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December 12 2013 Latest news:
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Join Sarah Ford as she steps through the doors of Brympton d'Evercy, an extraordinary Somerset stately residence with new owners and a bright future. Photos by Katia Marsh.
Tucked away on the outskirts of Yeovil, near the Ham stone village of Odcombe, is one of Somerset's most historic houses. The glorious Grade I Listed Brympton d'Evercy - once described by the architectural historian Christopher Hussey as 'the most beautiful house in England' - has been closed to general public view since the Clive-Ponsonby-Fanes ended their 400-year-old connection with the place.
Although it has provided a sumptuous film location for movies such as Chocolat and Restoration, much work now needs to be done on the house so that more of us might enjoy this Somerset gem.
The woman behind the mission of reawakening this sleeping beauty is former head teacher Sarah Glossop. She and Lily-Rose, one of her two Siamese cats, greet me at the door. Once Lily-Rose is comfortably settled on my lap, Sarah pours some tea and admits that she and the family were meant to be downsizing.
"We had a house in Derbyshire called Middleton Hall, which we had been running as a wedding venue. My husband, Bill, loves old houses and the one we moved from dates back to 1680. We were planning to buy a retirement cottage but when we saw this we just fell in love with it. So the long and short of it is, we are not retiring from weddings!"
Brympton d'Evercy's history goes back to 1220 when the d'Evercy family bought the land. The West Front of the main house is a fine example of Tudor design, while the south front dates from 1680. Set in 33 acres of parkland and gardens (believed to have been laid out with the help of Gertrude Jekyll), the collection of buildings includes the Priest House, the parish church and the Dower House. The latter dates back to 1350 and is a rare example of an untouched early medieval manor house. It is a Listed historical monument and is licensed for civil-wedding ceremonies.
I step inside, soaking up the special atmosphere of this rare building with its views of the lake and contemplate its miraculous survival. During its history, the property has been owned by only four families before its new owners moved in last October. Part of Sarah's vision is to see Brympton d'Evercy become another Babbington House, the fashionable country club and hotel near Frome.
There's a major amount of repair work needed first - woodworm-riddled oak floorboards in the main house, dating from around 1580, have recently had to be removed, for instance. "We have to address some pressing conservation issues. I think it's a great big challenge," says a determined Sarah. Straight-talking hotelier Ruth Watson has already offered her advice, which we will be able to catch on a forthcoming edition of Channel 4's Country House Rescue.
"We are looking at ways that other parts of the house can support the restoration, so one idea is a Victorian kitchen garden and residential garden courses," says Sarah. "This will provide local employment as well as educating people in Victorian garden skills which might otherwise be lost."
More than 20 'relaxed, informal and fun' weddings will take place at Brympton this year and 15 are already booked in for 2010. Church weddings can take place in St Andrew's in the grounds; the grand ballroom provides enough seating for 200 and the Orangery is ideal for dancing. "We have an excess of space here," says Sarah, leading me downstairs via the oldest continuous wooden staircase in England.
A primary-trained teacher and Ofsted inspector, Sarah also has plans for Brympton's cricket pavilion. She will be opening a children's nursery school here, in the most idyllic spot you can imagine. It will run alongside the local parent and toddler group - something which the new family had not expected.
"One day after we moved in, these cars suddenly arrived on the driveway and all these mothers and children got out!" Sarah laughs. It's important to her that the local community gets to appreciate Brympton, which was let to Clare School for several years. "The school was obviously not interested in troops of visitors. Mr Charles Clive-Ponsonby-Fane tried to open it up as a stately home - and it received 29,000 visitors. But there are a couple of generations who are not that familiar with it."
Sarah and Bill feared that their four children, the youngest of whom is 17, would not be so taken with the place. "I thought they would hate it because we had been talking about buying a country cottage near the sea, but they all loved it. There's just something about Brympton d'Evercy that grabs people."
From July, Brympton d'Evercy will be hosting open gardens and cricket matches. 01935 862528; http://www.brympton-weddings.co.uk.