Writer bought castle for just £450k...but 14 years and a failed marriage later, her story will put you off climbing the property ladder for life! It shouldn’t happen to a chatelaine!
WHEN Susan DeVere opened a countryside magazine and spotted a property advert for stunning 19th century Orchardton Castle, it was love at first sight – but 14 years later she has some very cautionary advice to would-be lords and ladies of the manor. Life in a castle has not always been idyllic for the 56-year-old author, bringing her heartbreak as well as romance and the joy of motherhood – along with a vast renovation bill and dwindling prospects on her investment.
The stunning baronial mansion on the Solway Coast ‘definitely has its own personality’ and Susan was soon enthralled: ‘I immediately thought it was somewhere I wanted to live. It just looked like a Disney castle.
‘I had been in a fire at my last property and was looking for somewhere that was fireproof and had plenty of space, which would be an escape. I didn’t know it was this big when I bought it. I came to see it, and I didn’t have a lot of time, but I’d already decided I wanted to buy it from the picture.
‘I imagined a kind of country life. I was going to ride, and have pet sheep.’
Orchardton seemed like the perfect retreat where an author could concentrate on writing. Built by smuggler William Douglas Robinson in the 1880s, it boasts 46 rooms, five turrets, four floors, a library, and stables, along with a resident ghost. It even has its own water supply.
Most would-be chatelaines would have regarded it as a bargain for £450,000, but Susan was soon undertaking major renovations that ended up costing another £500,000.
‘It was actually quite expensive for what I had to do here,’ she says. ‘There wasn’t even a kitchen. There were ugly partitions through the rooms, there were pipes going through doors, there were a lot of walls painted red, ceilings painted red. There were all sorts of strange things that had been done before I owned it – it had been a commune. It was not very good.’
Sadly Susan soon discovered that not everyone shared her passion for the baronial life: ‘When I moved here, I had my mother with me, I had my ex-partner, I had friends who came to live with me for a while.
‘After they had all left – they’d had enough, it was too quiet and they went off to towns – it became too big.
‘My first piece of advice would be: “Don’t buy somewhere that’s way too big unless you’re going to do something with it.” You’ve also got to think about the grounds. It’s got five acres of gardens. And when you think about it, five acres is quite a lot of garden.
‘I used to have a gardener, but he spent all his time cutting the grass. We cut the grass ourselves now. When I came here I was told there were all sorts of rare plants and rare trees. My pet sheep kind of took care of the rare plants.’ As for housekeeping, she said: ‘I clean the areas we’re living in and just go round occasionally and do the others.
‘I have friends who come and stay and they help. We’ve got a very long feather duster, because the ceilings are all very high.’
Susan had thought the castle would be the perfect setting for a fairytale lifestyle after remarrying her teenage sweetheart, travel writer Alan DeVere, in 2008: ‘We had married at 18 and were divorced at 20 on bad terms. And 27 years later, I saw his name on Friends Reunited and sent him a message saying, was it him?
‘A year later, he responded. He came to see me and then, two months later, we got married again. We didn’t get married at Orchardton – we went to Las Vegas.’
After their honeymoon, Mr DeVere was astonished to be told his new bride was pregnant. At 48 years old, it made Susan Britain’s oldest woman to conceive naturally without any fertility treatment. She gave birth to their son, Byron, in 2009. But Mr DeVere soon wanted to leave Orchardton. Susan says: ‘I don’t think he wanted to be here at all, actually, from the beginning.
‘He really needs to live in hot, dry country like the south of Spain. Any kind of wet weather isn’t good for his chest.
‘He really needs to be in a city. It was a much slower way of life here.’
And so, in 2010, the couple put their enormous home up for sale, valued at £2.7 million but with a bargain price tag of £1.4 million. They thought the property would be snapped up in no time.
Instead, despite starring on the Channel 4 TV show Million Pound Property, the castle languished on the market for years, putting enormous strain on the DeVeres until eventually they went their separate ways.
‘My husband left almost exactly a year ago,’ Susan confides. ‘He was stressed by it – I expect he was very stressed by it – and he couldn’t stand it any more. I went away to visit my mother for a weekend and I came back and he was gone. I wasn’t expecting him to leave – he just left. He left a note. It was just saying that he couldn’t be here any more, basically.’
Now the castle is being sold online, rather than via a traditional upmarket estate agent. Susan explained: ‘They wanted so much money upfront – about £2,000 or £3,000 for the brochures and everything – and we didn’t have it at the time.’
The couple even tried to sell the castle on eBay. One failed buyer, an American, had been trying to raise the money via online donations of $20 (£14) each, and some of the would-be purchasers were so odd that Susan is
My husband left a note saying that he could not be here any more
now writing a comedy screenplay about them.
‘We had lots of people coming to see the castle,’ she says. ‘One was a conman in his early 50s who was on a most-wanted list. Another guy started sending emails saying if I helped him to sell a private numberplate he had, he could pay me more money.
‘We also had a very nice guy based in France who owned chateaux there and knows about them. He said he’d buy – but he had to sell one of his own castles first.
‘I had a guy come over from Ireland. He’d seen the castle online, he was very into it and said: “I just want to come over and see the views.” And about an hour before he arrived, a fog descended. You couldn’t see 5ft outside the window. I had never had that before, or since. He and his wife were so disappointed.
‘And they said: “Oh, we’ll go out in the fog and go down to the sea.” And then they got lost for about three hours – so they didn’t buy it.
‘We lost nearly two years when one group was going to turn it into a home for returning soldiers from Afghanistan.
‘I even offered it as a homeless shelter one year, when we had to go back down south for a few months.
‘I thought: “Why should it sit there doing nothing? It’s a waste.” But the council didn’t want to use it.
‘I think we weren’t reaching the right people. But I also think the market has changed a great deal. Maybe it’s become more difficult for people to have second properties.
‘What I didn’t realise is people look and say: “It’s been on sale for a long time, there must be something wrong with it.”
‘But there isn’t anything wrong with it. There’s nearly always a buyer on the horizon, or someone trying to do something with it. The whole of the building is in good condition, including the roof. And it’s really beautiful inside.’
At the moment, short stays at the castle are listed on the Airbnb holiday accommodation booking website. Susan is also in discussions with a friend about renting out the castle as a wedding venue, and is even considering selling it off in a raffle. Whatever the eventual outcome, she hopes to make a new life in England with Byron, who is now eight and being home schooled after concerns over bullying.
‘It’s been very difficult,’ Susan admits. ‘I have a large mortgage. There won’t be a lot of money left after selling it. Just enough to buy a little place somewhere. My mother is 300 miles away – I need to be within an hour of where she lives.
‘I wouldn’t be able to get into London, it’s too expensive. We are considering Blackpool, and Manchester. I rather like Blackpool. I love the theme parks, of course, and I kind of grew up in a seaside town.’
Yet despite all of her troubles, the castle’s delightful setting and stunning views help Susan remain optimistic as she reflects: ‘It wasn’t a dream to live a castle life – I thought we could do some good things here.
‘I always believe things happen for a reason. And everything will happen for the best eventually. Eventually it will sell, and put us in a better position.
‘I find it very difficult to see the bad side of stuff. There has been joy before, and there will be joy again. Nothing seems that bad when you’re looking at a beautiful blue sky and the sea.’
VALUE FOR MONEY: A grand staircase, elegant bedrooms and stained glass, all for £1.4 million