Period Property of the Month - January 2009
How Marie and Stewart rescued a lovely but neglected grange in Somerset.
Triumph over time
Like something out of a novel, the lives of Marie and Stewart Thomas changed dramatically just a few years ago.
They were living on a dairy farm with 300 acres in Dynevor, Wales which had once formed part of the third kingdom of Wales known as "Deuharbarth". This area also included an 11th Century castle, 16th Century manor house, historic deer park and several hundred acres of Capability Brown Grade I Listed parkland. "On top of which Tony Robinson and the Time Team arrived and found two 1st Century Roman forts in our fields!" says Marie.
But into this peaceful life came an offer which took them by surprise.
"Out of the blue in 1988 the National Trust approached us with a view to buying our land and farmhouse," says Marie. "They wanted to restore the original estate of Dynevor which comprised some 1000 acres. Finally in 2002 it was all agreed, although we stayed on for more than a year as we were unsure where to move to. At last we saw the beautiful but neglected Binham Grange in Somerset."
The Listed Grade 2* Binham Grange had formerly been Crown property - "which brought its own problems," says Marie. "But it had everything we were looking for as it has a lovely Jacobean facade with a Victorian house behind, was perfect for entertaining, was very close to the sea and had 300 acres of land.
This meant the Thomases could bring their 520-strong dairy herd with them, a Midwest pedigree herd of Holstein Friesian cattle, now cared for by Stewart and their son Owen, 27. So in July 2004 the family which also included daughter Victoria, 23, moved all the way from south Wales to north Somerset, close to Blue Anchor Bay, along with their cattle, sheepdog Poppy and Tabitha the cat. Their eldest son Myles remained in Wales but is hoping to move down with his own family in the future.
The core of Binham Grange is ancient, dating right back to 1291 when it was built as a grange for nearby Cleeve Abbey. It had been extended in 1624 but when the Thomases found it, it had been empty for two years, having previously been rented out to tenants, and was in rather a sorry state. "It looked so sad," says Marie. "It needed a lot of work, but we had to apply for listed building and planning permission as, among other things, we wanted to reduce the seven bedrooms to three." (The children live in a little cottage on their land).
More significantly, the Thomases needed to change the use to hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation - which was complicated. "It took just 18 months to come through thanks to the efforts of Louise Crossman the architect and then another 18 months to completely refurbish and repair it," she says. "The builders began in Jan 2006 and were largely finished the following December although more work had to be done to the Abbey Room which was finally ready last July."
The house had some wonderful and rare features including elaborate 17th Century plasterwork above the old fireplace in the Abbey Room. "It depicts the Triumph of Time and was added in 1624 when the house was extended," says Marie. "The porch below was added then too and carries a datestone. The plasterwork is thought to have been made by an English sculptor which was quite rare then as usually it was Italian sculptors who came over to England to carve them."
Even older than the plasterwork are the two beautiful Tudor archways made of alabaster. Hidden beneath some hideous black paint these were found in the impressive Great Hall and the Thomases feel sure they came from nearby Blue Anchor Bay where there is an actual cliff of alabaster. In this same room are some sandstone arches too.
Restoring the beautiful grange was not straightforward, says Marie. Water came through the ceiling three times while the plumbers were at work. "At any one time there were up to 11 workmen on site and as we were our own project managers we had to make many decisions in a day.
"It was Crown property before we bought it and as the Crown is not subject to the same rules and regulations as we are, they had put the wrong type of plaster on the walls," she adds. "So we had to take it all off and use lime plaster instead. We had Jeremy Lyle in as he is a specialist in replastering and in turn he knew which traditional, skilled decorators and paint types we should use. Room by room seemed to spring to life as they worked through them.
But before they could begin we had to rewire, replumb and put in new central heating. We also had to put back missing features such as the cornicing, unblock various fireplaces and open up some of the chimneys to put in log-burners." They also put in a new kitchen and created three new bathrooms and three new cloakrooms. As regards the seven bedrooms, the Thomases combined two small ones to create a sitting room upstairs with an oak staircase that rises in the middle of it. Another bedroom became an en suite bathroom to the Abbey bedroom and another very small room became a linen room.
The couple also worked on the gardens as they both enjoy gardening. Marie used to work with Penelope Hobhouse on the Aberglasney Gardens, the Welsh equivalent of the lost gardens of Heligan. They have created a formal Jacobean parterre to the front of the east-facing house with a collection of unusual plants. To the south is a pergola with scented roses which leads to an Italian style garden and a vegetable, herb and cutting garden whose produce is used in the house. To the west of the Victorian garden terrace, there are flower borders leading to the traditional orchard and the broader landscape beyond which is a haven for rare birds and wildlife. Otters, egrets and migrating birds are often spotted around this wild and lovely estate.
What makes OUR house special:
"It's been here at least 700 years and was built to serve nearby Cleeve Abbey. The word grange means a place where grain was stored (as in granary) and as it was attached to the Abbey it could have been where the rents and tithes were paid in grain and then stored. But our home is unique for various features such as the alabaster arches in the Great Hall (probably dug from the alabaster cliff at Blue Anchor Bay) and the elaborate plasterwork above the fireplace in the Abbey Room. This depicts the Triumph of Time and was added in 1624 when the porch below and facade were added."