Country House Rescue in Garston

Restoring a manor to its past glory has been a labour of love for Sheila O'Neill and her family. Pat Bramley discovers how devotion – and a little help from TV show Country House Rescue – helped pull their home into the 21st century

WHEN friends heard on the grapevine that Sheila O’Neill was set on buying a dilapidated 80-room manor house standing in 21 acres they did their utmost to warn her off.‘Everyone advised me not to buy it,’ she remembers. ‘They said it would be a constant burden.’That was 13 years ago. Her friends were right. The upkeep of Garston Manor has been and still is a daunting challenge but Sheila, one of six children of an American diplomat and an eminent Dutch-born artist, is a blue blood fighter. Her mid-Atlantic accent comes from having been born in Washington DC, then moving to Canada and later living for years at a time in Ireland, France and Holland before settling in England. She’s accustomed to taking on projects from which lesser spirits would run a mile. She belongs to a dynasty of well-connected intellectuals and artists who are all high achievers in their field. Sheila and her sister Brigid, under their maiden name Marlin, are both artists with an international reputation, having inherited their talent from their late mother, the children’s author and artist Hilda Von Stockum.

A family traditionAs well as painting portraits, Sheila is principal of a Montessori school. There again she has followed the career pattern of her mother and grandmother – both were Montessori teachers. Her grandmother was taught by the founding genius Maria Montessori.It was the urgent need to find new premises for Sheila’s school after its previous home at the Royal Caledonian School in Bushey was sold to the Purcell School of Music that first sparked her interest in Garston Manor. At that point the 200-year-old mansion was being sold by the local health authority after decades of being used as an NHS rehabilitation centre. Before that, in its halcyon days, it had been owned by two brewery families – the Watneys and the Benskins – and it was also the childhood home of Stafford Bourne, son of one of the founders of the Oxford Street store Bourne & Hollingsworth. ‘It had been empty for years when I came to see it,’ says the present owner. ‘It was more or less derelict. Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood paneling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were 100 broken windows, the garden was a jungle, it was in a terrible state but I wanted it for my school. I could see we could all live here together, myself and my husband and our four grown-up daughters – each of us could have a self-contained flat – and we could use it for the school and as a venue for functions and as a film location.’Sheila put in a sealed bid for �500,000 – one of only two offers received by the agents – and it won the day.She admits, ‘I was lucky in having a husband who was happy to let me get on with it. He supported me in whatever I did.’ Husband Shane, a refrigeration engineer and keen golfer, died six years ago. They’d known each other since she was 13 during a period when her family were living in Dublin and he was an undergraduate at Trinity College. ‘Our first home together was a two-up two-down cottage in Potten End with no inside loo – we were the last ones in the road to have an Elsan. From that we ended up in a manor house with 80 rooms and God knows how many bathrooms.’Although their friends thought Sheila was mad to take on a Grade II listed building in an advanced stage of decay, Shane backed her to the hilt. She was lucky he did because she says the cost of restoration has exceeded what she paid for the place.She recalls, ‘I started work full of enthusiasm. I wanted to restore the mansion to its original state when it was a family home. We don’t know exactly when it was built but it’s at least 200 years old. The earliest record is when it was sold at auction in 1813.

The road to restoration‘The glass dome in the atrium high above the entrance hall had been demolished and covered with chipboard. When we lifted it to replace the glass, we found the whole of the inside beams in the ceiling had been smouldering. All that was left were charred remains. A nail had been driven through the wire of the only light fitting in the ceiling.‘We think that’s what caused the fire. It’s amazing the whole place didn’t go up. That set us back �60,000. Eventually my insurance paid �40,000 towards the cost.’Gradually the ground floor was restored to a standard where Garston Manor could function again as a business venture. The old industrial kitchen was replaced with an up-to-date model, the badly damaged wood floors in each of the principal reception rooms were re-laid or renewed, every room needed extensive work before the school was able to transfer from the temporary classrooms in the two portable buildings they’d put up in the grounds.One of the major jobs which needed tackling as a priority was the once beautiful ceiling in the ballroom – now the banqueting hall able to accommodate wedding parties of 140.‘The ceiling was falling down. We had to get an expert from London to make the moulds to restore the decorative plasterwork. The fee for that alone was �10,000. We also had to restore the sheen to the original floor in the ballroom and replace the broken glass in the arched window above the double doors at the end of the room opening onto the grounds.’ All that and much more had to be done before they could advertise the venue for corporate events, photographic shoots, weddings and wakes – the manor is ideally situated as a peaceful retreat for funeral parties, being practically on the doorstep of the local cemetery a few hundred yards further up High Elms Lane.To distance the house from the era when it was a rehabilitation centre, Sheila and her daughters decided to resurrect the original name of the house. The owners in 1895 changed the name to Garston Manor, before that it was High Elms Manor and now that’s what it is again.Always on the lookout for new opportunities to boost income – ‘the running costs are �75,000 a year’ – they approached the Sky production company responsible for TV Weddings. Sheila, now 71, has compiled a scrapbook six inches thick packed with photographs of her with stars of the 20 or so films which have been partly shot at the manor house in the last few years.

Television to the rescue‘The TV Weddings people came down and looked around. They said we weren’t quite right for them but they asked if they could pass on our details to their sister company who make the Country House Rescue series.’As a result of the input from the programme’s formidable interior designer Ruth Watson, Sheila has invested a further �80,000 onfurther improvements.Sheila and her four daughters – all the girls are involved in the family business – carried out the expert’s advice to the letter and then some. ‘Ruth said we were the best owners she had worked with. She said we surpassed ourselves. We exceeded her remit.‘I thought it was acceptable before but it didn’t have the wow factor,’ Sheila admits. ‘Now it has.’One of the main changes was to turn the previously underused school library into a ceremony room. The floor to ceiling heavy silk curtains and the fee for an interior designer for that room alone cost �8,000. Sheila looks a bit stunned. She says she’s just as pleased with the curtains in the visitors’ lounge made by a friend for half the price.In the dining room there’s another new purchase: a mahogany boardroom table that can seat 20 while in the ballroom (or banqueting hall depending on the size of the party) the new chandelier in the centre of the ceiling sparkles with Austrian crystals.‘The girls became really enthusiastic about the improvements. They had so much energy. Ailisa, my youngest daughter, commissioned a lighting designer.She had the tiny lights set in the ceiling running either side of the corridor leading from the hall through to the ceremony room. They add to the romance.’The walls of the hall, like those in all the main rooms, are hung with paintings by Sheila, her sister Brigid and their mother Hilda.Outside, the terrace has been rebuilt and edged with a waist high stone balustrade which matches the existing first floor balustrade on the balcony outside Sheila’s apartment.‘There’s still a lot to do,’ Sheila says. ‘We haven’t finished the cellars yet and we still have work to do on our flats. After 13 years you have to start again.’In the meantime the house is a fine family home for Sheila, her four daughters and seven grandchildren, the events business is ticking over nicely, the school is doing well though they’d welcome more pupils and they’re all looking forward to March when the Channel 4 programme on High Elms Manor in the new series of Country House Manor is due to go out. Email for details about availability and booking