To the manor reborn: Dry rot, crumbling walls, mindless vandals – and one woman’s drive to turn a ramshackle ancient pile into a magnificent family home
23:00 GMT, 3 August 2012
Solicitor Polly Grieff knew she had found her future family home the instant she walked through the doorway of Old Manor in the Norfolk village of Saham Toney.
She shut her eyes and immediately envisaged her two large sofas in the living room, the Christmas tree in the grand hallway and her family eating in the panelled oak dining room.
Having the ancient property as a legacy for her son and grandchildren, who live nearby, seemed like a dream. So the fact that Polly was going to have to share her ‘perfect’ home with uninvited woodworm, death watch beetles and termites didn’t deter her at all.
The Old Manor in its original state
Neither, it seems, did the prospect of restoring wooden beams so fragile that they crumbled like dust, and foundations that were sinking as quickly as the damp was rising. Polly, it seems, is not a woman to be put off easily. She says, ‘I stepped in through the door and though Old Manor was derelict, I fell in love.
There was no electricity, no kitchen, no bathroom and only an old lavatory in a pig sty outside. The house called out to me for help. She was like a little old lady who needed a facelift.’ Polly pauses and adds, ‘And a breast enlargement, a bottom lift and a tummy tuck.’
But Polly’s husband Erich Bonneton, a retired forensic psychologist, didn’t share her enthusiasm. Polly, 57, says, ‘When I first took him to see Old Manor, he said, “You cannot be serious.”
Then he told me to keep his name off the deeds!’ But after paying 400,000 for the crumbling property in 2010, Polly found that winning over Erich, also 57, was the least of her battles. Because each stage of the renovation brought a fresh disaster and unexpected trouble.
'the house called out to me for help' and here it is undergoing restoration
A TV crew recorded Polly’s rollercoaster ride for the latest series of Restoration Homes. The series, presented by Caroline Quentin, follows different families and couples who struggle to restore and save ancient buildings, while discovering the hidden history behind them.
The documentary crew caught up first fizz On this day in 1693, French monk Dom Prignon uncorked the first champagne – white wine made from red grapes with Polly midway through the restoration, with the cost of stripping back the pebble dash cladding, which had caused dry rot, and laying new foundations eating up all of her 100,000 budget.
Old Manor had been turned into a giant and lonely skeleton – but Polly was bravely ploughing on, admitting, ‘I’ve spent a fortune already and all I have to show for it is a skeletal house.’ Polly couldn’t explain the friendly feeling that she had from Old Manor.
But when Restoration Home’s historian, Dr Kate Williams, started to investigate, the house’s extraordinary past emerged. Dr Williams says, ‘I started with the Domesday Book, which was William the Conqueror’s guide to all the taxable land in his kingdom in 1086.
I found a reference to 60 acres of land in Saham owned by a Roger Bigot, an ally of the king. Bigot’s land was known as Pages Place, and included six cottages. He also owned a plough team of oxen, showing that he was a man of great magnitude.
Old Manor now stands in Pages Lane, which shows me this was the same land. Records show that by the 1600s, the manor was owned by the wealthy Goffe family. But the affluent and kindly Edward Goffe was determined to change the lives of those who lived in poverty around him.
Dr Williams says, Edward was a generous man who, upon his death in 1612, left alms houses and founded the local school – where a plaque was erected in his name.’ Edward left the house to his son, and it was sold on many times to local families who wanted a country pile.
Outside the Old Manor: Polly Grieff with Caroline Quentin
But by the 20th century, it had fallen into disrepair. Enter Polly – the woman determined to restore a once glorious home. But as costs rose to 200,000, disaster struck –vandals moved in.
The base of the originaloak stairway was kicked away, walls were knocked out and the ceiling of the 400-year-old Jacobean dining room ripped open. Luckily, the thieves were disturbed as they tried to escape with a 500-year-old oak Tudor archway.
With a skeletal house, a property in Liverpool that remained unsold and no more savings left, it would have been the final straw for many. But Polly insists, ‘This makes me all the more determined to get this house ready for us to live in it. I won’t be beaten by mindless idiocy.’ Caroline Quentin says, ‘For a lot less heartache, Polly could have built a new house.
But she wanted to create a family home rich in history. She’s ploughed on regardless of whatever has been thrown at her – she has really impressed me.’ Though Polly is now battling to save the house’s clay walls from being washed away by the rain, she remains upbeat.
‘I’m determined to have the house completed by the time Caroline and the TV crew return to film an update in the spring. My son Max is getting married next year in the summer, and I dream of having the reception in the garden. I hope it is the first of many family parties we will hold here.’ And does Erich still believe his wife is crazy
He smiles. ‘I hated this house at first, but then I saw its beauty and history, and I fell in love. It’s a battle for survival – but together we will win.’
Restoration Home, BBC2, Wednesday, 8pm.