The entire restoration project for Combermere Abbey has took a very lengthy 25 years, £5.5millions and two applications for funding (which took 12 years in total) and also involved building another 42 houses just to keep the locals happy.
This fabulous journey ended in May 2016 for Callander Becktt, the proud owner of the mansion; by adding the final pieces of furnishings and décor to the north wing boutique B&B and bridal suite, which was used for the first time in June 2016.
Beckett’s parents completed a minor restoration of the main house in the seventies with the aim of making it liveable, but the north wing was overlooked. By the time Callander took control of the mansion, deathwatch beetle and both dry and wet rot had set in majority of the house and the grade II listing outbuildings were isolated.
However, it was not neglect from the original owners which caused the slow deterioration, but carelessly planned restoration and refurbishment that took place over the previous years.
The abbey dates back to 1133 when it was a Cistercian monastery. In the year 1536 it was dissolved by Thomas Cromwell under the power of Henry VIII and the land and buildings were given to the Cottons. The Cottons were a family of local squires who built a Tudor manor on the site and incorporated the conventual great hall.
This family lived in the dwelling for four centuries and in the year 1820, General Sir Stapleton Cotton, a well-recognised war hero, became 1st Viscount Combermere and aimed to remodel the property once again.
He wanted to remove the Tudor building and totally remodel it as a gothic style mansion. Gothic style was the fashion back in those days, however we lost all of his money when his bank failed. However, still obsessed with the idea of a gothic house, he created an envelope that covered the outside of the Tudor property, instead of building a totally new property.
At the end of the year 1800, the entire estate was sold to Beckett’s great grandfather. He was the proud owner of Crossley Motors based in Manchester, which was an engineering company that manufactured buses, tractors and cars. It is said his company was one of the great northern British manufacturing businesses in the late Victorian Era.
During the First World War, his business manufactured fighter planes and this house was used to symbolise his success. However, due to the envelope which covered the main house, people were unable to see the deterioration that was spreading across the interior of the property and overall weakening the structure. This Gothic Envelope was the main reason for the structural issues.
At first Callander completed smaller projects such as conversion of the table to a block of holiday houses which could sleep up to 50 people. Her main priority was to restore the out building for commercial purposes with the aim of these helping inject some life and character back into the estate by allowing people to come and stay. Almost instantly, the holiday cottages began to add revenue.
The second project to be tackled was to create a garden for the cottages, to add a tennis court and plant a fruit tree maze and Callander and her husband done just that. They began to use the garden for weddings in conjunction with the use of the cottages and glasshouse.
Callander then approached a charity which was dedicated to repairing and saving small properties such as outbuildings. Her team of volunteers successfully restored the services quarter to the back of the house, which included the Gothic game larder and clock tower.
The biggest challenge of all was the main house, which unfortunately was present on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register. They firstly needed to re-roof parts of the Abbey building before it all collapsed by itself. Successfully in 2007 the library ceiling was restored and secured with a well replicated view of the original plastering.
Together with a form English Heritage paint expert, Helen Hughes; they both agreed to hire professional restoration experts from a company called Hare & Humphreys. In a total of four months they were able to strip back the entire ceiling, fixing all of the plaster and also restoring the hand painted murals. Beckett spent a staggering total of £3.5million on the restoration of the stables, library (both roof and interior), the clock tower, glasshouse and also the ice house.
Although most of the project was going well, the plan to store the north wing required an application for special planning permission and also funding called ‘enabling development’ which financed restorations of grade I buildings. This application took two attempts from Beckett. The first application was rejected as she faced well organised local opposition.
In order for the application to be approved, Callander had to provide housing for the local residents. As she wanted to tackle the entire house in one project and one application it was swiftly rejected for being too ambitious. Callander had to rethink her application hence her agreement to build 43 houses in nearby Aston, which would then be later sold to village residents. Thankfully, although it did take 12 years, the planning permission was granted and the resident houses were built within 28 months and sold within 8.
While building the houses, work began on the north to its timber main frame and removal of the roof. The left hand side of the roof was successfully rebuilt, matching the rest of the gothic dwelling. Although her team was small, Callander made do with what she had. She appointed herself as the contractors and her husband was responsible for the overall day to day running on site. Also, to add to the stress and potential setbacks, Callander gave birth to a son in 1996.
Local works such as joiners and farmers took a break from their retirement and came forth in an aid and rescue mission and were able to successfully restore the panel walls in the library. Callander’s previous work connections were beneficial as she knew an interior designer who helped design the north wing boutique and bridal suite.
The north wing includes high ceilings and stunning views across the lake. There are two bedrooms in the bridal suite, which have both been finished with an elegant palette of greens, yellows and blues.
Although a lot of the project has been completed there is still a wing in the service building to be restored and then continuous maintenance to the building. However, even with this work still to be finished, the manor looks like a home again and can stand proud in its place.