Taking on an historic estate is always going to be a challenge, but for Sarah Callander Beckett that is something of an understatement. Not only does Combermere Abbey in Cheshire date back to 1133, when it was founded as a Cistercian monastery, but the intervening 900 years saw a number of remodellings, most conspicuously during the 1820s when the Tudor black-and-white manor was given a Gothic veneer.The 20th century was not kind to the Abbey and neglect meant parts of the house were demolished or closed up. In 1990, when Sarah inherited the property, she set about reviving its fortunes through various enterprises, including a weddings and corporate hospitality business, which has enabled her to restore all of the listed buildings. The final one was the decrepit North Wing, which became habitable again in 2016 after 24 months of work by Sarah and her husband Peter Beckett, and interior designer Nina Campbell. Here, Sarah and Nina tell us more.What challenges did you face during the restoration?
SCB: The property deteriorated rapidly during the Eighties and Nineties, but without a substantial injection of capital I couldn’t do anything about it. It took thirteen years and two attempts to join an Enabling Development scheme, which finally allowed us to restore the structure of the North Wing and decorate two of its three floors. We pulled it apart, removing the roof and the second floor to expose the Tudor oak frame, so we could replace rotten timbers before rebuilding.Who carried out the restoration?
SCB: Architect Andrew Arrol and quality surveyor Wilf Jones have worked at Combermere since 1992 and they helped with planning permission and costings. While I looked after the contractor side, my husband, and Will Mellor, who runs a firm that specialises in work on historic buildings, were joint project managers. Nick and Ben Owens, father and son master joiners, played key roles in the project, with a team of plasterers, painters and decorators. Finally, for the interiors I called on designer Nina Campbell, who I’ve known for more than thirty years.NC: To work on such an important house, and with a team of immense talent, which included historic paint specialist Edward Bulmer and master painter Icaro Kosak, was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.How did you approach the decoration of the interior?
SCB: I was determined to preserve the integrity of the plasterwork, arched doorways and windows, but also to introduce more contemporary furnishings. Nina and I had worked together on one of the estate’s cottages and I knew she would let the architecture sing out.NC: I wanted to make each room relevant to today, with sharp, colourful interiors. I designed it as if it were a standalone family home.What inspired the design?
SCB: The Gothic interior itself was the key to our inspiration and we used the quatrefoil as our logo. I also delved into the life of the first Viscount Combermere, who led the cavalry brigade during the Peninsular War and went on to become Commander-in-Chief of India.NC: As it happens, one of my ancestors, Thomas Metcalfe, was the Governor-General’s Agent in India and would have been in Delhi when the Viscount was there. Tapping into this shared history led me to pick Indian-inspired fabrics and wallpapers from my collections.Words Andrée Frieze, photographs Jonathan Gooch.Tweet