The Sunday Times | FreshBritain Brand Restoration
Katrina Burroughs writes about FreshBritain in The Sunday Times..
“The problem with brands is that every four years they have successive owners, it’s a bit like a Georgian townhouse, where someone comes in and knocks through the kitchen and the next person puts in a spa bath, and the house loses its architectural integrity. The job of us as brand guys is to bring it back to the authenticity and project that into the future. It’s a good metaphor for what we have done here.”
Our 14 Year Restoration Saga
Sophie and Bob Sheard are born storytellers. They settle in front of the cavernous fireplace of their Tudor sitting room, and Bob begins the dramatic tale of the rescue of the Manor House, in South Littleton, Worcestershire, with the words: “There are some houses that are so wrecked and so big, no one takes them on.”
What unfolds is a property thriller featuring four-poster-bed picnics, 100-bucket floods and catastrophic squirrel trouble. The couple’s skill at weaving a compelling narrative is the basis of their business, FreshBritain, which helps clients from Team Sky and Volvo to Bear Grylls and Al Gore’s sustainable equity fund to form a “brand vision”. As they recount the triumphs and disasters, their passion for their grade II listed home is unmistakable. Though I imagine sometimes the only thought that kept them going during its 14-year restoration was that one day this would make a great yarn.
Bob is not exaggerating the building’s size. The Elizabethan manor, with a smart William and Mary facade added by Francis Taylor, the agent to the Earl of Coventry, is, technically speaking, humongous. After a quick count, we agree on five bathrooms and a dozen bedrooms. But it also has a couple of wig rooms, a priest-hole, a panelled dining hall, a minstrels’ gallery with two swings, and a cupola with a 360-degree view of the Cotswolds and the Vale of Evesham. In the first six months of occupancy, they discovered two extra rooms.
The house’s size deterred many buyers, but its utter dereliction was the main push factor: when the couple arrived, trees were growing out of the roof. Sophie says: “My mum reassured me it would be fine. I think everyone else we knew thought we were crazy.”
Today the Manor House is a cosy, colourful family home to Sophie and Bob, both 46, and teenagers Henry, 18, and Daisy, 16. It was the arrival of the kids that had made the Sheards consider a move from north London. They had grown up in rural surroundings: Sophie was born in Warwickshire and spent her childhood on her parents’ farm, with summer holidays seeing relatives in Wales; Bob grew up in a village in West Yorkshire.
They came to the capital to study, met at the London College of Fashion in 1989 and stayed in the city to found their business. But they wanted their offspring to benefit from a country childhood. Bob recalls: “I once read in the Camden New Journal about a gruesome murder, on page 6. The same week in the Evesham Journal, the cover story was ‘Library gets new shelves.’”
The flight from Primrose Hill began in June 2002, when Daisy was one and Henry was three, and they decamped to Italy and France for a year. “We rented a beautiful villa looking over Florence, then spent six months in Avoriaz, in the French Alps. Then we came back and started looking at properties in the country to restore.” They acquired the manor house, which was on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register, for £515,000 in September 2003, after a two-stage sealed bid process, and moved in that November.
Sophie, whose family are seasoned renovators, took on the role of project manager. “My father and two brothers own a hotel in Shropshire and used to own a brewery in Buckinghamshire, both historic country properties. I spent my childhood living in wrecks and going round reclamation centres, so I thought, ‘I can do it’ — but I must admit, the first day I got the keys, I sat on the stairs and cried as the water poured down the main staircase like a river.” Bob says: “At one point, we owned more than 100 buckets.”
The roof was the most urgent task, but in 2003 they began by reconstructing the wall and the walled gardens. Permission for the works had to be gained from English Heritage and the Wychavon conservation officer, and the process was so protracted that the roof could not be replaced until 2006. In the meantime, Sophie remembers: “There was no heating or hot water, the electrics were unsafe and window panes were broken or boarded up. When we first moved in, we all slept in the dining hall because it had windows that weren’t broken, so we had four camp beds and slept in our skiwear to keep warm. Daisy was two and Henry was four at the time.”
Comfort levels were challenging. Budget was positively hair-raising. To give a snapshot of the sums involved, Bob says: “The roof we paid for by selling our three-bedroom maisonette in London. We became very good at 36-times multiplication: £15 for each light switch, times three per room, times 36 rooms, means a conversation about light switches is a £1,600 conversation. Restored cast-iron radiators at £400 each became a £45,000 conversation, and the restoration of restored oak window frames and handmade glass leaded lights to put in the frames was much the same.”
Sophie’s ingenuity became invaluable. “Everything was going on the roof, and we didn’t have much cash for the interiors. It made it more interesting, and made me go out and search for things I really liked and could afford.” Dismayed by the price of drapes, she cut down the curtains from their previous property in Primrose Hill for the windows, and drove the length of the country, from Scotland to Somerset, to find affordable furniture, including her “pride and joy” — a salvaged copper tub from Frome Reclamation.
In their day job, the Sheards dig down to the core identities of the companies they help, then refresh them for the future. Bob says: “The problem with brands is that every three to four years they have successive owners. It’s a bit like a Georgian townhouse, where someone comes in and knocks through the kitchen, the next person puts in a spa bath, and the house loses its architectural integrity. The job of us as brand guys is to bring it back to the authenticity and project it into the future. That’s a good metaphor for what we’ve done here.”
Materials were carefully researched and sourced: the couple used lime plaster and limewash paint on the walls, and handmade glass from Poland for the window panes. They salvaged and reused all they could from the original structure. Every oak window and door frame had to come out, so, wherever possible, the timber from each was saved and spliced into the replacement carpentry. This diligent approach was recognised when they won an award for the restoration: a certificate of merit, awarded by the Vale of Evesham Civic Society in 2007.
From the beginning, the project was marked by incidents tragic and comic. Bob remembers a red-letter day in December 2006: “We fired up the Baby Belling in the only habitable bedroom, and all four of us had hot steak sandwiches and got into the four-poster to watch Leona Lewis win The X Factor.” Sophie recalls what is now a cherished part of family folklore. “We had one of the freestanding 1920s baths original to the house restored and installed to create our first proper bathroom. Bob ran himself a hot bath and got in it. The feet immediately fell off the tub and all the water ended up in the corridor below.”
On September 29, 2010, works were complete and the family gave a dinner party to thank the people who had supported them during seven gruelling years. Sophie says: “Everything was set in the dining hall, fire lit, candles lit, table laid, Bob had the food under control and I was changing upstairs, expecting the guests to arrive shortly. I heard Bob start shouting downstairs, screaming at me to call the fire brigade. I followed him into the dining hall and could see small flames licking out from the ceiling above.” The roof and all the timbers of the Elizabethan section of the house were lost. Forensic investigators from the insurance company arrived next morning to find the fire had been caused by squirrels nesting under the roof tiles and chewing lighting cables.
The project is complete now, bar the hanging of a few pictures. The squirrels and the buckets are long gone; the replacement electric cables are covered in armoured sheaths. The family have surrounded themselves with beloved objects: woven Welsh blankets and distinctive Welsh ceramics collected by Sophie’s mother, antique maps of Yorkshire and Bob’s own oil paintings of the children. The kids themselves, far from being traumatised by their early experiences of skiwear for PJs, adore the building. Henry did his A-level revision in a study room, surrounded by his vintage typewriters and vinyl; Daisy has a light-filled art studio. Sophie says: “Sometimes we say to them, ‘Maybe we should downsize?’ They won’t hear of it.”
So the ending is a happy one, though the epic has left a lasting mark on Bob: “I can no longer watch a lot of Channel 4. As soon as a house programme comes on, I leave the room.”