I was surprised to discover just how few people were blissfully unaware of Avebury Manors‘ existence, prior that is to the BBC makeover and the subsequent television program that followed - ‘The Manor Reborn.’ Strange when you consider the Manor lies within a stones-throw of a magnificent World Heritage site which attracts some 400,000 visitors annually. It was almost as if The National Trust (who acquired the Manor in 1991 from the official receivers following the bankruptcy of entrepreneur - Kenneth King) wanted to keep this little jewel in the Wiltshire countryside a secret.
Following the departure of the last tenant in 2009, which effectively left the Manor pretty much devoid of furniture and fittings, is was quite clear that something had to be done. Avebury Manor was making little money and the cost of maintaining it had to be addressed PDQ. It was decided to open it fully to the public 2009/10 and theme each room as if an imaginary family were in the throws of “moving out.” To achieve this scenario, several packing-cases were placed in empty rooms and a selection of objects (crockery and the like) were positioned in such a way as to give the impression of...well, moving out.
In 2010 the BBC contacted The National Trust with a proposal. They were looking for an empty country house. The plan was to historically style, redecorate and furnish several rooms relevant to whichever property was chosen. In the running were Barrington Court in Somerset and Seaton Delaval Northumberland, both worthy contenders. Avebury Manor was eventually selected by series producer - Kate Shiers, who wanted ‘somewhere where people could imagine living’. Well the Manor is certainly that now but I wonder, did the proximity to a World Heritage site possibly have influence Kate's final decision? After all, where better to showcase such a splendid project.
So, nine rooms were selected which when completed would ‘reflect’ periods and people in the Manor’s 450 year history, from Tudor, Georgian, Queen Anne, Edwardian and the early 20th century. Also earmarked for a Ground Force type makeover, was the neglected Victorian Wall Kitchen Garden. All this had to be completed in just six short months and on a budget of just £250,000 - phew! The final details were agreed by both parties and work commenced in April 2011.
Today the Manor can be enjoyed by all but with a new twist, well, new for the National Trust that is. For at Avebury Manor, unlike the majority of other Trust properties, you’re positively encouraged to interact with all of the furniture and objects, the only exception being the exquisite Chinese wallpaper in the Dining Room which has been beautifully hand painted using water-based paints, a “no touching” policy exists here.
You will find no thistles on chairs, no antiques, unless you class the beautifully restored (by Hubble Sports) late 19th century three-quarter size mahogany billiard table and the marvellous 1904 E.A Clarke of Liverpool range in the kitchen, the latter saved by Neville Griffiths from a house in the Wirral earmarked for demolition. What you will find are carefully researched period replicas of furnishings and fittings which have been lovingly created by a team of expert craftsmen who were commissioned for the project by series designer Russell Sage. Presenters Dan Cruickshank and Dr. Anne Whitelock contributed their extensive knowledge of architecture and historic design respectively and worked closely with The National Trust‘s curatorial staff to ensure historic accuracy. Finally, Wessex Archaeology were appointed to carry out a historic buildings survey. They took the opportunity to implement a dendrochronology analysis of tree rings in timbers to date parts of the building. Results from examining a lintel beam in the kitchen, revealed a felling date of around 1555 - 1580for this part of the house.
Avebury Manor opened its doors in 2012 and has been enthusiastically received by over 37,000 visitors at the time of this post, some of whom are still a little unsure whether they are permitted to touch this or sit on that. Quite often the volunteer room guides are approached and tentatively asked, “is it okay to…”
The “Avebury Manor Experience” is like no other, it is a break from tradition for The National Trust and who knows, in view of its growing success, it may open the door for similar projects in the future, I do hope so.
The BBC Team
Dan Cruikshank, well known as an architectural historian, on television and radio as well as the author of many books
Dr Anna Whitelock, historian, author, broadcaster and academic from University of London.
Russell Sage, is a successful interior designer with many prestigious projects to his name including. The Goring Hotel, Clerkenwell’s Zetter Townhouse and numerous Gordon Ramsay restaurants.
National Trust volunteers, who’s tireless dedication and hard work were invaluable, both in the Manor and the Victorian kitchen garden.