Meet the owners of Ingress Abbey in Greenhithe

Lord and Lady Hailes at home

Lord and Lady Hailes at home - Credit: Archant

Lord and Lady Hailes on their love of history, genealogy and taking Burke’s Peerage on a new journey

U p to now Greenhithe meant Bluewater to me, but I have a different perspective on the area now I’ve visited one of its lesser-known treasures – Ingress Abbey.

The last thing I expected was to drive through a housing development to reach it but, sure enough, suddenly there it was in all its Jacobean-style country house splendour, surrounded by very nice but distinctly modern Crest Nicholson homes.

I could just glimpse the Thames from the front of the property and begin to imagine what it would have been like in its early days, with no neighbours or cars and an uninterrupted view down to the waters.

It was a sight that prompted the Shah of Persia, sailing up the Thames in the 1880s, to note that “the only thing worth mentioning at Greenhithe was a mansion standing amid trees on a green carpet extending down to the water’s edge.”

Back in the present, after a bit of a mime show at the gates, where I eventually gave in and answered to being the ‘photos’ to gain access, I was ushered via another member of staff through the kitchen to a gloriously ornate lounge. The ‘real’ photos man soon joined me and Manu and I waited, and waited some more for our hosts, who’d had a few issues getting back from Disneyland Paris the night before, their four young children in tow.

But Lord and Lady Hailes – Sam and Irène – were worth the wait, her Ladyship in particular with her elegant black cocktail dress, high heels and mane of golden-hued hair, which matched a lot of the furniture.

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“You look like a lioness!” I exclaimed and Irène was thrilled: the lion, king of the savannah, is the symbol of her native Cameroon. A good start.

Sam – we knew it was he, his name was monogrammed on his immaculate white shirt – is immensely tall, a Canadian geological engineer by training who made his millions in oil and started his first company, Madagascar Oil, from scratch.

So what brings this exotic couple to Ingress Abbey – and is there any chance of finding oil in the Garden of England? “Well, I found oil in the Alps, so never say never,” Sam laughs.

The answer really lies with Sam’s interest in history and genealogy, which he’s had since the age of 10. And the fact that he owns a ruined castle in Scotland, the ancestral home of the Hepburn family, of Audrey fame – which acquisition in 2008 brought with it the Scottish feudal title of Lord and Baron of Hailes and Lady Hailes.

Oh, and he has just taken ownership of Burke’s Peerage. As you do. It was when he was researching the history of his castle that Sam, 51, got to know Burke’s Peerage and its Royal editor William Bortrick, a surprisingly young 30-something of whom his new business partner says: “You will have gathered that genealogy is clearly more than a hobby for me, but for William it is his entire life and business interests.”

Sam adds: “Burke’s has existed since 1826 and there were different publications and different people using the name, so what we did was make sure that all the intellectual property was consolidated under a single roof. I want to make sure it’s around for another 200 years and more.

“Now we have continuity back to 1826 and we own the company, Burke’s Peerage Limited, William and I are going to have a look at broadening it – after all, there aren’t many brands like it, so the idea is to have a look at other applications. “We have to be very careful not to cheapen the brand but, for example, we might look at a Burke’s Peerage guide to hotels that people listed in Burke’s might stay in. We’re only interested in looking at ways of using the brand respectfully, that draw on its ethos.”

Scotland wasn’t a random choice to look for a castle to buy; Sam’s paternal grandparents lived for many years near Aviemore and Canada has traditionally always had strong Scottish links.

Nor was the move to Kent an impulsive one – Ingress Abbey came into the couple’s lives in 2010, when they were living in a period property in Essex at the time.

“We are both interested in heritage houses, they have so much life, and we knew this area but we didn’t know much about the building,” says Sam. “Once we learnt more and that it was available, we became very interested indeed.”

He proceeds to give me a very thorough potted history. “The land was originally owned by the Prioress of Dartford, Jane Fane, but at that point it was more a manor farm. During the Reformation Henry VIII seized the land and threw the nuns off the estate - there’s even a mock tomb in the grounds where supposedly Jane’s heart is buried. It was then owned by the Crown before a series of private owners stepped in; there was a Palladian mansion here prior to this house and John Calcraft, the MP for Rochester, lived in it in the late 1700s until it was sold again.

“The Napoleonic Wars got in the way, so the owner raised the mansion to the ground in the hope that he would be able to sell the land to the Royal Navy for dockyards, but Greenwich was chosen instead.

“In 1820 the land was bought by a wealthy lawyer, James Harmer, owner of the Sunday Dispatch, and in 1833 he built the current Elizabethan-style mansion, Ingress Abbey, on the banks of the Thames using ragstone from London Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

“At that time there was a beautiful view down to the river and no other houses were around as there are today. But when Harmer’s son-in-law inherited the house, the area began to industrialise and a paper mill and cement plant were built. The family sold the house to the Merchant Navy, who used it until the First World War. It was even briefly a Canadian auxiliary hospital, and HMS Worcester and the Cutty Sark were moored directly opposite for many years.

“In 1970 it became Thames Nautical Training College, but after that it was taken over by the Inner London Education Authority – which was the kiss of death – and it fell into disrepair.

“So for nearly 30 years it was abandoned and when the developer, Crest Nicholson, bought the land they were told by Dartford Borough Council that they couldn’t build on the abbey site and needed to stabilise the building – which they did, and spent a lot of money: floors had fallen, the roof had come off and it had been vandalised.”

Crest Nicholson used the building as offices for a while and then Lord and Lady Hailes came to the rescue, bought the abbey and converted it back to how it was.

Irène takes up the story: “I think the house actually wanted us, it was looking for someone who would appreciate it and bring it back to life, which we have done.

“From the outside it seems quite daunting, just such a big place, but when you come in it’s warm and friendly, everything happens in the right wing and we mainly live in the red room, which the kids love and it’s near the kitchen.”

Sam adds: “We are the first family here since 1870, so there was a huge amount to do. This room, for example, includes one original fireplace and one that is not, windows were boarded up, the ceiling was an ugly suspended office one.

“We worked with builders but the architectural side and research we did ourselves. We had photographs of the inside and outside dating back to Victorian times that were very useful; it’s not identical to how it was but it has a feeling of being like how it was.”

Sam dealt with all the logistics but the artistic side is largely Irène – apart from a few Gothic Revival touches that are very much her husband’s taste. The overall look is Jacobean/Regency with more than a touch of Louis XIV.

“It is said that this house was one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker,” says Sam. “A well-known poetess, Eliza Cook, also lived here and most of her poetry was written here. We have looked on eBay for letters of the period written from this house and we have also managed to find many of Eliza’s books. Some of the furniture and fabrics are also from eBay, others are antiques sourced from France.”

I am not surprised to learn that Ingress Abbey is often used as a film set – in its damaged state it was one of the locations for the episode The Missing Prime Minister in ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot. It’s also used by the Hammer Film Society, features in He Who Dares and Vogue fashion shoots.

Which brings us neatly back to Lady Haines, 35, who grew up in Yaoundé, Cameroon before moving to Paris, making the UK home on her marriage to Sam. In her native country she was a regular on the catwalk, an occasional radio presenter and took the title Miss Lions Cameroon in 1995.

In the UK Irène has appeared in films such as Die Another Day and Ali G Indahouse, in music videos and on TV, including This Morning as a fashion model and on EastEnders. She has appeared in many advertisements, from Jaguar to McDonalds.

But despite a new singing career on the horizon (watch this space), what is more important these days to this mother of four aged four to 14 is her charity, IM Life, which the former Bond girl set up after being on holiday in February 2007 when floods devastated Madagascar. She was six months pregnant with her second daughter when she accompanied Sam on a business trip to the region with their eldest, then seven.

What was supposed to be a stopover turned into a three-week stay where Irène and her daughter did all they could to help, from providing shelter, mosquito nets, food and fresh water to sweets and biscuits.

Irène spent more than £10,000 of her own money, and her daughter left all her clothes behind for the children. The fundraising foundation for the victims of floods in poor countries was born.

Back in Kent, the whole family has fallen in love with their new home and Irène tells me with mingled exasperation and pride: “We sent our daughter to Cheltenham Ladies College but she tells us all her classmates want to come to Kent!” n