The Charm of Cleeve House, Seend

PUBLISHED: 16:49 14 May 2010 | UPDATED: 11:48 28 February 2013

The Hall

The Hall

What is it that gives elegant Cleeve House its 'good energy'? <br/><br/><br/><br/>Miriam Zaccarelli talks about its past and its present

Tucked away behind a screen of Wiltshire woodland in the heart of the county, Cleeve House is a gem of a mansion between the picturesque Seend and Seend Cleeve. Once the family home of the Bell family, the house is now growing in reputation as an enchantingly intimate venue for meetings, retreats and weddings.

The house was built in 1857 by Wadham Locke III, a JP and a Sheriff, who lived there with his second wife and five children. One of his daughters, Fanny, was famous for her work in the Red Cross during the Crimean War, and for her slightly surprising request to receive a Victoria Cross from Queen Victoria, a request which was, however, turned down.

In 1882 the property was sold to William Heward Bell, a civil engineer, who extended and redesigned the house in grand Gothic Revival style. He and his wife, Hannah, raised their four children here: William Cory, Lorna, Arthur Clive and Hannah Dorothy.

The family employed many of the villagers, hosting parties and balls in the house. William became known as Squire Bell and was very popular in the village. He donated land to the Womens Institute to build a hall in the village and his daughter, Dorothy, was elected as their first president. Her photograph, which until recently hung in the WI hall, was donated by the group to Cleeve House, where it now hangs alongside a picture of her parents. Dorothy married Henry Hony and her daughters, Selina and Dinah, visited recently and shared their childhood memories of Cleeve.

Vanessa, Virginia and.. vegetables

The Bell familys youngest son, Clive, became a famous writer and critic as part of the Bloomsbury Group in London, where he met Vanessa Stephen, the sister of Virginia Woolf. She rejected his proposals of marriage in 1905 and 1906, while she pursued her career as an artist, but on a trip to Greece in 1906 she and her brother, Thoby, contracted typhoid fever. Clive cared for them both through their illness, and while Vanessa survived, her brother did not. Clive once again proposed and this time she accepted, marrying him in 1907.

The date 1907 appears throughout the newest section of Cleeve House, as the entire west wing, including the Library and the bedrooms above, are said to have been built in honour of Clive and Vanessas union. Vanessa writes about raising her son, Julian, in the house, and of her joy at having a studio upstairs to paint in.

Although happy at Cleeve House at the beginning of their marriage, Vanessa soon tired of the stuffy country lifestyle compared to the rich artistic society in London. Virginia Woolf visited her sister at Cleeve House and the sisters wrote to each other about the dullness of life: When one first comes here, one thinks, well, they arent really so bad, there are virtues in vegetables and one has plenty to say. But gradually, with no nourishment from without, ones own stream of talk runs dry, and one lapses into silence, and then the awful torrent of commonplaces on tennis and the weather oh Lord!

Squire Bell died in 1927, leaving the house to his eldest son, Lt Col WC Heward-Bell, who lived here until his death in 1961. His son, Michael, was to inherit Cleeve House but lived too far away, so the house was put up for auction in 1962 at the Castle Hotel, Devizes.

Since then Cleeve House has changed hands a number of times, adfopting a variety of uses including operating as a private school in the 1980s.

New influences

But since opening its doors to the public five years ago, the house has rapidly grown in popularity and esteem. Partly due to the elegance, charm and beauty of the house, and largely due to the passion for hospitality of the staff, Cleeve House is now a highly sought after venue.

Carlo and Barbara Zaccarelli started work on the house in 2004, preparing for a small opening with a tearoom, but with great plans for the future.

When we first started, the house needed a lot of work, says Carlo, the boiler was broken, the rooms needed painting and the garden was incredibly overgrown.

With an entire house and six acres to tackle, Carlo and Barbara prioritised work on one room the old smoking room to be transformed into the Cleeve House Tea Room. With help from friends and relatives, and with some excellent home baking, the opening of the Tea Room meant more and more people discovered the house and gardens. Work continued on the rest of the house, with the construction of bathrooms, renovation of bedrooms, fixing of leaky roofs, and huge sanding and varnishing projects of the old wooden floors.

With the help of Liz Norris from Melksham, craft fayres were organised, providing another popular way for people to discover the venue, and soon people began to enquire about using the grand rooms for meetings and parties, pushing the need for development further.

People would walk in and just gaze in awe at the hall, and you could see their minds racing as to what event they could hold here, says Barbara. When we got the first booking for a wedding reception we were so excited, but very nervous as well. It was always in the plan to develop the house for weddings, but the brides were coming before we were even ready!

A local bridal company helped to organise the first Wedding Fayre in 2007, and a flurry of interest was generated.

Every wedding or event is different, says Barbara. People love it because they can use the house in the way that suits their own plans and dreams for their special day. Often the brides mother will do the flowers, the friends will help with the decorating, an auntie will make the cake, an uncle will be the caterer, a cousin the DJ... It is always so good to see how families come together to work on creating the perfect day for the two people they love.

As well as weddings at weekends, Cleeve House is busy with conferences and meetings during the week. The Salisbury Room is a bright, sunny room overlooking miles of countryside to the Vale of Pewsey, which is perfect for meetings of around 30 people, and the Library, an elaborately ornate and elegant room, works for smaller groups.

The Great Hall is the real pride of the house though. Designed to show off the hunting trophies of Squire Bell, it has a 10m-high vaulted ceiling and oak panelling, with fascinating stone carvings and a balcony with a minstrels gallery. Previously displaying tiger skins and elk heads, the pillars and walls are now usually adorned with garlands of flowers and fairy lights as it hosts wedding ceremonies, banquets, discos, concerts, performances and parties. In the winter it is warmed by an open fire.

The ground floor is made up mostly of the four function rooms. Upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms make sensitive use of the space available while keeping the character of the rooms intact. There are four new bathrooms to enhance the accommodation, for a B&B facility throughout the week.

Aside from the excitement and activity of weddings and events, the secluded setting of the house, with woodland to the north and sweeping great fields to the south, makes it ideal for the more peaceful pursuits. Meditation and yoga retreats often take advantage of such tranquillity, often commenting on the good energy in the Salisbury Room. There are also weekly evening classes of the local tai chi and aikido clubs, who enjoy the spacious rooms in winter and the idyllic warm evenings outside in summer.

With the help and support of hundreds of friends, neighbours and local businesses, Cleeve House has come remarkably far in its first five years, and is still growing and developing.

We just love taking care of people, says Barbara, and what keeps me going is the drive to make sure that everyone who walks through the door feels welcomed. If its the mother of the bride crying in sheer joy at her only daughters special wedding day, or an elderly gentleman just stopping by for a cup of tea everyone is important to us.

Cleeve House, Trowbridge Road, Seend, near Melksham. 01380 827129,

Special thanks to Selina Hony and Dinah Baxter for their stories and photographs.

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