As Sarah Callander-Beckett celebrates a centenary of her family’s custodianship of Combermere Abbey, Louisa Warde speaks with the lady herself and world-renowned interiors guru, Nina Campbell about the restoration of the Gothic masterpiece and leaving a legacy

I am speaking to Nina and Sarah hours before a sell-out charity luncheon held at the Abbey in honour of the one hundred years. Nina is speaking and Sarah assures me; “the tables are set, the booze is in the chiller, the auction prizes have been collected. So far, so good.”

So far, so good indeed. The event raised over £6,000 for the Together Trust, a charity co-founded in 1870 by Sir William Crossley, Sarah’s great-grandfather, and was previously known as Manchester and Salford Boys and Girls Society. The charity provides special education, residential services, fostering, family support and community services to young people and adults throughout the north west and it has been chosen to be Combermere Abbey’s centenary charity of the year.

The first question I have to ask is how does it feel to be celebrating the centenary? “Remarkable, amazing. Exciting. Personally, it has been 27 years of putting it back together. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the greatest of shape when I took over in 1992. Mainly due to curious structure of the building, so that we didn’t discover things until we began work. Inheriting seven listed buildings lots of them had no formal use. They were a little lost.

“The renovations have all been about creating something sustainable. Each building now has a contemporary use, so they will be used and enjoyed by people coming to stay with us and get married with us. [The North Wing is open as a two-bedroom B&B with private entrance., with ten further holiday cottages within the grounds.] The completion of the North Wing has been the icing on the cake, pulling the restoration together. It is fundamental to the whole look of the building.”

Nina Campbell is one of the world’s most respected and influential interior designers in demand for projects, contemporary and traditional, around the world. Indeed, she is flying out to LA after the lunch before a hectic pre-Christmas schedule ensues. How did she become involved with Combermere Abbey?

“I met Sarah many years ago in New York through a mutual friend and was invited here many years ago, again, when the North Wing really was a ruin, a romantic ruin but a ruin nonetheless. For me its been wonderful seeing what has been done.

“Someone asked me just now, ‘why did you get involved?’ Well, who doesn’t get excited when Sarah Callander-Beckett rings and says she’s got something rather fun for all of us? You get hooked in before you even realise what the project is.” Both ladies laugh at this.

“What was exciting for me is that the building is put together absolutely beautifully and with the most incredible craftsmanship. For me, seeing the Gothic windows and all of that being done and done really well by local craftsman able to ply the trade in the proper fashion, was incredible.

“Nowadays so many people want to get the look but do so cheaply and it looks shoddy within moments. In this case, the building that Sarah achieved was fabulous. All of that made it much more exciting to have anything to do with. And then, of course it was my job to take what was inside the spaces and make them fresh and contemporary looking.  The architecture was so strong just putting fresh new colours was all that was needed in some cases. We used Eddie Bulmer Natural Heritage Paint which adds to the sustainability message. Again, this was all part of what is important for the future. And the colours are lovely.

“It’s always very nice going back into a situation that you have done as things happen. More pictures arrive, you Must say it looks wonderful. Would like to be coming back more regularly!

“The rooms were an amazing background for our fabrics too. What I try to do is Take the classic with a contemporary twist, take a paisley and put a fresh apple green, for example and this fits perfectly. We had some fabric printed specially for Sarah on linen with a big hydrangea print which looks glorious at the windows with its autumnal colours on it.”

Two of the ladies’ favourite rooms are Salamanca and Bhurtpore (pictured). They are very different in style, sympathetic to the architecture and heritage, yet young and fresh. With a stunning antique-gilded bed and decorated in tranquil pale blue, the Salamanca room leads through to an opulent bathroom with amazing views across the parkland. 

Bhurtpore was Sarah’s uncle’s bedroom and incorporates some of the oldest beams in the house. Sarah concludes, “It’s a beautifully warm cosy room because its panelled. That room has real style in a lovely warm pink. Where you feel all ooh and all you want to do is nestle in the duvet.” Nina, “I agree with you – I’m very proud of that room.”

(www.combermerabbey.co.uk; www.ninacampbellinteriors.com)

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