A sim­ply great house

For Chris and Fiona Ger­ard, life doesn’t get much bet­ter than at their Or­ford home.

EADT Suffolk - - Inside - WORDS AND IM­AGES: TONY HALL

A stun­ning restora­tion project in Or­ford

FOR a man with a pas­sion for boats and sail­ing, like his fa­ther be­fore him, and with a fam­ily equally en­thu­si­as­tic, buy­ing a home in the sailors’ haven of Or­ford, must be a dream come true. To buy one of the grand­est prop­er­ties in the vil­lage, on Church Street, must surely be the ul­ti­mate.

Chris Ger­ard was born and brought up not on the coast, but in Cam­bridge, where his fa­ther, Stephen, built seven sail­ing boats in the back gar­den, rang­ing from 23ft to 34ft. “The fam­ily owned a Sil­hou­ette, a Hal­cyon 23, then an S&S (Spark­man and Stephens) 34, which we keep on swing­ing moor­ings at Ramsholt. Fa­ther went on to buy the Car­il­lon of White, the sis­ter ship to Sir Ed­ward Heath’s Morn­ing Cloud 3, which my twin brother, Nick, races in Ma­jorca.” Hav­ing caught the sail­ing bug at a ten­der age, on leav­ing school at 18 Chris joined the Royal Navy, at Dart­mouth, as a mid­ship­man. One year at naval col­lege was fol­lowed by four years as a com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer which in­cluded ser­vice in the Falk­lands con­flict as bridge watch­keeper on the de­stroyer Bris­tol.

Af­ter work­ing four hours on, four hours off for 140 days, Chris de­cided to ap­ply to be a naval heli­copter pi­lot at Big­gin Hill. “But, as my in­struc­tor re­marked, ‘your arms are not joined to your legs’, an es­sen­tial re­quire­ment.” He left the Navy re­ceived job of­fers from Na­tional Car Parks, Gal­lagher To­bacco and Char­ing­tons the brewers. At the age of 23, he plumped for the lat­ter and rapidly climbed the lad­der. He lived in Wandsworth, while his work base was at Fox­earth in Suf­folk, where he was district man­ager for 32 ten­anted pubs spread from Mil­ton Keynes to Clac­ton.

By 2001 the busi­ness was split into brew­ing un­der Bass, pubs un­der the Mitchell & But­ler brand and In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tels. Chris was over­see­ing 400 ho­tels, pubs and restau­rants through­out the coun­try. In 2003 he left to start his own group, In­nven­ture, which now has six ho­tel/restau­rants at Cam­bridge Letch­worth, Hitchen, Wel­wyn, Fleet and Saf­fron Walden, em­ploy­ing over 190 staff.

Mov­ing to Or­ford

It was in 2016, when Chris and Fiona

came ashore at Or­ford from their boat, with friends Mike and Ju­dith Shal­low. Says Chris: “We were walk­ing up Church Street to go to But­ley Oys­ter­age, past this house which was for sale. They said re­ally you ought to buy it.” So Chris and Fiona sold their Queen Anne house in Whitwell, Hert­ford­shire, and took pos­ses­sion of The Great House in March 2017.

The im­pos­ing house was orig­i­nally built around 1820 by the own­ers of the Sud­bourne Es­tate as a shoot­ing lodge for week­end guests and par­ties. In 1966, Lord Bridges, who was a di­plo­mat and am­bas­sador in Rome and Moscow, bought the prop­erty as his coun­try home. Lady Bridges was a keen gar­dener and, un­til her death in 2005, she and her gar­dener, Bob, cre­ated the ma­ture gar­dens you see to­day, which Bob still tends.

In a per­fectly ex­e­cuted, al­most mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion, this beau­ti­ful prop­erty was trans­formed in just six weeks from the Ger­ards taking over into a stylish coun­try house per­fect for mod­ern liv­ing. The trade se­cret was to use trades­men from the shop fit­ting com­mu­nity – in this case Con­corde Build – who are well versed in turn­ing around jobs in a very short time. Fiona mas­ter­minded the project.

“Be­ing an in­te­rior de­signer and project man­ager over the years ob­vi­ously helped,” she says. “Every­thing had to be for­ward planned, from building per­mis­sions, ma­te­ri­als, in­te­rior decor and fur­ni­ture. All had to be on site on time. For in­stance, when the job was fin­ished and the full pan­tech­ni­con ar­rived, I was able to di­rect the men to ex­actly where every­thing should go – quite some­thing with a six bed­room, four re­cep­tion room house.”

Fiona is orig­i­nally from Guild­ford. Af­ter sixth form col­lege, she fol­lowed her love of de­sign and stud­ied at Inch­bald school of De­sign in Lon­don. With a col­league, she started a com­pany, Al­ter­na­tive Plan,

de­sign­ing lux­ury kitchens and bath­rooms, for do­mes­tic com­mer­cial clients. While liv­ing in Wandsworth, she met Chris at a bar­be­cue. They mar­ried in 1998 and had two sons, James and Char­lie. Liv­ing in Lime­house, Fiona started Lime­house­Pro­jects.co.uk on her own, mainly work­ing on in­te­rior de­sign for ar­chi­tects.

“In 2005 Chris’s busi­ness was re­ally taking off and I started on the re­fur­bish­ments and de­sign of the new busi­nesses. Rather like here at The Great House, Chris is good at the prac­ti­cal lay­out, how a place will work and func­tion, then I take over. I love pe­riod build­ings, pre­serv­ing, but giv­ing them a twist with mod­ern fit­tings such as steel and glass, maybe in­dus­trial fit­ting, as here with some of the light­ing. I love light, colour, the con­trast of con­tem­po­rary with tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture and pe­riod fur­ni­ture. My favourite room is the Ori­en­tal style sit­ting room, with the black Berg­ere chairs, my grand­mother’s Ja­panese wood block prints, and the long case clock, whilst Chris likes the break­fast/gar­den room, as it is an ex­ten­sion of this gar­den.”

Chris says that while the cou­ple are not yet re­tired, they are look­ing ahead to those days. “The vil­lage is alive, with in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, a real com­mu­nity, in­for­mal and relaxed. We’ve got to know more peo­ple here, in a short pe­riod, than any­where else. Need­less to say, it’s a sailor’s dream. We’ve joined the sail­ing club, have a swing­ing river moor­ing and have al­ready sailed across to Holland with three other boats for hol­i­days.” The house and vil­lage cer­tainly suit Fiona well, who says she can lie in her bath and see both the cas­tle and the river at once. “With a vil­lage shop, two pubs, two restau­rants, plus the sail­ing, what’s not to like? We re­gard The Great House as a new awak­en­ing for us, but like­wise for guests and the prop­erty it­self.”

The Great House Or­ford is avail­able for hol­i­day let­tings, con­tact: Big House Hol­i­days. www. big­house­hol­i­days.co.uk, tel: 01394 389188 or Suf­folk Se­crets www.suf­folk-se­crets.co.uk, tel: 01502 722717. Fiona is also cre­at­ing a gallery at The Great House Or­ford, partly to re­flect her love of art, but also be­cause she feels it is im­por­tant to pre­serve the sea wall and de­fences. Part of funds from sales at the gallery will be con­trib­uted to the cam­paign to save the Alde-Ore es­tu­ary. www.greathouse­gallery.co.uk

“The vil­lage is alive, with in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, a real com­mu­nity, in­for­mal and relaxed. We’ve got to know more peo­ple here, in a short pe­riod, than any­where else”

The tra­di­tional coun­try kitchen

The break­fast room op­ne­ing onto the gar­den

The im­pres­sive din­ing room

Top left: The el­e­gant en­trance hall Top right: Chris and Fiona Above: The snooker room, a place to while away a few hours

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