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The Saving of St. Mary’s House and its Gardens

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Meet the owners and see them talk about their life at St Mary’s, and the restoration of the house & gardens. Play video.

Photographs of the house and garden being restored

The windows of St. Mary’s at Bramber look out on a very different world to the year of her construction over half a millennium ago.  While those early builders of 1477 were cutting and assembling the great timbers for the dragon beams, the massive pitched roof, the jetties and galleries of this remarkable old house, William Caxton was preparing to print one of the greatest works of English Literature, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  In these two creations, we can see the powerful ‘human’ dimension that characterised English literature and architecture  in those far-off times.

Today, St. Mary’s stands as a shining example of sublime craftsmanship and strength of spirit that has outlasted, in Hamlet’s words, ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.  We can be thankful that benefactors have miraculously appeared at crucial moments in the long history of this rare pilgrim inn, repairing it, restoring it, reviving it, but, with funds running away like the proverbial water in the bucket with a hole, ever seeking more funds to keep the magnificent fabric together.

In 1984 Peter Thorogood, author, composer and literary historian, and Roger Linton, gifted designer, restorer and conservator, had the opportunity to combine their talents and skills by purchasing the historically distinguished and architecturally important manor house of St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s had, as recently as 1944, been threatened with demolition and, although this disastrous possibility had been averted through the courage and determination of Miss Dorothy Ellis, she struggled to save the house for over thirty-five years, working with extremely limited funds.  In the early 1950s, she was constrained by circumstances beyond her control to sell off substantial parts of the estate.  After her death, the building began steadily to fall into disrepair.  Consequently, when Peter and Roger purchased the property, it was in a serious state of dereliction, and much of the grounds and some of the Victorian wing had already been sold off.  Work began on the restoration of the Victorian Music Room and funds were greatly helped by a donation from Irene Swann, a cousin of Peter and Mary Thorogood’s father, a former pupil of Gustav Holst, and mother of Donald Swann of the famous Flanders and Swann duo.  She had known the house from 1915 on, through her friendship with the McConnell family.   Donald gave a number of benefit concerts, and Peter began his popular concert series, bringing artists from all over the world to increase the funds.  At this point a massive amount of new funding had to be found and it was  then that Roger, and later, his mother, Renée, and Peter’s sister, Mary, sold their respective homes, thus allowing this remarkable project to move a further stage forward.  No amount of praise would be enough to match their invaluable contribution to the continuing life of St. Mary’s.

In the past thirty or more years, Peter and Roger have worked unstintingly and with great success to restore and conserve the house and its gardens, to make it a self-evident attraction for visitors and tourists, and for educational purposes, and added to it their personal collections of books, manuscripts, ceramics and furniture.  The house has been visited by many thousands of visitors, both by the general public on open afternoons and countless specialist groups and schools.  Audiences come to enjoy the many concerts and other events planned throughout the season.

In 1997, through a generous loan from a well-wisher, Peter and Roger succeeded in saving the Victorian gardens of St. Mary’s, with their original potting sheds, complete with apple store, 140ft fruit wall, stove-house with heated pits for pineapples, rare circular orchard, woodland walk and paddocks.  A small museum of rural life has now been set up in the large potting shed, containing garden tools and equipment surviving from the early days of the original gardens.  In this tranquil space, which is part of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Rose Garden has been established in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee, and a Terracotta Garden for herbs is currently being planted out.  Two large herbaceous borders were designed and planted by students from Brinsbury College.

It is particularly noteworthy that St. Mary’s has been included in Sir Simon Jenkins’ acclaimed publication, England’s Thousand best Houses, where St. Mary’s is handsomely described as ‘a shrine to the medieval in Sussex’, and awarded a three-star commendation. St. Mary’s has also won a ‘Highly Commended’ certificate in the Tourism ExSEllence Awards, and was winner of the Hudson’s Heritage Award in 2011 for best restoration, thereby demonstrating the enduring quality of St. Mary’s House and Gardens as one of the foremost heritage attractions in the South-East.

During these thirty-plus years, the historic attractiveness and beautiful interiors of St. Mary’s House, the floral interest of the gardens with their topiary, the full programme of concerts and other events in the splendidly restored Music Room, have attracted many thousands of tourists, visitors and concert-goers.  Many have come to associate themselves voluntarily with the preservation of the house and the cultivation of the gardens by becoming Friends of St. Mary’s or by offering themselves as volunteer stewards, guides, gardeners, historical researchers, archivists, and acting as hosts at concerts and other events.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words the hard work and enthusiasm which Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton have inspired in their volunteers to help to bring the house and gardens to their present peak of perfection.  It has required their courage as well as devotion in taking on this tremendous task, but their aim has been, and is, to remain open to the public, to groups, schools and societies of every description.  Moreover, the work of restoration, conservation and enhancement is ongoing and over forty people are currently involved in helping the project, thus benefiting the community not only by their services to conservation, tourism and the arts but also providing the opportunity to join with them for the same purposes.

But we cannot rest on our laurels. Ingenious means have now to be found to make the future of St. Mary’s even more secure.   The survival of an historic building in the present political climate, when history itself is under threat, requires dedication, a good dose of love and devotion to the cause by owners and volunteers alike, a deal of faith, as we have said, and determination to succeed.  All this is however of little help in the end without the necessary funds to maintain such a special building for the public benefit.

Please help us to carry St. Mary’s into this millennium, with the knowledge that their enthusiasm will be spurred on by the promise of funds to carry out the work.  This can only be done through donations, legacies and other bequests, to provide a sure foundation and a prosperous future for this beautiful house, classified as ‘the best example of late 15th century timber-framing in Sussex.’