In Safe Keeping

PUBLISHED: 09:41 03 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013

Rear view of the Manor House

Rear view of the Manor House

Peter Booton meets a couple who see themselves as 'privileged custodians' of their beautiful and historic manor house in South Dorset.November 08

After marrying at Wimborne Minster the previous year, in 1968 Charles Smith took his wife Jennie to meet his parents at their home in New Zealand. Travelling overland as much as possible and taking the opportunity to visit various countries along the way, including Afghanistan and Cambodia, the Smiths were away for seven months. The trip was to change both their lives.

On returning to England, Charles and Jennie decided that family life was more important than company life and, much to the surprise of their parents, gave up their highly promising careers in London to become self-employed and make their own way in the commercial world. Making good use of Jennie's expertise as a cordon-bleu-trained chef and Charles's proven marketing abilities, they launched a catering business in Hampshire which grew to be a very successful enterprise.

However, by the late 1980s they had tired of life in the commuter belt and decided to change course once more and move to the Purbeck area of Dorset where they hoped to semi-retire. Jennie's parents, who lived in Ferndown, also owned one of the former coastguard cottages at St Aldhelm's Head which they used as a family holiday cottage and where for the past 20 years Charles, Jennie and their four sons had spent many idyllic and memorable holidays. In fact, their second eldest son, Ben, had been married in the 12th-century St Aldhelm's chapel.

Thoroughly enamoured with the Purbeck area, the Smiths became most interested when they heard that the old Manor House in the charming village of Winfrith Newburgh was for sale. A Grade II*-listed building of great character, the 18th-century house had been rebuilt on 16th-century foundations and boasted an impressive history. Reputedly, Royalist soldiers captured locally during the Civil War had been imprisoned in its 16th-century cellars and, at one stage, the house was owned by the Clavell family of Smedmore House. Later, the property formed part of the Weld Estate until the early 1960s when it ceased to serve as the village farmhouse and passed into private ownership.

Jennie admits that she fell wildly in love with the house and garden at first sight, but the high asking price was unaffordable and, anyway, they couldn't move at the time because it would affect the boys' schooling. Two years later, the Manor House was still on the market and so they made a reduced offer, which was accepted. They then sold their home in Hampshire, a flat in London, and the deli part of the business, but the timing was unfortunate as it coincided with the huge slump in the property market at the end of the 1980s which placed the Smiths in a tricky financial position. All they could do was to make the best of the situation with no money!

Although their new home would benefit from quite a bit of updating, particularly with regard to the lack of serious plumbing and heating, the structure was in excellent condition and the roof had been replaced by the previous owners. Charles points out: 'The house had lost some of its quality over the years which we wanted to put back. We've always lived in old houses and see ourselves as privileged custodians of this house. We'd like to pass it on to the next owners in a better state.'

Despite having very little money, the Smiths used their not inconsiderable ingenuity to carry out improvements, where necessary, used reclaimed items such as disused church pews, pine panelling and old floorboards from which they constructed bookshelves. A better fireplace was re-established in the sitting room, and the entire kitchen redone, utilising oak from a building in London for the new floor.

But despite being thrifty, there was still a yawning black hole in their finances and so, reluctantly, they converted part of the house which had previously served as a granny annexe into a self-contained holiday cottage. The idea was a great success, so much so that a number of neighbours who lived at home for only part of the year, due to the demands of their profession, asked Charles and Jennie to market their properties, too.

From humble beginnings, using a desk in the kitchen as an improvised office, Dorset Coastal Cottages now lets over 150 holiday cottages within 10 miles, or less, of the Jurassic Coast. The entrepreneurial Smiths play a somewhat less active role in the business of late, which is run nowadays by their eldest son Jeremy and his team from an office in Wool.

So have Charles and Jennie semi-retired at last? Of course not; they both confess that they still enjoy being part of the business, but at least they do have more quality time with their grandchildren who visit regularly. And then, there are hobbies. Charles is fond of serious walking, 16 or so miles in a day, while Jennie prefers a more leisurely stroll, and loves gardening.

The two previous owners of the Manor House were largely responsible for creating many of the established features in the present garden, including the box hedges, orchard, fruit cage and sunken, secret garden. Jennie has taken things a stage further and incorporated quite a few ideas of her own, such as creating vegetable beds, a new long border to match the existing one, and a large pond, which Charles designed, that she admits, ruefully, is now out of control! Jennie explains that her intention is to build a more structured and romantic garden to suit the house - a gracious old lady. 'I took over in 1990 and with help from my hard landscaper, fruit-tree pruner and hedger husband, I have made steady progress with renewal and creation of new areas. After 18 years there is still much to achieve!'

The Smiths also love to travel and have a house in Greece, but always being busy meant that there was too little time spent with their friends, until, that is, they came up with the idea of walking holidays which would enable them to get together regularly on the spectacular Dorset coast. The 'Dorset Dawdlers' were born! 'This year,' Charles says, 'we've also been to Snowdonia and Yorkshire. We usually stay in self-catering cottages,' he adds. Naturally!


Location: Winfrith Newburgh, South Dorset

Built: Very little remains of the original 16th-century house except for the cellars, foundations and a small section of wall. The present house was completely rebuilt during the 18th century.

Visit for details of self-catering holiday properties, or (0800 980 4070.


Purbeck Stone: Haysom (Purbeck Stone) Ltd, Worth Matravers. (01929 439205).

Traditional Building Materials: Dorset Reclamation, The Yard, Bere Regis. (01929 472200).

Plumbing Supplies: Dorset Plumbing Supplies,

Unit 1, Sandford Lane, Wareham. (01929 554054).

Tree Surgery/Garden Maintenance/Hedgelaying:

Russell Woodham, near Dorchester. (07970 044625)

Locks and Keys: Dorset Locksmith, 33a South Street, Dorchester. (01305 250042).

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