Andrea Cooke: Home Work

We take a look at life in Athelhampton House - through the eyes of the lady whose home it is. Words by Stephen Swann

A spring morning and the beautiful 15th-century Athelhampton House is being readied for the first visitors of the new season. I have come to meet not Patrick Cooke, the man whose grandfather bought Athelhampton back in 1957, but his wife, Andrea, in order to find out what it is like for a mother of two young boys to live and work in an ancient and far from small house - a house that is not only a home but a business that welcomes thousands of visitors every year.

Andrea was born in Wallingford in 1971, the daughter of a father who was a very successful engineer, and a housewife mum. When Andrea was 11 the family moved to a large house in the New Forest. "Dad did all the plumbing and rewiring and mum the painting and decorating," Andrea tells me. "Patrick is like my dad in that way - he is very practical too." She was a day-girl at a private school. "I didn't like it. There was a lot of favouritism. I suppose I just wasn't malleable enough to fit in."

After A-levels Andrea went on to Bournemouth Art College where she enrolled on a four-year course in Spatial Design. Whilst at college she did some fashion modelling and this took her to London, where she worked on shoots for magazines like Marie Claire and Italian Vogue. For Andrea, modelling meant being little more than a clotheshorse. "You weren't allowed to have opinions of your own," she explains. "I went back home to the New Forest where I set up my own business specialising in painting murals and trompe l'oeil."

It was at this time that some friends asked Andrea to go with them to a party at Athelhampton House. "It was a case of instant attraction on both sides," says Andrea of her first meeting with Patrick. "Patrick, though young, seemed very mature. He had a great sense of humour but to me he appeared to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. His dad had died when he was 19 and his mum when he was 25, and there he was trying to make a go of this house he had inherited."

Soon after this first meeting they decided to go for a holiday to Australia. Then, back in England, they were married and have been so now for 10 years. The house Patrick brought his bride back to was, in Andrea's somewhat euphemistically sounding description, "essentially a bachelor's pad". Here's Andrea: "Patrick wasn't touchy about changes to the house but I felt I had to be sensitive and prove myself. We have our own space which we defend furiously, and then there are the more formal parts of the house. For us the kitchen is the hub of the house. It's where the Aga is, the kids' wellies, the dog - the usual sort of thing."

Andrea and Patrick have two children, George, ten, and James, five. George attends the Middle School and James the First School in the nearby village of Puddletown. "We feel part of the local community. The children have friends round and I don't think I am seen as the 'lady up at the big house' in any way," says Andrea.

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The business employs 12 full-time members of staff and 15 part-time, this latter figure rising to more than 30 at the height of the summer, most of whom live locally. "This is a business and a fairly labour-intensive one at that," explains Andrea, "but don't run away with the idea that we have personal staff - there's no butler!"

I put it to her that it must sometimes get a bit irksome living over the shop. "I pop into Dorchester for a coffee and a look round the shops for a bit of down time and we do get to have holidays, though I do have to surgically remove Patrick from the place."

Andrea is passionate about the splendid gardens of Athelhampton House. Being trained in design and with her gift for painting, under her influence and hands-on approach the gardens have, over the years, taken on a beauty that is bewitching. "The garden is divided into spaces that are a bit like rooms. I love colour and so I treat each space almost like an exercise in interior design. I love plants but I'm not into all that Latin names bit. I do cock things up occasionally but plants aren't for ever and things soon come right."

I end by asking Andrea to paint me a picture of life at home. "The children come first, of course. Patrick and I go to concerts - the BSO, bands, and just recently we went to see Dionne Warwick, she was great! We love film and watch a lot in the new conference room. It seats 80 people and has a state-of-the-art cinema facility. We sit there with the kids, eating popcorn, and have a whale of a time. I like reading - history and biography. I'm quite a political animal. I like debate and questioning things. Some evenings we'll listen to '70s records on Patrick's juke box and have a good dance - the kids can't stop laughing. What Sir William Martyn, the man who built Athelhampton back in 1485, would make of that I can't imagine."

Well, I think I know just what he'd make of it. I reckon old Sir William would be delighted to know that his house is being loved and cared for by a family determined to see it survive for generations to come.

Andrea and Patrick open Athelhampton House to the public from March-October. For opening hours and more information, visit or (01305 848363).

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