Roger Linton and Peter Thorogood quit their jobs to renovate St Mary's House in Bramber
PUBLISHED: 16:32 05 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:32 05 August 2014
Roger Linton and Peter Thorogood quit their jobs to undertake the renovation of St Mary's House, Bramber. The result is a charming vision of life in Tudor Sussex
Nestling in the Adur Valley is the ancient village of Bramber, and beneath the romantic ruin of Bramber Castle stands St Mary’s House, as it has done for 600 years.
After arriving with William the Conqueror, William De Braose built his Castle on top of the hill in Bramber, established the village as an inland port, and constructed a bridge over the river which then ran just in front of St Mary’s. In the mid 12th century, the Knights Templar constructed a building, following the alignment of other Templar buildings, on the site where the house now stands. Tunnels from this period still exist under the gardens, as do the original quays and, in the blocked-up cellars, there are thought to be a number of rooms including a chapel.
By the 15th century, Bramber had become an important resting place for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Around 1470, a monastic inn was built, on the Templar foundations, for the pilgrims who would cross the Great Bridge of Bramber (once made of wood but later replaced by one of stone), on which stood the chapel of St Mary – from which the house got its name.
St Mary’s was originally constructed around a quadrangle, but the west wing was destroyed, probably by fire, by the mid 17th century. The building has had a succession of owners including William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and founder of Magdalen College, Oxford, and the Hon. Algernon Bourke, owner of White’s Club in London and second son of the Earl of Mayo (Viceroy of India). He and his wife, Gwendolen, found literary fame in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It was the Bourkes who added a new west wing in the 1890s which resulted in the house having 30 rooms – as well as five cottages and 10 acres of gardens.
It was in 1944, after the house had been occupied by Canadian troops prior to D-Day, that it came up for auction at The Old Ship Hotel in Brighton. The two main bidders were a local builder who wanted to demolish the house and use the timbers, and Miss Dorothy Ellis who wanted to save the house. Under the indomitable Miss Ellis, St Mary’s first became a guest house and then was opened to the public. In order to maintain the medieval part of the building, she had to sell the cottages, much of the land and, most important, the Victorian west wing. Little did Miss Ellis know that two of her visitors would one day return to save St Mary’s.
It was in 1984 that Roger Linton, who was then teaching art, design, and ceramics at Brighton Technical College, and is now the Curator, saw that St Mary’s was for sale. He and Peter Thorogood, who was then teaching English Literature at the University of Westminster, and is now the owner, decided to view it. The house, although Grade I-listed, was on the “at risk” register. Roger recalls, “it was rather damp and gloomy, and the gardens were a mess”, while Peter remembers that it was “very, very cold”. Even so, like Miss Ellis before them, they felt that they had no choice. They gave up their safe careers and pensions, sold their respective homes, and poured all the money – which wasn’t nearly enough – into the restoration of St Mary’s, having to do most of the work themselves. The only financial help they received was from other family members who, though worried about the size and risks associated with such a challenge, also sold their homes to help. Ultimately, the initial vision was achieved and the house was re-opened to the public in 1987.
In 2011, St Mary’s won the coveted national Hudson’s Heritage Award for Renovation/Restoration. Peter and Roger are, this year, celebrating 30 years of restoration and conservation, but they both feel that the removal of the house from the “at risk” register is their greatest achievement. They are supported by nearly 60 volunteers who offer a warm welcome and enjoy sharing their love of the house.
Two of the many highlights of St Mary’s are the Victorian Music Room – where Peter, a composer, organises a series of annual concerts and events – and The Painted Room. The latter has beautiful wall panels painted for the proposed visit of Elizabeth I – but she was not the only royal connection with St Mary’s. It is believed that Charles II waited there, in the King’s Room, before he crossed the bridge on his way to Shoreham and exile.
Peter and Roger have created a magical setting for St Mary’s with a series of “garden rooms” which include a poetry garden, a rose garden, topiary, a secret garden, and a Rural Museum; it all looks as though it has been unchanged for centuries. Visitors, at least for a while, can escape modern life and relax in what feels like Tudor Sussex.