Period Property of the Month - March 2009
David Mlinaric, one of Britain's most eminent interior designers over the last fifty years, has created a beautiful country home deep in rural Somerset
Well worth the wait
David Mlinaric - one of the world's top interior designers - first spotted his home Spargrove in Somerset 40 years ago. And now he has written a book about it and the many other fantastic properties he has worked on, called Mlinaric on Decorating.
Back in 1967 and about to be married, David and Martha were looking for a home. Quite how they found Spargrove is a mystery as even today it is lost in the foothills of the Mendips and involves driving down endless winding lanes and through unmarked gateways. However the couple persevered and emerged from one such lane through a tunnel of trees to a seemingly-empty collection of ancient buildings comprising a manor house, mill house, brew house and stables all made from the local Doulting stone. There they met an old man who was one of the seven brothers and sisters who owned the place. In fact, they all lived there together and, when the Mlinarics asked if the place was for sale, they were told, "Not yet."
So they went to the other side of the country and bought the dilapidated Thorpe Hall, in Suffolk, which they rescued and where they lived happily for many years bringing up their three children.
Meanwhile, as the years rolled by, the seven brothers and sisters at Spargrove became more and more withdrawn from the world and a tragic fire in 1989 killed two of them and badly damaged the property. Thieves robbed them of the fireplaces, fittings and even the stone roof tiles of the brew house, while hooligans made their lives a misery; the old folk were driven to board up their windows while the doors became warped and jammed. The only things that grew were weeds and brambles (blocking the front door) while inside, empty food cartons and tins piled up around them.
Then, in 1995, the Mlinarics returned to Somerset, remembered the house and went to see it. They found that, by then, there was just one old lady left out of the seven siblings and she had just put the place up for sale, having divided it into seven separate lots, each with planning permission. However, David and Martha did not even look over the place, but made an offer on the spot for it in its entirety.
What made them want to buy such a dilapidated set up? "Because it was such a beautiful place - and still is," says David. "It sits in a gently sloping river valley flanked by two Roman hill forts and there are several ancient stone bridges over the winding river. It is a very ancient site too - in fact, one of the local little bridges is called Roman bridge - and we have part of a moat which goes back to the 13th Century at least. Our builders found the remains of an old drawbridge in it. The buildings too are very old; we think the brew house is 15th Century and the manor house probably has Tudor foundations. But, like many historic places, today it is a very peaceful spot. "
Many people would have been daunted by the prospect of rescuing so many tumbledown buildings - especially as the manor house had been so badly damaged by the fire six years before, but, after all, this is what the Mlinarics do. "I trained as an architect then switched to interior design and have spent my life in that world," explains David.
In fact, a large part of the appeal was that the buildings had not already been "made over" by anyone else. "So many times you have to unpick poor work done by someone before you," he says. "This applies particularly to town houses. Somehow those in the country have often escaped 'improvements' and luckily these had."
The long process of rescuing the site began. Many fragments of the buildings - especially of stone - were lying about, so nothing was thrown away as each piece offered a clue for restoration. "And it was all re-used - whether for path edgings or to be displayed above the ancient fireplace in the brew house," he says.
Architects Mitch and Pene Pope visited houses in the area for inspiration and everything that remained was copied, so a broken door handle became the model for others, while one cornice was duplicated from the historic Bowlish House near Shepton Mallet and another from one discovered in a pet shop. All the flagstones on the ground floors of both the main house and the brew house were lifted and numbered then, after insulation and underground heating had been installed, carefully replaced.
As the place was quite uninhabitable, David and Martha, having sold Thorpe Hall, moved into a studio apartment in Glebe Place in Chelsea (they later bought it); David could only visit Spargrove at weekends, camping in the mill house, but slowly the property began to take shape. The first building to be restored was the brew house as it was in imminent danger of collapse. Now a guest house, it still contains the original cider press and the stone gully where the juice used to run. The Mlinarics kept the original blue lias floor and the old copper used for boiling water. They unblocked the fireplace, obtained a grate made from tracks from the old Somerset and Dorset Railway and left the stone walls unpainted.
Despite the fire, traces of the original wall colours still remained in the manor house, so Hugh Henry (one of David's business partners) bought new limewashes and distempers from Rose of Jericho, a small traditional paint company in Dorset. By using additional pigments from the same company (all based on natural and earth products) Hugh adjusted the colours on site to match the historic shades on the walls. The result is a palette of glowing 18th Century hues such as can be seen in the Baroque churches of southern Germany, Austria and Slovenia, from where David's father's family originated. Hugh worked on site alongside Charlie Ainley and Ben Laycock, who together oversaw the entire works.
New unpolished floorboards were laid throughout the first floor of the manor house and all the fireplaces on this floor are versions of one found abandoned in a hayloft. The wood-and-stud doorway to the brew house kitchen is a re-creation of what was left of the original.
After 12 years, the Mlinarics are still living here with some of their children and grandchildren living nearby. And the fabulous work he put into rescuing such an unprepossessing set of derelict buildings can now be seen in his book Mlinaric on Decorating co-written with Mirabel Cecil and mostly photographed by Derry Moore.