Home on the Grange
PUBLISHED: 15:34 17 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:04 20 February 2013
More than 800 years ago the great Cistercian Abbey at Cleeve was built. At around the same time, a few miles away, a large stone granary for the Abbey was also built and today this is known as Binham Grange. Just two fields awa...
After the Dissolution of Monasteries in 1536, the grange was taken over by the 1st Earl of Sussex. In the 1600s it was extended and 'gentrified', but by the time Marie and Stewart Thomas found the Listed Grade II* property, it had been rented out for years before standing empty for another two and was in a very sad state.
"Although very beautiful with its added Jacobean façade, it was virtually derelict," says Marie. The Thomases were Welsh farmers who had made the life-changing decision to move to Somerset. But to top it all, they decided to bring with them not only their family and furniture but also their 500 head of dairy cattle, their tractors and all their machinery. To further complicate their house-hunting requirements, they were not only looking for a home for their family and cattle but also something more ambitious - the space to create a country house hotel and restaurant, albeit with only two bedroom suites for guests.
When the Thomases saw the grange it had seven bedrooms, along with a Great Hall, a cottage (which is now the farm's headquarters), a big barn, several agricultural buildings and 300 acres of land. It had everything they were looking for, but before they could make the move in 2004, a great deal of preparation had to be done. "We had so much to think about," says Marie, a mother of three grown-up children. "It ranged from getting Listed Building consent and planning permission for change of use, to preparing the sheds and the winter feed for the cattle in advance of moving."
The most important point was - could they get planning permission to change the use of the house to that of hotel and B&B accommodation? It was a historical Listed property and the Thomases wanted to reduce the seven bedrooms to three (including one for their own wing) and create a third bathroom. But thanks to Withycombe-based architect Louise Crossman (www.louisecrossmanarchitects.co.uk), planning permission was granted within 18 months. The builders began in January 2006 and now the guest accommodation includes two bedroom suites and three downstairs cloakrooms, and by the following December the Thomases were able to open their restaurant in the Great Hall.
But there was still a lot to do in-between. "We had to rewire, replumb and put in new central heating," says Marie. "We also opened up blocked-in fireplaces and installed log burners. We needed a new kitchen as we would be catering for the public so we put in a stainless-steel Angelo Po one from Aspen's of Bridgwater (www.aspendesign.co.uk). Luckily, the previous owners had left behind a blue four-door Aga. The two existing bathrooms had to be revamped and a third created from a bedroom. We also installed three new cloakrooms downstairs."
Hidden treasures found in the house include very elaborate 17th-century plasterwork in the Abbey Room and in the Great Hall two Tudor archways made of black-and-white alabaster, probably dug from the alabaster cliff at nearby Blue Anchor Bay.
"These archways really were hidden," says Marie. "Someone had painted them in a horrible black paint."
But now the Great Hall has come into its own and once again it is the setting for magnificent banquets for as many as 30 guests. This is a very impressive room with its high ceilings, long windows and solid oak doors (found throughout the house).
"We often have a roaring log fire and we serve food on long refectory tables with hearty portions," she adds. There is also an intimate dining salon with a log fire which can comfortably seat six.
Marie and her daughter, Victoria, personally supervise the cooking in the kitchen, where they use a great many of their own dairy products. "Our cattle are a Midwest pedigree herd of Holstein Friesians and we have permission to use our own milk. However, most of it is sent to Cricketer Farm (www.cricketerfarm.co.uk) in Nether Stowey to be turned into cheese, butter and cream, which then comes back for us to serve to our guests."
As if the couple didn't have enough to do, they have also revamped the gardens, doing much of it themselves, and have created a parterre, a pergola, an Italian-style garden and a Victorian garden terrace. They have done this so successfully that they are opening them for the National Gardens Scheme (www.ngs.org.uk) on 20 and 22 April and again on 6 and 8 July. "We are also very keen on conservation and want to protect the birds and wildlife on the farm," says Marie. "As for the big barn, that is to be our next project and we plan to keep it as a big open space to be used for anything from art exhibitions to gardening weekends. You could say we took on a new lease of life when we moved to Somerset." BY VICTORIA JENKINS. PHOTOS BY ROBIN PRICE