Country House Rescue – Season 4: Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Many have bought things on a whim; it’s quite something for that thing to be a huge country house which once played host to royalty and celebrity.  When plans don’t work out and problems mount, it can be understandable for a family with generations of emotional attachment to a house to doggedly carry on, but the owner of Chapel Cleeve Manor in Somerset, who features in this weeks ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Thursday 21 June, 20:00, Channel 4), displays a rare level of stoicism.

Chapel Cleeve would be a fascinating house even if it wasn’t on television, but sadly its decline is all to familiar.  The origins of the house lie as a medieval inn for pilgrims visiting the now lost St Mary’s Chapel and travelling to the Cistercian abbey at Cleeve, which owned much of the land in the area until it was surrendered to the Crown in 1536.  The estates then passed to the Earls of Sussex in 1538 who held it until 1602, after which it passed through a number of owners, including Lord Foley of Kidderminster in the early 1700s.

When the new house was built, the remains of the inn, dating from 1423, were then incorporated as part of the north-west wing of the house as it is today.  The house, built between 1818-1823, was designed by Richard Carver (b. c1792 – d.1862) whom Colvin believes to be the ‘R. Carver’, a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatville who submitted work for display in The Royal Academy in 1811 and 1812, before establishing his practice in Somerset and eventually rising to be County Surveyor.  Best known for his many churches, Colvin is critical saying “…though occasionally showing some originality in plan (e.g. Theale, and the octagonal Blackford), are poorly detailed, and were despised by serious Gothic Revivalists.” He was damned by the Ecclesiologist in 1844 as having “…proved himself entirely ignorant of the principles of Ecclesiastical Architecture.” He may have been grateful that his Tudor Gothic design for Chapel Cleeve Manor was outside their remit and so escaped their ire.

Dining Room - Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Dining Room – Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Just under a century after Carver finished, the house was enjoying what was to prove to be its heyday.   Bought by the Lysaght family, wealthy from their corrugated-steel business, the original five bay house, featuring a central octagonal entrance hall with a top-lit staircase, was extended between 1913-14 with a sympathetic addition which increased the size of the house to over 27,000 sq ft, with salons, a ballroom and a 100-ft long gallery. Of particular note are the high-quality interior plasterwork ceilings which were created by one of the leading Arts-and-Crafts sculptors; George Percy Bankart. Staffed by 50 servants, the house played host to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and with Fred Perry staying for tennis parties.

The death in 1951 of G.S. Lysaght triggering punitive death duties which forced the sale of the house and, worse, the sale of parts of the grounds as building plots.  The dense woodland which had thus far shielded the manor was now largely obliterated with housing claustrophobically creeping up on three sides. Perhaps the expectation was that the house would not survive and further housing could be built, but the house then enjoyed a resurgence when it became a hotel in the 1960s and 70s, becoming the place to be in the area. However, when that business closed, the rot, both metaphorically and physically, set in, so that when it was bought by the current owner for 14 years of Chapel Cleeve, Jeannie Wilkins, in 1998 ‘there was not one habitable room‘.

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Having spent £360,000 purchasing the property with her partner and with the help of two skilled friends, they started the mammoth task of restoring the house.  Correctly starting with the roof, it took two years to complete the task of making it watertight, with the restoration of the Edwardian wing taking many of the subsequent years.  The restoration was to a high standard, with care being taken to reinstate the many various mouldings and panelling, with the overall intention being to create six flats in the house, five of which could then be let – but, as with all the best laid plans, it went awry.

The inevitable challenges of finding an agreeable path through the stringent planning rules governing this Grade-II* listed house caused delays, and, sadly, Ms Wilkins relationship ended, following which she bought out her ex-partner, leaving her in sole charge of a vast partially-restored mansion with its 150-ft façade and spectacular views over the nearby hills.  With an income of just £5,000 per year from renting out a cottage in the grounds she faces a huge backlog of repairs (only 18 rooms are habitable out of 45 in total) and the costs of restoring it, which she estimates at around £500,000 (so, at least £750,000 – as anyone who has watched Grand Designs will know!).

Chapel Cleeve was offered for sale in early 2010 at £1.695m (and featured in a post at the time: ‘The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section‘), but it is still available. The combination of the restoration challenges, general economic climate and the severely compromised situation of the house – reduced to just 7-acres surrounded by a drab housing estate – have driven Ms Wilkins to call for the help of Simon Davis and ‘Country House Rescue’ to inject some new ideas – which he does, though none are the financial miracle she may have been hoping for.

In many ways, Ms Wilkins’ commitment to the house has to be admired – her dedication has almost certainly saved it from joining the sad, long list of lost houses.  However, it might be argued that her unwillingness to drop the asking price (especially considering the cost of the works outstanding) is also again putting the house at risk. A house of this size would ideally have much larger grounds to provide seclusion and planners ought to insist on a minimum 500-metre ‘green-belt’ around each house which would help protect their long-term viability. Undoubtedly Jeannie Wilkins deserves a just reward for the incredible work she has put in, but a quick sale at a reasonable price would certainly not only be best for her, but also for the long-term future of the house.


Sales details: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [Fine & Country]

Official website: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor

Listing description: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

News articles:

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

19 thoughts on “Country House Rescue – Season 4: Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset

  1. Nigel Rose June 20, 2012 / 09:39

    My Parents owned Cleeve Park from 1968 – 1972 and we grew up there for a few years, my father purchased it as a white elephant and built up a very good hotel and bar venue. Which thrived while he had it. We emigrated in 1972 to New Zealand when he sold it. Nigel Rose

  2. Alix Massey June 21, 2012 / 21:10

    Like so many lovely places, this is an example of what we all need to help, appreciate and save . . . and thank yo Channel 4 for highlighting – good luck to Chapel Cleeve. I hope to be able to visit one day.

  3. Jill June 21, 2012 / 21:30

    I really enjoyed this show and hearing about this ladies story . I so admire her and hope she gets to live in her house for as long as she wants. I wish her well

  4. judy harris June 21, 2012 / 21:31

    I love this house and would love to come and help to clean garden do anything to help this remarkable lady well done you hope all goes well truly felt for you xx free no charge

  5. Teresa June 21, 2012 / 21:45

    I love Simon Davis on Country House Rescue he is doing a fab job! Absolutely fell in love with Chapel Cleeve and would love to own it,the architecture, history, craftsmen ship and beautiful woodwork through out the house is breath taking.

  6. Carrie June 21, 2012 / 23:14

    What a fantastic buiding, We wish you the best of luck Jeannie Wilkins Chapel Cleeve is luck to have you.

  7. Sue Peall June 22, 2012 / 14:18

    I love the show and that for me was the best yet ! Was really good to see how Jeannie fell in with the ideas (after the first shocks !) and embraced what was suggested instead fighting Simon and the others involved. I wish her all the very best I only wish I was nearer I would love to help !!!

  8. Jady Sinclair June 22, 2012 / 14:44

    Just watched the programme on catch-up TV. All the very best Jeannie Wilkins – I hope you achieve your dreams for Chapel Cleeve, and that it is restored for future generations to enjoy!

  9. sue June 22, 2012 / 15:18

    Jeannie you have vision and passion. Good luck for the future at Chapel Cleeve.

  10. Robin June 22, 2012 / 19:27

    It would be good to have a volunteer workforce (“Friends of Chapel Cleeve”) who could to go there regularly (by arrangement of course) to lend a hand with cleaning, gardening, or whatever needed doing. Members could help to raise funds for materials too, and perhaps help with guided tours to raise funds… This house deserves to be saved, and Jeannie Wilkins needs lots of help in doing this. I live 200 miles away, so I’m not best placed….but I wish her well.

  11. John Golding June 22, 2012 / 23:21

    The location and style of this house would make a good film location, has anyone thought of this as a way to increase income?

    • Kelly June 24, 2012 / 00:52

      That’s what I thought looking at those pictures of that gorgeous house. It’s beautiful!!

    • Andrew June 24, 2012 / 16:16

      John, yes they have, as per the episode’s Channel 4 scrap book, which states that Early Day Films have been advising Jeannie on the use of the house as a unique film location, although most filming tends to be done nearer the larger cities, such as London and Manchester.

  12. mark June 30, 2012 / 00:01

    Overwhelmed by jeannies warmth enthusiasm and passion for this beautiful house.This house deserves to be saved and jeannie deserves to continue to live in it.I wish her all the best for the future

  13. Gregory hubbard September 8, 2012 / 20:21

    In Portland, Maine, US of A, a small company purchased the city’s last picture palace to use as a film and performance venue. However, dereliction, holes in the roof, rotting baths, etc., proved too expensive to renovate if they also had to pay for basic cleaning, construction and the like.
    However, the community, recognizing the contribution the theater made to their neighborhood and the city, stepped in to help with all the chores on which volunteers could make a difference, mucking out derelict bathrooms and the like. The volunteer and professional work restored the theater for profitable use.
    The danger? The first owners of the theater could not manage it or book performers successfully. You really must know what you’re doing, or learn fast if you do not have deep pockets to allow a normal learning curve. The present theater owners are far more successful.
    One additional note; Portland has a long history of protecting its landmarks after a brief flirtation with Urban Renewal – basically land clearance for new and usually ugly development – so most residents are quick to jump in and help with the rescue. If Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset, already has a school donating restoration crafts, Jeannie Wilkins has pointed the rescue in the correct direction.
    Greg Hubbard
    Sanford, Maine

  14. Iris Graham August 1, 2015 / 02:47

    Enjoyed watchng this programme here in New Zealand this week and wonder what has happened in the past 3 years since this episode was filmed. What a wonderful lady with such energy and spirit. I hope she has managed to retain ownership and with the aid of the apprentices has been able to continue the restoration.

    • Peter Bowers November 9, 2015 / 13:37

      Hi Iris. I’m Peter, a friend of Jeannie.sad to tell you that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the manor is back on the market for sale. but as yet no buyers

  15. Gail April 10, 2021 / 15:07

    Oh how terribly sad for Jeannie. What a courageous Lady. I loved the Programme. I have just watched it on Together TV. 💕🙏🙏

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