By a labour of love, an an­cient manor re­born

Rus­sell Har­ri­son was en­chanted by Stoneythorpe Hall and, says Ara­bella Youens, its ren­o­va­tion has been a pas­sion­ate – and costly – en­ter­prise

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

‘Only a mad­man would want to tackle such a project... but history was the driv­ing force’

It was dur­ing a drive through War­wick­shire one day in 2008 that a for sale sign at­tached to an old pair of wrought­iron gates caught the eye of the Cotswolds­based en­tre­pre­neur Rus­sell Har­ri­son. “I’d re­cently bought a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion and wanted to un­der­stand the reach of its cov­er­age, so de­cided to drive a 25-mile ra­dius from Ban­bury to es­tab­lish the sig­nal. By chance, I saw the sign­board of a derelict house for sale,” he re­calls. Hav­ing started in prop­erty de­vel­op­ment in the late Seven­ties (“Long be­fore it be­came fash­ion­able to want to buy up and ren­o­vate old houses”), his busi­ness in­stincts were aroused by the prospect of the long, over­grown and tree-lined drive. “I jumped over the fence and walked up to find this very old manor house bricked and boarded up and in a ter­ri­ble state of dis­re­pair.” By­pass­ing health and safety con­cerns and fol­low­ing in a long line of peo­ple (largely van­dals) who had tres­passed through the prop­erty since it had fallen va­cant 10 years ear­lier, Har­ri­son jumped up on the roof and found a way in­side. “I had to tread ex­tremely care­fully as parts of it had col­lapsed and other bits had se­vere fire dam­age. But one of my skills is an abil­ity to see through prob­lems quickly and pic­ture the end re­sult. Although it was a huge space (over 10,000 sq ft), within half an hour I knew ex­actly what to do.” The house is more than 500 years old, and the site is be­lieved to date back to the Nor­man con­quest. Of­fi­cial records of a pre­vi­ous dwelling be­gin in 1202. Den­drochronol­ogy was car­ried out on some of the main beams, which es­tab­lished that the green oak was sourced from lo­cal wood­land in the spring of 1549; the house was built that sum­mer. Its lo­ca­tion, just out­side the mar­ket town of Southam (which Shake­speare name-checks in Henry VI Part 3), was to play a key role 100 years later dur­ing the Civil War. The day af­ter the King for­mally de­clared war on Par­lia­ment, on Au­gust 23 1642, a skir­mish was fought out­side the town, be­tween Par­lia­men­tary and Roy­al­ist sym­pa­this­ers. The Bat­tle of Southam is claimed to have been the first of the Civil War and Stoneythorpe was soon raided by the King’s forces. The house’s for­tunes turned at end of the civil war when it was sold to a Lon­don mer­chant, John Cham­ber­layne, whose ex­tended fam­ily con­tin­ued to own Stoneythorpe for the next 300 years. “We think the last mem­ber of that fam­ily lived there un­til the late Nineties – to a point when it was just about hab­it­able,” says Har­ri­son, who im­me­di­ately set about es­ti­mat­ing what it would cost to get back into shape. “That fig­ure in­creased pretty much ev­ery time I looked at any­thing – when­ever I saw a bro­ken fire­place or a hole in the wall, I just thought: £10,000. Pretty soon I ran out of fin­gers and thumbs, and knew it was go­ing to be ex­tremely ex­pen­sive.” The costs of the re­pair even­tu­ally ran into sev­eral mil­lions and took three years to com­plete; on some days there were 40 con­trac­tors on site. The work was also ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. “At one stage we had sev­eral hun­dred tons of stone wall sup­ported by four rot­ten beams and tim­ber joists in such a state that you could take them out as though they were Weetabix.” Eleven steel beams had to be in­stalled in their place to sta­bilise the struc­ture. Al­low­ing that it would re­ally only take a mad­man to want to tackle such a project, it was the history of the house and the sto­ries the lay within its walls that in­spired Har­ri­son to keep go­ing. In the late 19th cen­tury, the then owner Henry Cham­ber­layne caused lo­cal scan­dal by tak­ing a wife 24 years his ju­nior af­ter an af­fair that had be­gun on the hunt­ing field and had “blos­somed over stir­rup-cups”. At the same time, be- hind the green baize door, the but­ler, one Thomas Reeve, had started an af­fair with the house­maid An­gelina Short. Most likely con­scious of the risk of preg­nancy and scan­dal (con­trary to the sce­nar­ios con­jured in Down­ton Abbey, af­fairs be­tween ser­vants in large coun­try houses were mostly frowned on), Miss Short was sent into ser­vice else­where. “I could sense that there was some­thing about the house that was nearly mag­i­cal. It had stood for 500 years with all that history. I took the view that this was an op­por­tu­nity for me to recre­ate it for the next hun­dreds of years,” says Har­ri­son. Work has re­vealed and cre­ated three se­cret pas­sage­ways, in­clud­ing a priest’s hole which ap­pears to ex­tend be­low the main body of the house all the way to the church. Har­ri­son picked up el­e­ments from other stately homes which he has in­stalled in the sec­ond-floor li­brary at Stoneythorpe, in­clud­ing from Eas­ton Ne­ston, the Northamp­ton­shire house that Lord Hes­keth sold to the Rus­sian­born fash­ion mogul Leon Max in 2005. “A piece of wood pan­elling slides back to open up a pas­sage­way,” he says. “The house would make the most per­fect lo­ca­tion for a mur­der mys­tery week­end.” It was in this room, in the spring of 2014, and af­ter the build had com­pleted, that in­spi­ra­tion dawned for his next project, mi-pad (mi-pad.eu). “I was sit­ting feel­ing the draught of the wind blow­ing through the sin­gle-pane win­dows when I be­gan to work on plans for a pro­to­type of a house that is ther­mally ef­fi­cient, costs al­most noth­ing to run and is built with­out bricks, mor­tar or ce­ment.” While vis­it­ing slums in Africa af­ter com­pet­ing in a he­li­copter cham­pi­onship, Har­ri­son was in­spired to come up with some­thing cheap and easy to con­struct – a di­rect con­trast from his ex­pe­ri­ence at Stoneythorpe. “I’ve had the most tremen­dous sat­is­fac­tion res­cu­ing this old house,” he says. “But it’s crazy that we’re able to com­mu­ni­cate with each other in mil­lisec­onds, yet still build houses in the same way that the Ro­mans did all those years ago.” Wil­liam Har­ries, of sell­ing agents Strutt & Parker, de­scribes the Grade II listed house as: “A rare beast. Stripped to the bones and painstak­ingly re­built – it’s a brand new pe­riod house.”

Stoneythorpe Hall is on the mar­ket for £3.75 mil­lion with Strutt & Parker (01295 273 592; strut­tand­parker.com)

Big out­lay: Rus­sell Har­ri­son faced a hefty bill to re­store his­toric Stoneythorpe Hall

History: Har­ri­son with his god­daugh­ter Darcey at Stoneythorpe Hall

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