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Renovated Combermere Abbey set to reopen

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 March 2016

Combermere Abbey library

Combermere Abbey library

Archant

The doors will open this month on the newly-restored Combermere Abbey. Words by Paul Mackenzie

Sarah Callander Beckett and husband, Peter Sarah Callander Beckett and husband, Peter

Work to transform an historic Cheshire home has been completed and now the job of telling its story can begin. Sarah Callandar Beckett’s great-grandfather bought Combermere Abbey shortly after World War One, but not a great deal was know about the building’s history when Sarah inherited it in 1992.

Since then she has been working to renovate the estate, parts of which were in dire need of attention. The stable block has been converted into holiday cottages, the walled gardens have been restored and now work has finished on an 18-month re-building project on the north wing of the house.

Combermere Abbey, which stands near Whitchurch, was built as a Cistercian monastery in 1133 but was dissolved under Henry VIII and re-modelled as a Tudor mansion by the Cotton family. The most famous member of the family was Sir Stapleton Cotton, a general in Wellington’s army who covered the house with a fashionable Gothic façade in the late 1820s.

Manchester businessman Sir Kenneth Crossley bought the abbey in 1919 and, following an air accident, it has since passed down the female line, to Sir Kenneth’s grand-daughter and then to Sarah.

Combermere Abbey archivist Steven Myatt in the restored library Combermere Abbey archivist Steven Myatt in the restored library

Now, Sarah has asked Steven Myatt to trace more of the Grade One listed building’s past. Steven, a former publisher of motorcycle magazines in Hale with a passion for local history, said: ‘I am an archivist without any archives because although the house has only been bought and sold once there are no records.

‘The Cotton family who owned the house seem to have been very good at marrying in to money but not very good at keeping hold of it and when they sold the house after World War One, the sold everything – even the gates from the drive and fittings from the stables, everything went in a massive three day auction. If they could have taken the roof off and sold it, they would have done.

‘The result was though that everything was dissipated and there are now no records so I have come to this as almost a blank canvas.’

Steven has been researching the house and its place in the region’s history. ‘Although the house is in the countryside in a fairly remote corner of the kingdom, the stories are fantastic,’ he added.

Combermere Abbey's clock tower Combermere Abbey's clock tower

‘There are clues and hints in all sorts of places. It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle and although there’s lots we still have to fill in, we have found some incredible tales, like the prior from the monastery who was shot dead with a bow and arrow in the street in Audlem by a labourer who had not been paid for his work.

‘Armies were billeted here before the Battle of Nantwich and William III billeted his troops here before setting off for Hoylake and crossing to Ireland for what is now known as the Battle of the Boyne which has shaped a lot of Irish history.

‘I have had a fascinating time. I get as excited as a four-year-old at Christmas by unearthing these stories. There is a lot we still don’t know, such as where all the buildings that have been lost, used to stand. Also, there must be almost 400 years of bodies buried here somewhere, but we have no idea where.’

The restoration project in the north wing including the renovation of the ornate 12th century library where the Abbott would have formally entertained guests and the work has been completed by interior designer Nina Campbell and environmental campaigner and architectural historian Edward Bulmer. The lengthy project has involved a lot of structural work, but much of it will go unseen when the building opens to the public this month.

Combermere Abbey's restored north wing Combermere Abbey's restored north wing

Sarah said: ‘The project was to strip away the Gothic façade and expose the timber framed building and to repair, renew and restore that building. We have gone through the building repairing everything that could be repaired and replacing where we have had to, then covering it all up again. It’s going to look fantastic but no-one will believe what we have done.

‘It has been very interesting project and it has helped us to understand the building better. In the 1970s my mother made some quite big alterations. She removed a couple of wings and a floor on one side, all in an effort to contain the ingress of water. They left the north wing and that’s the wing we have now finally tackled.

‘It has been a fascinating ride. We have spent a long time arranging the funding and in that time the building has become increasingly derelict. This side of the house has not been lived in and was showing serious signs of wear and tear.’

Sarah, who will be the High Sheriff of Cheshire in 2017, is a former international PR director for Laura Ashley and was working in America when she learned she was to inherit the estate. ‘I am one of very few women to inherit,’ she said. ‘I had no prior knowledge that it was going to be mine but I was the eldest of three and my mother gave me the choice. I thought about it and came back a few times to spend time here. I love projects and although my life in America was fantastic, I felt this house and the project needed a big injection of energy and enthusiasm.

‘In America there is a very can-do attitude to things so my eyes had been opened to the potential and possibilities. I would never have imagined we would have to deal with some of the things that have gone on. I was naive in the beginning but perhaps it was for the best that I didn’t fully appreciate the scale of the project, or I might not have taken it on.’

Along with husband Peter and 21-year-old son Peregrine, she is now looking forward to welcoming visitors to the abbey. ‘People are so appreciative,’ she added. ‘I have met people on tours of the house who have a relationship with the house or my family, or who have knowledge of the house.

‘We open 40 days a year and do group tours and I rather like the whole concept of telling the Comberemere story from 1133 to 2016, I think it’s rather wonderful to share my family home with members of the public.’

* Guided tours of the renovated abbey will be held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from April 5 until July 7. Tours will last about an hour and cost £6 for adults and £4 for under 14s.The annual bluebell walk in the Combermere Abbey grounds will take place on Sunday April 17. To book a tour call 01948 662880, or for more information on the abbey, which also hosts corporate events and weddings, go to combermereabbey.co.uk

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