Keeping it in the Family

PUBLISHED: 12:40 06 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013

property & Interior

property & Interior

Rollestone Manor in Shrewton has been the home of Lords, Ladies, the family of the wife of a king and is no re-inventing itself as a boutique hotel with the emphasis firmly on the homely.

Suzanne Kilmister doesn't live at Rollestone Manor, near Stonehenge. She's married to an army officer and, in her words, "constantly flits from place to place". Neither does her cousin, George Smith, live there. However, both of them were fixtures there during the time they were growing up: George because it was his family home and Suzanne because she was one of the tribe of children who made the place their second home.

"My aunt, George's mother, had been a midwife, and loved having children around - she filled the house with nieces and nephews and foster children," Suzanne told me over a cup of coffee in what was the former manor house's front parlour during the time they were youngsters. Now it serves as the residents' lounge in the boutique hotel which George and Suzanne (as project manager) have created over the last couple of years.

"When my aunt died, the question arose: 'what are we going to do with it?' It had become very run-down over the years, but it was still a family home with a lot of history behind it, and we wanted to keep the spirit of a family home alive as much as we could. My aunt had run it as a B&B for some years, so we thought why not carry on the tradition?" Bed and breakfast is as bed and breakfast does, however. Today's market demands more than just a place to rest your head at the end of the day, so a boutique hotel is what it became, with all the cachet that goes with it.

And there is a lot of cachet to go around. The old manor house has had a long, if chequered, history. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book as belonging to Cudulf but it had obviously been well-established by then. In the mid-13th century it belonged to the Earl of Winchester and it has been through a succession of owners ever since, the celebrated Earl of Cardigan (of Light Brigade fame) included, not to mention the family of Lady Jane Seymour, the only wife of Henry VIII to have given him a son. Reputedly Jane Seymour was actually christened in St Andrew's, the small church at the rear of the manor house, formerly part of the estate, but now under the care of the Historic Churches Conservation Trust.

Successive owners have each added their own embellishments. The original manor house that stood here was rebuilt at some indeterminate date over the centuries and it is now an amalgam of architectural styles dating from the 12th to 18th century, with a Victorian three-storey extension. Together they have combined to give the house a distinctive appearance, well worthy of the Grade II Listed status it holds.

It was that Listed status that held things up during the refurbishment process - a process that revealed just how much the property had been altered over the years as the plaster was stripped away and old doorways appeared. "It needed a lot of work doing to it to bring it up to the standard that we wanted," Suzanne explained, "although, essentially, we kept the layout of the rooms exactly as they were, even though their function might have changed now."

The renovation process itself wasn't without practical difficulties. "We actually had the lead pinched off the roof not once, but twice," Suzanne recalled with a grimace of distaste. "I would rather have given it to them actually, because when they threw it off they smashed the Victorian verandah that runs along the garden side of the house and that cost a lot more to repair than the cost of replacing the lead!" That, perhaps, is an indication of how quiet and dark it is on the outskirts of Shrewton, despite the property being just off the main road between Devizes and Stonehenge.

For much of its life the manor house has been the centre of farming activities. George's father, a long-time resident of Shrewton and an army Colonel, bought Rollestone Manor into the family some 60 years ago and developed the holding as a dairy farm, originally running the business from the manor house. Despite the undoubted age of the building, there are, apparently, no skeletons in the cupboards or things that go bump in the night. "However," Suzanne said, "we did experience one or two strange things when we were doing the renovation works. It was almost as if George's mother was watching over us. I could almost hear her exasperation and imagine she would have been saying 'Oh, what are you two up to now?'"

In a way the house itself is a time-slip of a place: the facilities are as modern as you would anticipate from a boutique hotel, whilst the appurtenances are what you would expect from a family home with some history behind it. And, speaking of time-lords, which we weren't but well could, Rollestone Manor comes with its own Tardis. "No one knows exactly what it is," Suzanne told me, "but from the layout and orientation in a corridor we think it could well have been an old entrance hall or lobby from the side door." It is actually a set of Jacobean or even Tudor panelling, complete with wall pegs, in the form of a closet, which the various children who have played up and down the corridors over the years will have transformed in their imaginations into all manner of exciting things.

The hotel now has seven en-suite bedrooms (with staff accommodation on the top floor) and doorways which are notable for their squat dimensions. Each of the bedrooms is furnished with the antique furniture that George Smith's mother collected and is named after one of the owners of the property: the Seymour Room, for instance, looks out over the church where Jane Seymour was reputedly christened, and the Cardigan Room has to a huge canopied four-poster and a roll-top bath.

One of the former owners was Sir Nathanial Dance Holland, a celebrated portrait artist and founder member of the Royal Academy of Arts turned politician whose wife, Lady Harriett, was the aunt of the Earl of Cardigan. She was one of four sisters all of whom married into nobility except her, who married a commoner in Sir Nathaniel. He was, however, a very wealthy man, more so than any of his noble in-laws, a fact that must have been a source of great satisfaction to Lady Harriet in those status-conscious days.

Rollestone Manor has always been a feature of village life in Shrewton and it was only fitting, Suzanne told me, when they eventually finished all the renovation works, that the local villagers should be invited to a special open day when many re-acquaintances were made, one a sprightly old lady in her nineties who had been George Smith's father's secretary during the dairy days, and another old gentleman who, to his delight, identified his first girlfriend in a series of old prints that now line the hotel dining room!

The Manor is currently looking to become established as an approved premises for civil wedding ceremonies, bringing even more families into the equation that has been for so long an integral part of life here. One thing is certain, visitors to the hotel that the Manor has now become can claim, and receive, as much hospitality as the one-time family home can lavish on them; it's in the blood, it's in the family.

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