Period Property of the Month - October 2009
Vivien Bellamy discovers a little-known, but spectacular, timber manor which has been rescued from the brink of dereliction by an unusual entrepreneur.
Just like old times
Old Colehurst Manor is tucked away up a winding lane in the flattish north Shropshire countryside. You don't get the full impact of its glorious black-and-white facade until waved in through a side gate by the genial, larger-than-life Lord of the Manor of Colehurst,
There was a settlement recorded here as early as Domesday yet this is one of the least documented seventeenth century houses of the region. Indeed, it was more or less abandoned for many years, until bought by its present Norwegian owner, Bjorn Teksnes. The plan of the house is the familiar Elizabethan 'H', with a projecting porch in the centre, suggesting a date of around 1580, a period of building boom in Shropshire. But the manor's spectacular appearance is down to a rebuild in the 1660s.
During the previous decades England had been reeling from the Civil War and its aftermath. There was little money or energy for new building. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, those who had remained loyal were well rewarded. In a county of mixed allegiances, the Barkers of Colehurst had always supported the royalist cause. They were Roman Catholics, still persecuted in the seventeenth century, and the house contains secret stairs to a 'priest's hole'. A still-extant removable panel allowed for food and waste to be passed backwards and forwards.
The present lord - ownership of the property carries with it the title - has brought much of Norway's freshness and energy to the Herculean task of renovating what was virtually a ruin when he bought it twenty years ago. Much of the structure required complete re-building, especially the double-height porch. This made it possible to install underfloor electric heating. All the work was carried out to the high standard set by English Heritage.
Trained as a civil engineer, Bjorn Teksnes has considerable skill in a wide range of building and woodworking crafts. He has managed to do most of the work himself, only occasionally requiring the help of specialists. He personally worked on new wattle and daub panels in the traditional way and on the new timbers, using, as he proudly boasts, "not one nail!" "Prior to undertaking any work," he says, "I made a pilgrimage to see other timber-framed houses, especially Stafford High House, which has the same facade."
From the porch you walk straight into the large entrance hall, a place of assembly for servants and tenants while the family would have occupied the more private 'Great Chamber' above. In a semi-derelict state, it had been divided up into several unsatisfactory smaller rooms when Bjorn bought the house. He has restored the original dimensions of the hall and laid a handsome stone floor of paviours that were discarded, he believes, during a re-paving scheme for Trafalgar Square. Elsewhere he has repaired and re-introduced oak timber flooring. He commissioned a local blacksmith to make all the grates, based on seventeenth century models.
Two cross-wings flank either end of the hall, one providing reception rooms for the family and the other a service wing for the large kitchen, larders, scullery and other offices that a manor house like this required.
Today the family lives on the first floor with its wide-ranging views over the surrounding countryside.
The early eighteenth-century staircase winds up within a stair-tower that projects at the rear of the house. It leads to the family's accommodation and a range of bedrooms, many now equipped with en-suite bathrooms.
There is an attic floor where a large household of servants, mainly male in the seventeenth century, would have slept. Before the introduction of gas or electric lighting, candles lit the way to bed, some secured in sconces attached to the building's timber-frame.
Bjorn is an avid frequenter of antique shops and salvage yards and has collected a range of interesting 'bygones', many of which enhance the sense of period in the house.
Fashion designer and personal stylist Cheryl-ann Taylor thinks she may have been born in the wrong era. "I love old things," she says. "They're so characterful. And I adore living in this house. If I could have one wish, though, it would be to take the property back to the way it would have been originally. I'd like to reinstate the original staircase, for example, which would have faced you as you opened the front door."
When the family acquired the property there was no garden but just a plot of more-or-less derelict land. At the rear Bjorn has created a small golf course to indulge his favourite hobby. The front plot has been divided into a complex pattern of interlocking spaces, softened in high summer by luxuriant flowers and foliage. Originally the manor had a moat on at least two sides but this was filled in long ago. Water from it has been cleverly diverted to form a canal opening out into ponds half-concealed by foliage. The garden's central feature is a two-storey bridge that Bjorn designed and built himself. Based on an extant drawing, it is a scaled-down timber replica of the original gatehouse.
All the planting is informal. Large beds are filled with cardoons, evening primrose and goldenrod, with lilies and roses in the foreground. Borders of mature lime trees enhance the sense of enclosure.
Surveying his work, Bjorn observes "You can't make a place like this into a museum: when people come, they enjoy it because it's been a home to families for many centuries."
As the house is so large they decided to devote part of it to public use and hence the space once occupied by the kitchen services has been converted into a splendid banqueting hall.
The manor is licensed for weddings, hosting about ten a year. Many couples choose to have the ceremony conducted in the luxuriant garden. Wedding guests can also stay overnight in some of the bedrooms.
Old Colehurst Manor, Nr. Market Drayton, Shropshire. Tel. 01630 638833 or visit www.colehurst.co.uk