Abbey Dore Court - Stately Home

PUBLISHED: 13:12 10 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:32 20 February 2013

Abbey Dore Court - Stately Home

Abbey Dore Court - Stately Home

Channel 4's Country House Rescue featuring Abbey Dore Court showed presenter Ruth Watson and owner Charis Ward clash head-on over the future of the crumbling mansion. Juliette Kemp visits the scene of the drama

Channel 4s Country House Rescue featuring Abbey Dore Court showed presenter Ruth Watson and owner Charis Ward clash head-on over the future of the crumbling mansion. Juliette Kemp visits the scene of the drama to see how Charis and her grandchildren have brought the home back to life their own way.

Abbey Dore Court may not be the biggest of Herefordshires stately mansions but there was no doubt that this albatross was just as much in need of rescuing and fending for itself as the most grandiose of county properties.

Herefordshire has proved a rich source of material for Channel 4s Country House Rescue documentary series and Abbey Dore Court, a former 18th century coaching inn, with a Victorian wing, situated within renowned 10-acre gardens, was one of the first to receive the Ruth Watson treatment.

Viewers may remember the on-going tussles between the formidable hotelier, restaurateur and food writer and the equally determined house owner Charis Ward, over repairing the crumbling building and devising income-earning opportunities. The episode ended with the future on a somewhat uncertain note.

However, the intervening year has seen a dramatic turnaround in the houses fortunes and the lives of Charis and her family.

Having put the building in trust for her grandchildren, Charis, who lives in a house in the garden, is free to concentrate on her beloved garden, which continues to open to the public as it has done since 1976.

Meanwhile, Abbey Dore Court has been transformed from a dilapidated, leaking pile into a warm, luxurious getaway, able to host holiday and weekend breaks for groups of up to 16, business events such as conferences, seminars, TV or film shoots or small, intimate wedding receptions.

And right from when the restoration was complete, the reservations poured in and continue to do so. The house already has guests booked in for next Christmas and New Year.

I think its wonderful, says Charis who runs the garden, assisted by grandson Julian, separately from the house, from which she moved in 2000.

I do enjoy seeing the house lights on and someone living there but I have no feelings for it and no regrets at all. The albatross has gone.

I felt like the Ancient Mariner. Clare (her granddaughter) would ring saying something had gone or there was water coming in and I dreaded her phone calls. Now Im freed up totally and dont have to worry about it at all.

Clare and Julian Sage are the siblings now legally responsible for Abbey Dore Court and who, with their sister Hannah, run the business of hiring it out and handle its on-going maintenance.

While Julian and Hannah both live in cottages on the 140-acre estate Julian is a self-employed gardener and fireman on call and Hannah a registered childminder, Clare, who works for the NHS, lives in an annexe at the back of the house.

And while all three love and value their family home, it is Clare who is passionate about it and Clare who wrote the life-changing letter to Channel 4.

The family bought the house in 1967 but, other than the occasional party or loan to friends, it had been left empty and to the fates since Charis moved out. The family admits now that nobody really took responsibility for it. We all went off to university and got on with our careers, says Clare.

There was never an option to sell it, we just didnt know what to do with it. Wed all talked about a business and had ideas well more than anything, hopes and dreams but we didnt know where to begin.

Julian says: It got to the point where it was no longer a case of patching up a gutter here and there. It would have to be a big job and was pretty daunting what had to be done.

The point of no return came two years ago after a frozen water pipe in a bedroom burst, sending water pouring down through the house.

The insurance paid for two rooms to be repaired and it brought the family up sharply when they saw how beautiful they were in comparison with the rest.

Then Charis happened to catch a reality TV programme in which a no-nonsense hotelier was helping owners of falling-down country houses revive their properties and fortunes, mentioned it to Clare who watched the next episode and, after an appeal for more owners to get in touch, decided to write in.

I very nearly didnt send it but I showed my grandmother the letter and she said to do so. They rang, literally, three days later and asked to come and have a look, says Clare, who still has the original missive.

And the rest, as they say, is history with Ruth seemingly finding it difficult to persuade everyone to go along with her ideas, which included a bed and breakfast and hosting farmers markets.

It was much more city-minded and we tried to keep it more country, says Julian. However, now theyre the subject of a what ever happened to episode, they say Ruth, having seen the developments at Abbey Dore, probably realises some of her suggestions werent right for the house.

I think she saw we were determined and really serious about what we were doing, suggests Clare. She triggered the talking and the realisation that we had to do something to save the house.

Even if it wasnt on camera or while she was with us, there was a process going on and thats what we got from participating.

We all had very different ideas and it helped us realise what we were capable of and what we werent like me thinking I could run a B& B, which was ridiculous but at the time I was very determined I was going to. And a tearoom, adds Hannah wryly.

It was also the first time that wed all worked together on it and it took us a while to adjust and work each others ideas out, continues Julian. It took time to work it all through but, once the ball started rolling, it went like a steam train.

Now every nook and cranny of Abbey Dore Court has been renovated. Work began in October 2009 and was finished by last April with the first guests arriving in May and continuing to do so ever since.

Any money received is ploughed back into its upkeep. The gardens and the tearooms are run independently with the tearooms relaunched this year under the management of Josephine Robey.

There are basically three businesses working alongside each other, explains Hannah. And the house has hosted hen parties, birthday parties and family gatherings.

The last couple of years have, they all admit, been an emotional rollercoaster but, says Clare, its all been worth it.

Its just really exciting to hear people arriving and hear them in there, she smiles. When I come home in the evening and all the lights are on and you can hear people playing the piano and I just think were very, very lucky.

And any unfinished business with Ruth Watson, with whom Charis, was regularly seen to clash on the episode?

Oh at the end of it all Ruth and I are good friends, always really pleased to see each other, she declares.

What to see on a visit to Abbey Dore Court Garden:

❖ One-acre walled garden
❖ Four-acre arboretum of young and unusual trees
❖ Collections of helleborus, paeonia, astrantia, ferns and bamboos
❖ Small nursery specialising in herbaceous perennials

Opening, booking and contact details:
The garden is open every day until the end of September from 11am-5pm
The Stables Tearoom is open Monday to Sunday from 11am-5pm
To hire Abbey Dore Court: 01981 240279

Getting there:

Abbey Dore Court, near Hereford HR2 0AD

Garden: 01981 240419
House: 01981 240279
Tearooms: 01981 240279

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