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Restoration men

PUBLISHED: 10:00 01 October 2014

Owners Chris Badham and Damian Llambias with Oscar, their not-so-wired-haired, Wirehaired Vizsla

Owners Chris Badham and Damian Llambias with Oscar, their not-so-wired-haired, Wirehaired Vizsla

Matt Austin Images 2013

Designed by renowned architect William Burgess as a wedding gift to a Baroness in the 1800s, it seems fitting Huntsham Court’s new owners have transformed the property into an award-winning, private wedding venue, writes NAOMI TOLLEY

When Chris Badham and Damian Llambias started their search for a unique country property in 2012 they had no idea they would end up with a baronial mansion in the midst of Devon.

Having been together for 11 years, the couple were looking for the perfect place to hold their civil partnership - but found it impossible. This disappointment sparked their hunt to purchase a rural property “somewhere in the sweep of the South of England”, where they could live and welcome family, friends and those looking for a relaxed, homely wedding venue in beautiful surroundings.

“We started to realise, the further we looked outside of London, the more our money could buy,” says Damian, whose vision is led by a background in architecture and fine arts.

And despite the dilapidated, neglected state in which they found Huntsham Court, the couple fell instantly in love with the 19th century mansion, purchasing it for £1.83million.

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“When we first moved in, everyone thought we were bonkers,” says Chris, while lounging in his favourite spot in the house: on a Duresta sofa in the luxurious library, home to a bookcase reputed to be from the House of Lords and housing 3,000 books and 1,400 magazines.

Signs of the couple’s tireless restoration and renovation efforts are everywhere in this room: from the antique Victorian rug, bought at Rosebery’s Auction in Norwood, London; and the original Victorian Gothic light fittings, bought from auction and restored; to the exclusive Watts 1874 Shrewsbury Welby wallpaper - of a design dating back to 1845.

The laid-back luxury and opulence here highlights how the couple have already come a long way in their sensitive renovation efforts since purchasing the property two years ago.

“We moved in on 27 January, 2012 and the conditions were Arctic because we are on oil heating so it’s set to either on or off. There was ice on the windows,” adds Damian, smiling.

“So we lit the fire in the Great Hall and went out to Bampton to get fish and chips.” That first night, they felt like “squatters, being in such a large, empty building” and the prospect of taking on such a large, historic property literally hit home.

“It was a bit like being a child and having a dream. Suddenly that dream had come true and the reality and responsibility of owning such a large home, which needed a lot of work, sank in.

“Undeterred, we would sit in each room and look at what needed to be done - there was a lot - but we stared making lists and prioritising work. We recorded everything,” says Damian, enthusiastically.

And so, their ten-year programme to bring the 104-room house back to life, repairing and restoring the original features and filling the property with period antiques, many found at auction and in junk shops, along with modern comforts, began. With the property’s Grade II* listed status and colourful, historical past, it has not been an easy feat.

“We wanted it to feel like the house has evolved over decades, as it has. We wanted the house to have a personality,” reveals Damian.

But they have achieved far more than that. They have already won the Commercial Innovation Award at this year’s Hudson’s Heritage Awards and have the facility to host legal civil ceremonies, as well as restoring the Victorian Arbour, The Old Dovecote, as part of a £50,000 restoration of the grounds.

Sitting at the top of a lavender-lined driveway in the tiny village of Huntsham near Tiverton, the 31-bedroom property rises from its pristine gardens in all its granite glory. It has five main reception rooms, 14 stone arches, 145 doors with 136 windows fitted with 1,012 panes of glass to let in the light. The 98 unique, original shutters with oak sills are a beauty in themselves.

While we walk from room-to-room, Damian points out the objects they have bought along the way: a project involving the purchase of 1,900-metres of fabric; 1,076 litres of paint; 880 lightbulbs; four kilometres of water and heating pipework; and ten kilometres of electrical and other cables - as well as the numerous items they have bought to furnish the property and make it feel like a home-from-home (including 67 sofas and 380 cushions).

“It has been, and is, a real labour of love,” admits Damian. “It is an honour to own such a building but a huge challenge to do right by it - balancing making it your own whilst making sure you do everything within the parameters of what is permitted with listed buildings,” he adds, while pointing out that many of the bedrooms take their names from Chris and Damian’s family, friends and pets.

It is not only the sensitive commitment to the period of the property which stands out here, and the thorough research and effort gone into looking for the ‘right’ items at auction and beyond, but also the vast, unique features which come with the house and the remarkable work of the local tradesmen that have been employed to restore these features to their former glory.

It is home to the only example of a double-height, Victorian octagonal vaulted kitchen, based on the Monks’ kitchen at Glastonbury (and Damian’s favourite room). It still houses the original stove. Much of the interior is protected, such as the hand-muralled ceiling in the Drawing Room and the Jacobean panelling.

“It has a wonderful history and in deciding how to breathe life back into the house we wanted to celebrate and embrace the existing architecture and history and work with it, not against it,” says Damian.

The house is now in great demand, billed as one of the most coveted wedding venues in the region and every penny raised from renting the property out for private hire goes straight back into the restoration pot. Chris and Damian also go to great lengths to make the community feel at home here, from holding charity events in the grounds to organising parties and Christmas Eve carols around the open fire in the Great Hall.

“It really feels like home now and people are starting to realise our vision. Our friends and family love coming to stay and it is wonderful to share our home with the community for events, as well as those who are hiring the house for private parties. It makes us so happy to think people are making happy memories in our home,” adds Damian.n

For further information on Huntsham Court, visit huntshamcourt.co.uk, call 01398 361277 or e-mail enquiries@huntshamcourt.co.uk

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