Simply Number One!
PUBLISHED: 10:52 19 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013
On visiting a home that's part of a grand mansion in West Dorset, Peter Booton finds that the owners have sympathetically restored it in keeping with its late-Georgian ancestry
John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge Erle-Drax (1800-87) rehearsed his own funeral and built a colossal, mock-Byzantine mausoleum for his eventual interment. Sawbridge had married well, taking the hand of Jane Frances Erle-Drax, heiress to the prominent land-owning Dorset family's fortune. Shortly after marrying Sawbridge, Jane inherited Charborough Park and various other large estates, upon which her husband added her family name to his own.
Famed for founding the Charborough Hunt and building the immense wall around Charborough Park, which is said to consist of more than two million bricks, JSWS Erle-Drax also served as the MP for Wareham for nearly 50 years. The Erle-Draxes had two daughters, the eldest of whom, Maria Caroline, stood to inherit the family fortune, but her father persuaded her to will everything to himself. Maria died in 1885, pre-deceasing her father who then proceeded to plunder Charborough to fund an estate in the small parish of Holnest, some five miles south-east of Sherborne, which he named Holnest Park.
The eccentric squire introduced buffalo to his new estate, trained dogs to hunt for truffles and embellished the interior of the existing late-Georgian mansion with ornate decoration and an impressive marble and alabaster principal staircase rising to the first floor from the central entrance hall. Down this grand staircase Erle-Drax led his funeral cortège, complete with a dummy in the coffin, admonishing any servant who dared to interrupt its progress. When he died in 1887 the date was added to a marble tablet on the mausoleum he had built in the churchyard of St Mary's, Holnest.
The mausoleum, of which Treves remarked, 'It has the general appearance at a distance of a pumping station', has since been demolished.
After the Second World War the house was divided up into separate apartments. Two of its earliest occupants were Lt Col Samuel Taylor and Mrs Enid Taylor, who had come to Dorset from Yorkshire when Samuel was stationed in the army camp at Piddlehinton. They made their new home in the northern end of Holnest Park House, which contained the principal staircase and original, oak-floored ballroom. Samuel and Enid owned the only television set in the house and all the residents gathered around it to watch Queen Elizabeth's Coronation in June 1953. They also owned 10 acres of the grounds in which the house stood and during the 1970s their son and his wife built a house on the land and established a market garden there. After Samuel died in 1972, Enid continued to live at Holnest Park until her death in 1998. Her part of the house, simply known today as apartment number one, then remained empty for a few years.
Samuel and Enid's granddaughter, Helen, and her husband, Mark O'Sullivan, took over the property in 1998 with the intention of moving in once the apartment had been made habitable. Fortunately, as Mark was a builder specialising in period house renovation, the O'Sullivans were able to tackle everything themselves, but as they were living and working in London at that time they could only work on the house at weekends.
Helen explains: "We started at the top of the house. Mark renovated every room and repaired ceilings where necessary. It took us over three months just to do the ballroom. There were water stains on the walls where the roof was leaking and they had to be washed down."
To maintain the original Georgian character of the house the O'Sullivans redecorated their home with period colours and chose a pale shade of duck-egg blue for the former ballroom, which was to be their lounge. Helen admits that she didn't mind decorating, but when it came to painstakingly painting the elaborately moulded plaster cornices and central boss on the old ballroom ceiling, standing on scaffold boards supported by tall step ladders, she was quite happy to let Mark lend a hand! Above the grand staircase in the hallway a number of the plaster cornices bearing a bison head motif had been damaged, so the resourceful O'Sullivans made their own mould and replaced them.
Originally there had been a large reception room adjoining the ballroom, but this had been divided into two rooms by a previous owner to serve as a dining room and kitchen. Mark and Helen have completely refitted the kitchen with handmade units painted in a restful shade of apple green. The three rooms still retain the original oak floors.
Interesting and unusual items of solid wood furniture feature prominently in Mark and Helen's home. A number of these have come from members of their family but one particular item, a sturdy oak dining table, began life as a carpenter's saw-bench and has one or two telltale markings which add to its character!
At the top of the house on the second floor are a series of rooms which were originally the servants' quarters. These have now been repainted and carpeted throughout to serve as comfortable guest rooms. No doubt they will be put to good use during the festive season when a few relatives come to stay and share a traditional family Christmas with Mark and Helen and their three young sons, Christian, Tommy and Harry. Apart from making plans for the festivities, December is going to be particularly busy for Helen who, as owner of Salon on the Square in Beaminster, is opening beauty and colour specialist rooms at her Aveda hairdressing salon on the 1st of the month.
The lofty staircase hall is an ideal place to stand a huge Christmas tree, as Helen explains. "We always buy a traditional tree locally, usually one about 14 or 15 foot tall, but once we tried to fit in a 20-foot tree, which we could hardly get through the doorway! We all love a family Christmas and this house just lends itself to it. We'll light a blazing fire in the lounge and have lots of traditional food and drink: a baked ham with parsley sauce on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning breakfast will be salmon with scrambled eggs, Harry's favourite. I always cook the turkey overnight in the Aga. The first Christmas we spent here I wasn't used to an Aga and the turkey was ready at 10am!"
Location: Holnest, near Sherborne
Accommodation: Ground floor: staircase hall, family room/dining area, lounge (former ballroom), kitchen, utility room. First floor: four bedrooms, office/study, family bathroom. Second floor: three guest bedrooms. Storage facilities
Period house renovation and carpentry: Mark O'Sullivan, Sherborne. (07973 786070
Kitchen units: Halstock Cabinet Makers, Nightingale Works, Higher Halstock, Leigh.
(01935 891762). www.halstock.com