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To the Manor Born – West Compton Manor

PUBLISHED: 16:02 20 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:45 20 February 2013

Flight of steps built with Ham stone discovered beneath brambles in the garden  c. Peter Booton

Flight of steps built with Ham stone discovered beneath brambles in the garden c. Peter Booton

Peter Booton meets a talented couple who are breathing life back into a long-term family project at West Compton Manor, and creating a thriving rural business

To the Manor Born West Compton Manor


Peter Booton meets a talented couple who are breathing life back into a long-term family project at West Compton Manor, and creating a thriving rural business

I n the 1960s Duncan Stewart purchased at auction almost the entire village of West Compton, which nestles in a high valley off the east side of Eggardon Hill. Duncan, a trained agriculturalist, gradually acquired more farmland and increased his initial 300 acres fivefold. When StMichaels church in the village became redundant he bought thistoo.

Duncan lived in West Compton House, near the church, and in 1988 he began an extensive refurbishment of the manor house into which he then moved. To finance the work, that took five years to complete, he sold West Compton House and part of the farmland. He also converted a number of outbuildings alongside the manor house into cottages for tenanted accommodation and created a folly, the first to be built in Dorset for 50 years. It is said that the tall, two-storey tower resulted from a dare by a friend, who was a planning officer, assuring Duncan that planning consent would be granted if he proceeded with the folly.


The gardens were a mass of brambles beneath which the Stewarts discovered more than 50 tons of Ham stone, sections of mullioned windows and pieces of architectural ironwork

Duncan Stewart died in August 2007, just three weeks after his son Ashley was married in St Michaels church. Ashley had been born and raised at West Compton and now he and his wife, Oanagh, run the estate and live in the manor house which is thought to have evolved from a 16th- century threshing barn. As Duncan had sold of all the farmland before his death, the present 25-acre estate comprises two fishing lakes, coppices, St Michaels church, the folly, six cottages and newly landscaped gardens around the manor house designed and planted by Oonagh.

Previously, the gardens were a mass of brambles beneath which the Stewarts discovered more than 50 tons of Ham stone, sections of mullioned windows and pieces of architectural ironwork. Ashleys father had been intending to extend the house outwards at the rear but ill health had halted the project. However, Ashley and Oonagh have put the stone to good use for much- needed repairs to St Michaels church and to build flights of steps in their terraced garden. Also, every building on the estate was suffering from years of neglect and so urgent repairs were a priority.

As the Stewarts wanted to utilise part of their home for B&B accommodation, the dining room and drawing room on the ground floor and four bedrooms upstairs were completely refurbished. The bedrooms are very traditional but with a modern twist, says Oonagh, who chose the colours, the elegant fabrics and floral wallpapers which are mostly Sanderson and Colefax & Fowler. I wanted the rooms to be luxurious, rich and sumptuous so that when guests come to stay they experience something different from their own homes.


The spacious orangery, built by Duncan, suits various celebratory occasions and, with St.Michaels church nearby, traditional weddings are easily catered

During the refurbishment the Stewarts were contacted by Country House Rescue, the Channel 4 television programme presented by Ruth Watson. Oonagh recalls, We were very flattered to be approached because we are great fans of the programme, but we felt it was a bit too late as we were so far down the line with work on the house.

While Oonagh was busy in the house and garden, Ashley was tackling numerous jobs around the estate that required urgent attention, such as St Michaels church and the fishing lakes. St Michaels is a Victorian rebuild of an earlier church which was known to have existed at the time of its first recorded vicar in 1298. Dorchester architect John Hicks was involved with the extensive restoration during the latter half of the 19th century, and it is possible that his young apprentice at that time, Thomas Hardy, may have been too.

The ongoing church restoration is proving very costly as Oonagh points out. We raised 12,000 last year and repaired most of the exterior stonework. Now we need to do the drains and the woodwork, but the building is structurally sound and were keeping it standing for the community to use. The latest news is that the Dorset Historic Churches Trust will be donating 1,000 towards the ongoing work.

Although the church bell, dating from 1665, had remained silent for many years, Ashley was determined that it would ring at his wedding to Oonagh. I was christened in the church and I thought it would be lovely to hear the bell ringing again. When I climbed up the tower to have a look, it was just about to fall out! So, with the help of scaffolding and a friend, we removed the bell and had it professionally re-hung. It was wonderful to hear it ring at our wedding.

Another huge ongoing project is the restoration of the two lakes Duncan Stewart created over 40 years ago. These had become badly silted up and seriously choked with duckweed as well as being blocked by mature sallows (a type of willow), 30 or so of which had to be removed. Ashley has now restocked the one-acre main lake with mirror and common carp which are descended from fish that inhabited the centuries old ponds at Glastonbury Abbey. The main lake is now fished by a private syndicate of local people, but manor house guests may fish there on payment of a small licence fee.

The manor house garden is still young but Oonaghs plantings are slowly maturing and the potager she created is already producing a range of fruit and vegetables. I came up with a plan for a potager using 56 railway sleepers to create raised beds, says Ashley, who trained as a carpenter. I managed to build them and the fruit cage without using any screws. Its all pegged together, he adds, proudly.

I like very formal, structured gardens with topiary and flowing cottage planting, explains Oonagh, who is a very keen gardener. So the potager is very English country garden style really, with lots of yew, lots of box and hard landscaping, but softened by very full, mixed herbaceous borders and roses.


I like very formal, structured gardens with topiary and flowing cottage planting

As well as offering quality B&B accommodation (listed in Alistair Sawdays Special Places to Stay), West Compton Manor makes a superb venue for weddings, parties and corporate events. The spacious orangery, built by Duncan, suits various celebratory occasions and, with St Michaels church nearby, traditional weddings are easily catered for. If required, Oonagh will plan every detail of a wedding and this has inspired her to launch The English Event Company, which specialises in organising all manner of quintessentially Englishevents.

The Stewarts are certainly an amazingly talented and versatile couple who can seemingly turn their respective hands to just about anything.

And we try to be as self-sufficient as possible, emphasises Oonagh. Were keen on being green.

For more details visit westcomptonmanor.co.uk and theenglisheventcompany.co.uk

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