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At home with Sophie Akers-Douglas: Shopwycke Manor

PUBLISHED: 15:43 30 January 2017 | UPDATED: 14:29 31 January 2017

Sophie Akers-Douglas with the dog Coco she calls her

Sophie Akers-Douglas with the dog Coco she calls her "fourth child" outside Shopwyke Manor, near Chichester . Photo by Jim Holden

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

Fitness guru Sophie Akers-Douglas always swore she didn't want to live in an old English house. That was until she saw Shopwycke Manor, as she tells Duncan Hall

Sophie Akers-Douglas almost looks embarrassed now when she admits it took her six months to view the house that would become her new home.

“I’m used to the US – the space, the light, the big airy buildings,” says Sophie, 38, who originally hails from Boston. “I always said I would never live in a UK house with low ceilings and exposed beams. The brochure was on the kitchen table, but I said ‘No, I’m not seeing it – I need air!’”

It took subterfuge by her husband Dominic, 37, the commercial director for investment company the Constantine Group in Godalming, to get her through the doors and discover a new family home. “My mom came to visit and Dom told her: ‘Get your daughter to see this house’,” remembers Sophie. “I had to eat my pride – I loved it. It was so embarrassing! There is something about the house – it wasn’t my ideal home, but I had such a gut feeling about it.” It was a complete contrast to the house the family inhabited in London before, which Sophie believes was haunted, having experienced 10 months of televisions turning themselves on in the middle of the night, bathroom fans activating of their own accord and children’s toys triggering themselves in the early hours of the morning.

Having lived in Shopwycke Manor for two years the family is preparing to move out in 2017 for extensive renovations, stripping back some of the house’s later additions to bring out its medieval roots. “We knew we had to live here for a year or two before deciding what to do,” says Sophie, who gave some of the walls a lick of paint initially just to freshen them up. She is planning to work with a lighting designer to help sympathetically illuminate the dark interiors. “We want to keep the integrity of the house – we wouldn’t want to modernise it.”

The Grade II listed building, located only a mile outside Chichester, is thought to date back to the Domesday Book. Over the centuries it has received several extensions, including the kitchen and a large room currently used as a family room. On the inside it has received more modern additions, such as a 1960s staircase which is going to be ripped out. And living in the house the family have discovered elements such as a medieval arch in the middle of the dining room which had been cut in half by a later partition wall.

The sitting room at Shopwyke Manor, near 
Chichester, with the modern staircase in the righthand corner. 
Photo by Jim HoldenThe sitting room at Shopwyke Manor, near Chichester, with the modern staircase in the righthand corner. Photo by Jim Holden

Where Sophie has really made an impact is in the open space around the swimming pool towards the rear of the house. The open barbecue and bar space received a lot of use over the summer. But her pride and joy is her health studio, built in the former pool room. It’s a complete contrast to the main house – clapperboard fronted on the outside, light and airy inside with skylights, big windows, underfloor heating and plenty of space. It’s where Sophie’s business Hedonistic Health is based, which she launched two years ago.

“I used to work in head-hunting in the city,” she says. “I fell into recruitment as I needed a job when I first moved here. I didn’t really like it.” She left on maternity leave to have her son Noah, now seven, who was swiftly followed by Izzy, six. Her business grew out of a love of Pilates. “I was always a bit lazy with exercise,” she says. “My mom always says she can’t believe I’m in fitness. Doing Pilates felt really good – my body started to feel strong.” Rather than return to the city she took a Pilates training course and began her first classes when her third child Paloma turned four months old.

“Originally I did classes in the sitting room,” says Sophie, adding that work began on converting the pool room last January. “I began by emailing all the mums from Westbourne School. It grew from there as my confidence grew. I now do nine classes a week. It’s more like a social centre.”

The name Hedonistic Health came about when she launched her website, as she didn’t want to limit herself to just Pilates. She has since become the first teacher in Sussex to offer the BarreConcept workout which takes its inspiration from ballet, Pilates and yoga. “It’s very fast, set to pop music,” she says. “It is ballet-inspired, but it is not slow. You work to the beat. It’s amazing for lifting and shaping the bum and shaping the legs – Victoria’s Secret models do BarreConcept. I started teaching it last year, and it is now my most popular class.”

The studio – which has capacity for 15 people – has a barre along three of its walls, but Sophie says the back of a chair works just as well for anyone wanting to try at home. She believes a class is the best way to learn the techniques and get the best exercise though. “You need the energy of the class to carry you through,” she says. “It is a really high energy boost. At the end of the class people clap because they can’t believe they did it.” She believes women and men exercise in different ways. “Women like the social aspect of a class,” she says. “My husband runs by himself and loves it. Women like having the support of each other – they are all motivating and screaming at each other.”

A view through one of the medieval arches at Shopwyke Manor
, near Chichester
. Photo by Jim HoldenA view through one of the medieval arches at Shopwyke Manor , near Chichester . Photo by Jim Holden

She now runs Tuesday night evening classes for working women, and sees a definite change in focus. “Those women work harder because they are coming to me after a long day at work,” she says. “They are making a concerted effort to work out. In my 9am classes people want to chat and have coffee – I have to be a bit bossier.”

Alongside the workout classes Sophie promotes healthy eating and raw cooking dishes made by Elizabeth Jones. It’s all part of a wider plan to create a boutique studio. “My body is stronger and fitter now than it was when I was younger,” she says. “I want to live a strong, long life, be fit and healthy for a long time. My clients range up to 60 years of age, I have people who have survived breast cancer or bipolar depression where the exercise has changed their life. I try to create a space that is welcoming and full of laughter.”

For more information visit www.hedonistichealth.com

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