The house lies on the Cheshire/Shropshire borders, only seven miles from the present Welsh border and in the heart of England’s richest agricultural region. Combermere Abbey is a complex medieval and sixteenth century building, with extensive pasteboard Gothick enveloping (of the early 19th century) impressively positioned overlooking a lake and set in green and abundant parkland. There are also interesting service buildings.
The medieval abbey was Cistercian, founded in c.1133 by Hugh de Malbank. The location was remote and well-watered. The Abbey began as a wealthy house, eventually owning lands of over 22,000 acres, but had a history of maladministration and indiscipline. Finally it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 and given to a trusted supporter, Sir George Cotton, comptroller to the household of the Duke of Richmond. He was the illegitimate son of Henry and therefore a man of influence. The Abbey church and claustral buildings were removed leaving only the Abbots House and hall to form the basis of the current house.
The grand first floor hall of the Abbot’s house was roofed over with a hammerbeam roof. At the high end of the hall is a substantial dais canopy and at the entrance end, a timber screen with tracery head decoration. This is a substantial rich man’s hall on a lavish scale and is a feature of the late monastic period. They frequently were incorporated into the houses of the new rich of the Tudor period.
The house underwent several remodellings to reflect the fashion of the day and the increasing stature of the Cotton family. In 1563 Richard Cotton enclosed the Library retaining the medieval canopy and introducing a mural fireplace. The original hammerbeam roof is still in good condition and bears the Abbey arms – a shield bearing a crozier.
The house became a very typical 16th century symmetrical Elizabethan building, embellished with cross wings and roof gablets and decorative framing. The house faced an impressive entrance allee with substantial avenues and walls framing the approach along the substantial mere. There were formal gardens and the entrance gates made by Davies Brothers of Wrexham were sold to Westbury Old Gardens in 1919 prior to its sale to the Crossley family.
There were a succession of extensive Gothick remodeling campaigns dating from 1775 and 1820 which included both the house and the parkland. The major work was carried out between 1814 and 1820 by Sir Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere. Additional servants bedrooms were created and the service wing embellished with a game larder in the gothic style and the clock tower in 1815 celebrating the Waterloo triumph. He also built a dining room, now demolished, for the visit of the Duke of Wellington (his boss) in 1820 to celebrate the christening of his son, Wellington. Two schemes were commissioned – one by Morrisons of Ireland, of which only Stone Lodge was built, and Edward Blore who inspired the Stables, now converted into 9 cottages offering accommodation to wedding and holiday guests.
The house was used as a school for evacuated students from St Helena’s School in Eastbourne during the war, and after WW2 returned to private family use. Suffering from the enormous social change, reduced incomes and high inheritance tax, the house began to show signs of increasing decay. In the 1970’s a major repair and renovation project was undertaken and alterations to the building meant the removal of two wings, and part of a floor in order to secure the future of the main part of the house. Today, improved repair methods and restoration techniques mean that demolition is no longer the only answer to the dreaded dry rot and death watch beetle!
However, in 1992 a further restoration programme was started to restore all the listed buildings on the estate as well as the main house. In 1997 the Library was re-roofed to prevent collapse, and a protective scaffold erected around the North Wing to slow its evident deterioration, and grants were gained from English Heritage to repair the Library.
In 2007 and 2009 we undertook the restoration of the Game Larder, a beautiful hexagonal building in the centre of the Service yard and the Clock Tower, which we now know was built in 1815 as one of the Victory Towers celebrating the Battle of Waterloo. Another important step in our 20 year plan for the restoration of all the derelict and abandoned buildings. These two wonderful buildings have been restored thanks to the generosity and foresight of The Country Houses Foundation.
In 2013, after a twelve year struggle, we finally secured enabling development permission for the restoration of the North Wing of the house. Work began on the project in January 2014 and we are now close to its conclusion 28 months later! The restoration of this wonderful house means we will open again to public tours and it can be seen for the first time in decades as Lord Combermere intended it to look in 1820.
View the Timeline of Combermere here, dating from 1133 to the present day, highlighting key historical moments through the ages.