at £1.695m (and featured in a post at the time: ‘The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section‘), but it is still available. The combination of the restoration challenges, general economic climate and the severely compromised situation of the house – reduced to just 7-acres surrounded by a drab housing estate – have driven Ms Wilkins to call for the help of Simon Davis and ‘Country House Rescue’ to inject some new ideas – which he does, though none are the financial miracle she may have been hoping for.
In many ways, Ms Wilkins’ commitment to the house has to be admired – her dedication has almost certainly saved it from joining the sad, long list of lost houses. However, it might be argued that her unwillingness to drop the asking price (especially considering the cost of the works outstanding) is also again putting the house at risk. A house of this size would ideally have much larger grounds to provide seclusion and planners ought to insist on a minimum 500-metre ‘green-belt’ around each house which would help protect their long-term viability. Undoubtedly Jeannie Wilkins deserves a just reward for the incredible work she has put in, but a quick sale at a reasonable price would certainly not only be best for her, but also for the long-term future of the house.
Sales details: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [Webbers]
Listing description: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]
- ‘Help me save my manor! Living alone, with 17 bedrooms, a hall needing 86 rolls of wallpaper and no heating, penniless Jeannie needs Country House Rescue. . .‘ [Daily Mail]
- ‘When the roof falls in on your dreams‘ [Daily Express]
- ‘Channel 4 camera crews come to Chapel Cleeve‘ [Somerset County Gazette]
- ‘Interview with Simon Davis about Chapel Cleeve‘ [TV Choice]
Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]