Taking on an historic estate is always going to be a challenge, but for these homeowners, 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.
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The 20th century was not kind to Combermere Abbey and neglect meant parts of the house were demolished or closed up. In 1990, when the owner 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 the owners, and interior designer Nina Campbell.
Architect Andrew Arrol and quality surveyor Wilf Jones have worked at Combermere since 1992 and they helped with planning permission and costings. 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, the owners worked with designer Nina Campbell.
The owners were determined to preserve the integrity of the plasterwork, arched doorways and windows, but also to introduce more contemporary furnishings. They wanted to make each room relevant to today, with sharp, colourful interiors. The Gothic interior itself was the key to the inspiration and they 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.
As it happens, one of Nina’s 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 her to pick Indian-inspired fabrics and wallpapers from her collections.
‘I chose the colour in the entrance hall (below) to give it the feel of another living space,’ says interior designer Nina Campbell. The painting was moved from the main house into this scheme as it matches the walls perfectly.
During the restoration, the Gothic render was removed from the study’s far wall to reveal a wood frame that dates from the 1300s. Rather than cover it up again, it was incorporated within the new interior wall.
The views of the mere inspired Nina to create the feel of an indoor garden in the sitting room. To achieve this effect, she chose an overscaled painterly hydrangea print for the curtains, which she paired with upholstered furniture in shades of green.
DINING ROOM AND KITCHEN
Sliding doors were installed to divide the two rooms, which now occupy what was originally the North Wing’s lobby. The ornate columns and cornices were carefully recreated using moulds made from the remains of the originals. The owner bought the two Birds of Paradise lithographs by William Matthew Hart at auction and said: ‘I love the way the birds reflect the sweeping design of Nina’s Khitan wallpaper.’
Sumptuous textiles in soft tones introduce a sense of opulent comfort, while the owners’ artworks add interest to the walls. ‘Using fabric to make a skirted table is a good trick for covering up a less-than-perfect bit of furniture or concealing too many legs,’ says Nina of the dressing table.
Nina chose Edward Bulmer’s Brick paint colour for the wall to complement the wood panelling rather than contrast with it.
David Allman, who restored much of the woodwork and panelling in the North Wing, made the vanity units to echo the Gothic windows. ‘He is retired now and only did the North Wing because he had worked on every restoration project at the abbey since 1970,’ says the owner.