Impeccable provenance of the perfect manor house

Wickhamford Manor

The lover of old houses and social history will be unable to resist learning more about Wickhamford Manor, reports Marsya Lennox…..

This is going to be a difficult house to sell,” said a recent visitor to Wickhamford Manor. It was quickly clear to its owners what was meant. Nobody knows better how hard it is to leave than Jeremy and June Ryan-Bell, who came to live here on March 25, 1979.

The new M42 of that era can be thanked for their decision to escape ‘noisy’ Tanworth-in-Arden and seek peace on the Worcestershire fringe.

The couple moved in with their three children, the youngest just 10 at the time.

“It was heaven for them”.

There were ponies, boating in the lake and, at one count, 20 pet rabbits.

There was cricket on the lawn, croquet championships, graduation parties then weddings.

And only now, with a new, growing generation added to the Ryan-Bell dynasty, are Jeremy and June to let go of Wickhamford Manor.

“We want to go while we are able,” said Jeremy. And certainly, as custodians of 13,140 sq ft of listed house and outbuildings plus 20 acres, they know the responsibilities.

“It should now go to someone with a young family. That would be nice.”

And, with the guide price range for Wickhamford Manor £2.75 to £2.95 million, its next owner will also be wellheeled.

Wickhamford Manor

Most importantly, whoever buys this property will have a deep love of history, a fascination for architecture and profound humility at their own good fortune in acquiring it.

Wickhamford Manor is arguably the loveliest house of its type currently available in the regional marketplace.

On the fringe of the small village with the 13th century church right in its grounds and views to the medieval dovecote and original fishponds, the manor house holds onto its historic high status.

On one wall hangs the deed of 1562, the fourth year of the reign of Elizabeth 1, marking the sale of the manor with 1,200 acres to the important Throckmorton family of Coughton. The price was a princely £1,007.17s.

Of course, it was Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, who had changed history and England’s church by dissolving the monasteries, among them nearby Evesham Abbey.

The property had been recorded as the Abbey’s for a good 800 years before that and was apparently a convenient retreat for an Abbot by the name of Randolph.

Wickhamford would have been one of the Abbey’s granges, where the estate’s produce would have found safe storage.

And today’s private lake, fed by the neighbouring Badsey Brook, would have kept fresh fish for the Abbot’s table, alongside the plump pigeons living in the adjacent dovecote.

There are few scenes that could seem more English: the close studding of the timbered house, the neighbouring church, the orchards, the lake.

In fact, it is even better than that, for alongside this perfect manorial grouping is the authenticity of the evolved but totally unspoiled house.

Also, for anyone lucky enough to be pointed in the direction of one of its former occupants, the writer James Lees-Milne, there is a glorious literary link.

Imagine the absolute joy, nearest thing to time travel, to read about an hilarious domestic incident in the house during the 1920s while tracing the action on an estate agent’s floorplan.

Whoever buys Wickhamford Manor can immerse themselves, should they choose, in that different world, nearly for real, simply by reading the books in situ.

While the house, grounds and church figure prominently in accounts of the writer’s youth, Wickhamford Manor deserves a book of its own, starting with the oldest historic mentions, through the Lees-Milne years of the early 20th century, into the Second World War and more recently, the still fresh memories to the present day.

June Ryan-Bell has whole scrapbooks and photo albums relating to their long time at Wickhamford, renovations, improvements, family occasions.

“You can’t help falling in love with the house,” said June.

There has been media coverage over the years, topics including the careful choice of paint colour for the infill between the old timbers. Also, the dreadful winter of 1982 when 10 bags of snow were removed from the attics.

Wickhamford Manor, kitchen

Wickhamford Manor is, however, in fine fettle as it comes to the open market after such a long gap. Among more recent improvements have been the installation of underfloor heating in some of the principal rooms, thanks to state-of-the-art condensing boilers which also provide hot water on demand, an astonishing first in this listed manor house. “We used to have seven immersion heaters,” said June.

Some things no self-respecting lover of old houses will touch at Wickhamford Manor are: the twin Belfast sinks in the boot room; the mighty, museum piece bank safe where the Lees-Milnes used to keep the silver; the original china cupboards of the butler’s pantry and the perfect ‘integral’ stabling – so you can take a
carrot to your favourite horses on a cold, wet night, in nothing more than your pyjamas.

There are other treasures: the beautiful 17th century panelling of the dining room and “Lady Penelope’s Room” above. Also, the strange little cupboard by one fireplace, a deep recess in the thick wall, said to have been used for the gentlemen’s emergency ‘pot’ so they could relieve themselves during port and cigars,
letting the butler empty it from outside. Improvements of the early 1900s include additions that exactly match the original, timbered parts, including the
north wing with its 39ft long reception hall. Also lovely are the other portions featuring Blue Lias stone, utterly of their time yet perfectly blending with the ‘olde worlde’.

Wickhamford Manor

For many potential buyers, however, the sheer space will also astonish, not least the existence of main and “back” kitchens, each with big modern AGA cookers.

There are also interesting secondary, domestic areas, once filled with household staff quarters, now ideal as a choice of “his and her” offices plus endless playrooms and storage. Outside high points include the tennis court and manege; the squash court; the revolving period summer house which can be rotated to
follow the sun; the beautiful restored medieval dovecote, pretty birds fluttering in and out; the post and railed paddocks and parkland; the grand ‘motor house’, perfect for a vintage car or two and the little bridge over the brook from which you can see the cobbles of the original ‘ford’ in Wickhamford.

Under any new owner, some things will be left untouched.

Among those is the dogs’ graveyard, across the lake, where a line of little stones in woodland are inscribed with the names of the beloved pets of nearly 100 years ago.

The Ryan-Bells have added their own marker, recording all their dogs over the last 31 years, but leaving blank just one date – the end of their occupation
at Wickhamford.

Charlie Comber of  Hayman-Joyce in Broadway said this week: “We are absolutely delighted to be marketing Wickhamford Manor.

“It is magnificent – the most important house in the area.”

Wickhamford is three miles from Broadway, 15 from Stratford-upon-Avon and 32 from Birmingham.

Details from Hayman-Joyce, 01386 858510 or Knight Frank, 01789 297735.

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HISTORY

Lady Penelope Washington lived here at
Wickhamford Manor in the 17th century. She
died in 1697 and was buried in the chancel of
the church in the grounds.

Her grandfather was the great grandfather of
George Washington, the first American President.
Her coat of arms is on her memorial stone, three stars
and two stripes, inspiration for the US flag.

There have been sightings of a ghostly lady,
thought to be Lady Penelope.

One teenage visitor described seeing her “smiling”,
then making her way to ‘her’ bedroom in the old part
of the house – vaporising as she went.

Other ‘artistic’ types have sensed a “very friendly”
presence.

“We have never seen a thing,” said June Ryan-Bell.
Land Army girls were stationed here in the Second
World War, 40 of them, sometimes sleeping 10 to a
bedroom, generally aged from 16.

“They were all virgins – until the Canadian air
base opened and the men came here, throwing silk
stockings up to their windows….” relates the current
owner.

Some years before his death, James Lees-Milne
came here to visit when he was staying with his
friend Bamber Gascoigne who lived across the lane
at Corner Cottage.

The day was blustery so he and his hosts took
shelter in what he described in his diary, as a “hideous
plastic tent”, a colourful, garden ‘pavilion’ of
which the Ryan-Bells are now very proud. ‘Jim’
was pleased to tell them stories of the old days at
Wickhamford.

 

LITERARY LINKS

James Lees-Milne, writer, 1908 – 1997
has been called a “20th century Pepys”
and was born at Wickhamford Manor.

He describes being carried into the
nearby church by his nurse, dumped on
the floor, and “allowed to make castles
out of hassocks and prayer books”.

One of the pets in the family’s dog
graveyard is Tyke, James’ ‘inseparable
companion’… “I can truthfully say
that Tyke’s love for me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.”

His father nearly drowned him while
teaching him to swim in the lake.

He had rigged up a belt and was
distracted, letting go. “Only a few faint
bubbles revealed my whereabouts.”
“My bedroom was at the end of the
north wing of the house which extended
practically into the churchyard.

“By hanging out of my window I
could see that of the spare room… in
the west wing” And he observed his
father creeping in for illicit fun with a
pretty cousin, as related in Another Self.

After the First World War “superficially,
the old life resumed at Wickhamford,
centred on hunting in winter, racing in
summer,” relates Michael Bloch in his
biography of James Lees-Milne.

The writer’s father “enlarged the
manor, personally designing and
supervising the building of an extension
indistinguishable from the main
structure.”