A series of fortunate coincidences and a long-held, romantic dream, led Christopher Vane Percy back to his forgotten Georgian ancestral home.
The Grade II Listed property in Cambridgeshire has 10 bedrooms and several acres of land, including its own island.
Christopher Vane Percy is the seventh generation of his family to live in this beautiful, early Georgian Classical house by the river in Cambridgeshire, although not through unbroken succession.
In 1943, during World War II, the Percys were given just 48 hours’ notice to leave Island Hall, when the house was requisitioned for the RAF. By 1958, the local council owned the property, and converted it into 15 tiny flats under the Emergency Housing Act.
Period: Built in 1748 and Grade II listed
Size: 10 bedrooms, 1.5 acres formal garden, plus two-acre island in the Great Ouse River
Owner: Christopher Vane Percy, who is an interior designer and Vice President of the British Institute of Interior Design, and Lady Linda Vane Percy, with Poppy, a West Highland terrier. Their three grownup children, Maxim, Grace and Tryce, visit along with grandchild Louis, who is two.
A family history
It was in 1957 when Christopher accidentally stumbled across the ancestral home that he had never previously seen. ‘I was on a boating trip with friends, and we children made our way to a small town close to where we were moored. We spied an overgrown island on the River Ouse and, being huge fans of Enid Blyton, thought it would be a great adventure to swim across to it and explore,’ Christopher recalls. ‘I remember it had a dilapidated Chinese bridge with barbed wire across it and beyond the bridge was the most forlorn-looking mansion I’d ever set eyes on. It was so strange, because I suddenly had a tremendous sense of belonging.’
It was not until two years later, when his grandfather died, that Christopher was to discover how closely his family was linked to Island Hall. His grandmother was clearing out her husband’s study and taking mountains of old papers to be burnt, when the teenage Christopher rescued a Victorian diary with a marbleised cover from the wheelbarrow. ‘It was written by my Great Grandfather, who wrote about the Hall, with its island and Chinese-style bridge. I exclaimed to my Grandmother, “I’ve been there!”. It was only then that she told me about the house and all its tales, which I found fascinating, as I was very interested in our family history.’
A few years passed but Christopher never forgot Island Hall, and when he passed his driving test at the age of 17, he drove straight to the property to look at it once more. ‘I stood on the mill weir that overlooked the house and remember thinking to myself that I could never afford to live there.’
Christopher continued to follow the fortunes of Island Hall over the years, feeling a great sadness when it suffered a serious fire in 1977, sinking it into further disrepair. By then married to Lady Linda, he couldn’t resist taking her to see the old place that kept coming back to haunt him. ‘We drove to the house, parked the car and there it was, with half the roof off , all the windows blown and looking a complete wreck,’ Christopher recalls. ‘I looked at Linda and said, “I always rather thought we might live here one day, what do you think?”, To which she replied, firmly, “Drive on!”.’
Putting all thoughts of the house aside, the Vane Percy family bought a property in London, which they were in the process of renovating, when Christopher happened to pick up a copy of Country Life. ‘I opened the pages and there was a tiny advertisement which simply read, “Island Hall, for sale.” I’m not a reckless man, but I thought, well, this is it, now or never,’ he remembers. ‘I admitted to Linda when we exchanged contracts that I’d never actually set foot inside the house and she said, “What if you hate it?” I replied, “Believe me, I’m going to love it”.’
Renovating the building
During the renovation years, Christopher repaired all of the damaged Georgian panelling and replaced the original fire-damaged staircase. Fireplaces were painstakingly restored by French polishers and original Georgian wall colours were discovered under thick layers of lining paper. ‘The special thing about Island Hall is that almost everything has survived from the 18th century, which is unusual, as most houses are altered by every new generation,’ Christopher explains. ‘However, my ancestors left it as it was, and I’ve been able to recreate the original colour schemes from when it was first built. We gently worked our way through the interior, acknowledging and respecting the house.’
Christopher, an interior designer with a wealth of experience working on country houses, took an equally measured approach to the furnishing of his home, adding the furniture he had collected since he was a teenager. ‘I am a great believer in working out where you want your main furnishing pieces to be, and then planning your decorating schemes aft erwards,’ he advises. ‘You might start off with four ideas for a room, but once you place a key item into the space, you will fi nd that only one scheme will do. In the early years, we didn’t have too much furniture, but have kept adding to it over the years so that each room has slowly evolved.’
The finished project
After spending half a lifetime restoring his old ancestral home and taking inspiration from the past, Christopher now has a firm eye on the future. ‘At some point, Linda and I will move into the mews house in the garden and our children will take over the running of this property. A house like this can be expensive to run, and so we host weddings, as well as opening to the public, to generate an income. This house has absorbed so many generations over the centuries and it loves being filled with people.
‘Island Hall has been a good schoolmaster to me,’ he adds, ‘and I believe it is true when they say that behind every property conservation there is a worried owner! I think it is important to understand that when you work with a house, it has to be a partnership. You need to consider what the house wants. I feel I’ve been on a life-long journey with Island Hall and although I’m not sure where the house will take me next, I’m certain that it will let me know in its own good time.’