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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.’