Help me save my manor! Living alone, with 17 bedrooms, a hall needing 86 rolls of wallpaper and no heating, penniless Jeannie needs Country House Rescue…
21:30 GMT, 8 June 2012
00:01 GMT, 9 June 2012
Homeowners of Britain, do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the effort involved in keeping that roof over your head Do you regularly despair about the cost of the heating bill, try to ignore the state of the guttering, or curse the fact the windows don’t clean themselves
When you’re next standing at the till in B&Q asking yourself, ‘How much’, spare a thought for Jeannie Wilkins, whose experience of home maintenance is more hardcore than most.
The last time Jeannie papered her landing (indeed the only time she has papered her landing), she needed 86 rolls of wallpaper. As for keeping on top of the windows, well, her hysterical laugh says it all.
‘In its heyday this house had a laundry and 50 people to work in it,’ she says, putting her predicament in stark context. ‘Now it’s just me. I could spend my entire day scrubbing and cleaning – and often do – but I barely scratch the surface.’
Lady of the manor: Jeannie Wilkins outside her Grade II listed home, Chapel Cleeve manor house in Somerset, with Country House Rescue's new presenter Simon Davis
Clearly, Jeannie’s home is bigger than most. For the past 13 years she has lived in a country mansion with 17 bedrooms, its own west wing (the east wing is more or less derelict), a ballroom and gardens that stretch to seven acres. The fact that she rattles around the vast corridors alone, with just her cats for company, is simply astounding.
The Grade II-listed Chapel Cleeve manor house in Somerset, which dates back to the 1400s, has been used over the years as a haven for pilgrims, a hotel and a family home.
The Queen and Princess Margaret were once guests here. It’s the sort of home that these days pops up in TV period dramas, but that, in the real world, only belongs to lottery winners or those who can trace their aristocratic credentials back for centuries.
But Jeannie, 63, is neither. She comes from a very ordinary background, grew up in a small cottage and even today is far from what you would call rich. Indeed, she says she’s broke. She estimates her income to be 5,200 a year, made from the letting of an apartment in her home.
So how did a woman like her come to find herself the owner of a vast country pile with royal connections
‘Some would say it’s because I’m loopy-loo,’ she says. ‘I bought this place on a bit of a whim, because I fell in love with it. Most people harbour dreams of living in a place like this one day. I just made the dream real.’
In truth, Jeannie’s experience of being possibly the most unlikely Lady of the Manor in Britain has been more of a nightmare than a dream. She had been in a relationship for 33 years when she signed the ownership papers for Chapel Cleeve. She and her ex, Mike, had already renovated a more modest home, and the aim – impossibly ambitious, she confesses – was to restore Chapel Cleeve to its former glory. And since the asking price (she paid 360,000) was less than what you’d pay for a detached home on a modern estate, you can see the attraction.
Spooky solution: The show suggested having ghost tours at Chapel Cleeve as a means of making money
For a while, progress was good. She and Mike assembled a team of like-minded friends, some of whom were good with hammers, and began an epic refurbishment. Then, six years ago, the relationship ended and he moved out, leaving her distraught. And virtually penniless, with a 27,000sq ft home crumbling around her ears.
These days she tries to contain herself to just a few rooms of her vast home, and wears layers of clothes when she goes to bed because there’s no way to heat the place. ‘It hasn’t quite gone according to plan,’ she admits. ‘I always knew that it would be hard work. But I didn’t anticipate this.’
Chapel Cleeve is one of the historic homes featured in a new series of Channel 4’s Country House Rescue. The new series has a new presenter. Gone is the rather stern Ruth Watson, and at the helm is Simon Davis, an entrepreneur who specialises in events management. The format of the show has been tweaked and, rather than being helicoptered in and out to offer advice, he stays in the property while he assesses how he can help the owners.
‘It sounds rather glamorous, doesn’t it’ he says. ‘
Wafting around the country staying in the most wonderful old country homes. But I can tell you there is generally no luxury involved. I have never been so cold in all my life. In one place they told me they never ever turned the heating on because it cost 30 an hour to run. By the end of the first night, I was wanting to pay for a few hours’ worth myself.’
Finding Jeannie, he admits, was something of a coup. ‘By the very nature of these houses, most of the previous programmes have featured families who’ve had the houses for generations. Jeannie is different. She is a very recent occupant – with none of the family ties that you usually find.
'When I first heard about her, I thought she was stark raving mad. You’d have to be to buy a house like this with no money. When we actually crunched the numbers I was astounded. She had the biggest house of any in the programme, but the tiniest income.
Royal connections: The Queen and her sister Princess Margaret were once guests at Chapel Cleeve manor house
'My first worry was what we could actually do to help her – surely the only solution was to sell up But the more time I spent with her, the more I became convinced it was right to help her try to keep her home, which she desperately wanted to do.’
In truth, Jeannie herself had despaired of being able to keep Chapel Cleeve. She put it on the market 18 months ago for 1.7 million, but there has been little interest. No wonder. Simon’s early estimates were that it would cost 500,000 to get Chapel Cleeve up to habitable standard.
‘By the time we got involved, Jeannie was pretty desperate,’ he admits. ‘At one point she offered to give me the place, if I’d let her continue to live in it. The whole experience was quite mad.’
The programme – which is a surprising tear-jearker, thanks to the often emotional Jeannie – features Simon’s attempts to turn Chapel Cleeve into a money-generating entity rather than a money-gobbling one. He comes up with all sorts of ideas – from marketing it as a ghost-tour destination, to hiring out parts of it to local charities.
At one point he approaches a local college, which trains youngsters to become craftsmen and decorators, and asks for their help. What transpires is simply genius: an arrangement is reached whereby the students use parts of Chapel Cleeve as a living classroom – honing their plastering, painting and wallpapering skills. They get trained, Jeannie gets some much-needed help, and all that it costs her is the price of lunch for the students.
Getting DIY assistance is one thing, though, but wasn’t turning the cellars into a ghost tour – as Simon suggested – rather intrusive ‘I wondered if it might be, and when they suggested opening up parts of the main house to local artists, I was a bit resistant,’ admits Jeannie.
‘But as it turned out, I loved having the company. Just seeing the house come to life once more was quite wonderful. It opened my eyes again to how joyful owning this place is. It could easily be just a burden, a millstone. But it isn’t.’
Whether Jeannie will end her days at Chapel Cleeve remains to be seen. Some of the business ideas put into motion for the programme are being developed at the moment, but everyone involved concedes that these are difficult times to be launching new businesses.
‘I just don’t know what will happen,’ says Jeannie. ‘I would like to end my days here, but it’s the house itself that’s important. It has been standing for 600 years. I hope it will still be here for another 600. I don’t really see myself as owning Chapel Cleeve. I see myself more as its custodian.’
And its cleaner, obviously.
Country House Rescue begins on Thursday at 8pm on Channel 4.