Wymering Manor has gone from being an abandoned wreck into an up-and-coming community hub. Stuart Anderson stepped inside and spoke to the team that made it happen.
When a newly-formed group of volunteers first ventured into Portsmouth’s oldest house, what they were confronted with looked more like a bomb site than a landmark.
Wymering Manor, which was built in 1581 in what was then a quiet village, had fallen into disrepair.
‘It was really grotty and filthy,’ said Andrew Mason, 39, a member of the Wymering Manor Trust.
‘It was an absolute wreck despite there having been a security guard here.
‘People had just rolled back the carpet and put stuff in there.’
Mr Mason, from Eastney, said the house had dangerous electrics, a cellar which flooded each winter and a garden overgrown with weeds.
That was at the start of 2013, when the trust took control in order to restore the building and to bring it back to life.
Mr Mason said a lot of progress had been made since then, when the house did not even have working toilets.
He said: ‘There was only one grotty loo, which had to be removed because it had asbestos in it.
‘Now we have four functioning loos including one with disabled access.’
Asbestos in the house turned out to be a major problem – the trust spent a big part of its budget getting it removed.
And slowly but surely, more and more of the rambling, 25-room manor is being returned to a usable condition.
Volunteer Mick Chipps, 72, from Cosham, said he spent about 30 hours each week working on the house, and he was often joined by others from the trust or students from Highbury College and the University of Portsmouth.
‘There’s something going on here most days,’ Mr Chipps said.
Mr Mason said long-term unemployed people helped by Portsmouth City Council’s Portsmouth Craft and Manufacturing Industries programme, which aims to get people back into work, were also helping to transform the house. ‘The council is helping us by providing guys who have been out of work for quite a while,’ he said.
‘They’ve been doing jobs here such as gardening and painting, which really gives them a chance to build up their confidence and skills.’
The council gave the project a £30,000 start-up fund, and £50,000 came later from the People’s Millions Lottery Fund.
Other donations have come from generous individuals and businesses including Lee Fletcher Funeral Services, which paid for the renovation of the music room, and DKW, which donated the disabled toilet.
Mr Mason said the manor had already hosted two events in the completed music room, and it was on its way to becoming a self-sustaining hub of the community.
He said: ‘It takes a lot of money and effort just to keep this thing afloat, but we’ve started to generate a small amount of funding ourselves.
‘We really want this place to become a focal point of the local community, not just in Wymering, but for Portsmouth.
‘We want people to be able to enjoy themselves here.’
To get involved in volunteering and help restore the manor, e-mail email@example.com or call 07856 482957.
Spooky goings on
It’s not only volunteers who walk the halls of Wymering Manor if the legends are to be believed.
The building has a reputation as a haunted house and is a major draw for ghosthunters and paranormal investigators.
Trustee Karen Fletcher said one of the most enduring legends was that of a choir of ghostly nuns which crossed the main hall every night at midnight.
Ms Fletcher said: ‘When you talk to people about the house they always ask “have you seen the nuns?”.
‘There’s also supposed to be a nun at the top of the stairs who appears, her hands dripping with blood.’
Ms Fletcher said the ghost of a monk was said to haunt the music room.
She said: ‘He doesn’t like the dark, so I put a night-light in there for him.’
Another famous legend involves the ghost of Reckless Roddy, who tried to take the wives of newly-married couples who moved into the house.
Ms Fletcher said: ‘He would ride up to the house on his horse and you could hear him coming in across the grass from outside.’
She said that while she had never seen a ghost at the manor herself, she had heard that many others had, including her own son, eight-year-old Reece.
Ms Fletcher said: ‘I think a lot of people have had experiences.
‘I brought my son here once and we hadn’t told him what the house was and he went and sat by the fireplace.
‘Afterwards, when we were back in the car, he said: “Mum, what is that house?”
‘I told him that it was just an old house, why?’
‘He said “because someone pinched me”.’
The house through the generations
Although the current building known as Wymering Manor is already five centuries old, the history of the site dates back much further.
Trustee Andrew Mason said the first manor at the site was constructed between 1285 and 1310, and the current manor was built by a woman called Eleanor Brunning.
Mr Mason said: ‘Hers was a family of some standing in Hampshire and she clearly invested a lot of money in the building.
‘But they were a Catholic family, very heavily persecuted and heavily fined, and at least two of her sons were thrown in jail.’
The manor underwent major renovations after it was bought by Thomas Knowles-Parr in 1889, and it passed into the army’s ownership when he died in 1938.
The army used the manor to hold dances, and volunteer Mick Chipps said his late mother-in-law used to talk about going to functions there when she was younger.
He said: ‘She used to say that she could remember walking through the doors and seeing the staircase and thinking about how wonderful it was.’
A man called Leonard Metcalfe took over the manor in 1948, but not before an unscrupulous builder had stripped the house of some of its grander features, such as a fireplace in the music room.
When Mr Metcalfe died a decade later the manor was marked for demolition, but the community rallied around to save the structure and it was bought by Portsmouth City Council.
The council then leased the building to the Youth Hostel Association, and it was used as a hostel until 2005, when it was closed up and effectively abandoned.
Mr Mason said: ‘There were various schemes proposed but nothing really went anywhere until we took it on.’