A NEW house in an old shell is how Barbara and Chris Sharman describe their stunningly restored 17th century mansion in East Lothian
Barbara and Chris Sharman readily admit they bought Letham House near Haddington on purely emotional grounds and knew it required work. What they didn’t realise was that it needed to be completely restored.
When they met ten years ago, Barbara was a relocation specialist and Chris owned Manacraft leather company in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield. Both were successful in their own fields – Chris can create anything in leather from Gordon Brown’s Budget box to Billy Connolly’s sporrans – but they decided a lifestyle change was in order and started looking for a property to buy together.
Barbara says: “We saw Letham advertised, came to view, drove down the drive and even before we came in the house we’d made our decision.”
Chris says: “We offered the owner what he wanted there and then, shook on it and that was it.”
However, this three-storey, B-listed, 17th-century country house wasn’t quite what it seemed, as the couple quickly found out. “I thought the work was mainly cosmetic and we’d be done in six months,” says Barbara.
Says Chris: “Basically what you see today is a new house in the old shell, literally everything you see is new. Walls, plaster, cornicing, fireplaces, roof, terrace, driveway, kitchens, plumbing, heating, electrics and drainage have all been renewed. When the Victorian tennis court had been added, the ground was levelled right up to the house, but it was actually too high so every door was two steps lower than the outside and the house sat in a sort of hollow which made it very damp. It was also surrounded by trees that obscured many of the windows so it was dark as well.”
Fortunately the couple weren’t deterred by this mammoth undertaking – Chris even proposed during the renovation and their wedding took place at Letham House.
As part of the renovation Barbara and Chris chose to make some structural changes after getting Historic Scotland on board. “The biggest thing we did structurally,” says Chris, “was to knock through from the dining room into the second kitchen which would have been the original cool room for the house which dates back to 1645 and which is now accessed by our secret door. Incredibly, the wall was nine feet thick.
“We’ve also built a garden room on the site of the original Victorian glass house which apparently housed a swimming pool. We only know this because our architect after looking at the plans told us we were so lucky to have this amazing glass house and we said we knew nothing about it. It had been knocked down. Fortunately Historic Scotland didn’t ask us to reinstate it although they could have and we had to apply for retrospective planning to remove it. We received a lot of support from Historic Scotland as they recognised that the house was in danger of slipping further into disrepair.”
The couple lived in the house and on site in a caravan throughout the 18-month renovation. “Our biggest fright was when we started the renovation we had one bath, two toilets and a rickety kitchen, but then the electrician said to us you need to get out of the room you’re sleeping in. They started tearing the floors up and ripping the walls down,” Chris says.
While it was tough, they had plenty of support from family. Barbara’s sister Marion and brother-in-law Geoff own Calico House Interiors in Coldstream and when it came to the finishing touches they couldn’t wait to get involved.
“We didn’t want a fuddy-duddy historical house,” Barbara says, “but we did want something in keeping with the period and Marion and Geoff really came into their own once the restoration was complete, helping with decisions on colours, carpets, wallpaper and fabrics. We had about a third of the furniture already and some lovely pieces from both our families. With Marion’s help we were able to give these pieces a new lease of life, having them recovered and reupholstered where necessary.
“Marion also has slightly more contemporary tastes than I have and is much more minimalist and it’s nice to see what ideas she comes up with. Sometimes she’ll suggest a wallpaper or fabric that I just wouldn’t have considered.”
As well as the tasteful décor, the furniture and accessories play a part in the character of Letham House. Barbara bought the entire contents of an antique shop a few years ago and many of these pieces have been used in the property. In the music room is a harmonium which was a wedding present from the former owner, and the large chest belonged to the MacBrayne shipping family.
In the drawing room, a grandmother’s Bergere sofas have been recovered courtesy of Calico House and in the kitchen the oversized clock is also another Calico House find.
The entire house and especially the bedrooms benefit from the Sharmans’ personal touches with a different look and theme inspired by favourite pieces of art and trinkets brought back from trips abroad. And while the Sharmans are happy to open their home to guests (five of the bedrooms along with the public rooms are being run as a five-star country house that welcomes guests and is also a Wolsey Lodge) they aren’t prepared to compromise the way it looks or feels. Last year they developed another side to the business, offering small bespoke weddings using the house and grounds for the exclusive use of the bridal party.
“Ultimately, this project would never have worked if Barbara and I hadn’t had the right background,” Chris says. “If it had been a building contractor managing it, it would have been a different house altogether.
“We’ve really built a home, and an exciting business, and we’re delighted that people want to come and share it with us.”