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Big Drama at Little Easton

PUBLISHED: 08:01 07 July 2015 | UPDATED: 10:56 09 July 2015

Little Easton Manor

Little Easton Manor

Archant

Little Easton Manor near Great Dunmow has seen many theatrical performances down the years, as well as numerous romantic wedding days, but at its heart it is still a family home, writes Pat Bramley

Little Easton Manor near Great Dunmow has seen many theatrical performances down the years, as well as numerous romantic wedding days, but at its heart it is still a family home, writes Pat Bramley

Little Easton Manor, two miles from Great Dunmow, is special for all kinds of reasons, not least because it once belonged to the Maynard Estate with its history going back to the Doomsday Book and with royal connections.

In the early years of the last century, the estate was owned by the theatrical impresario Basil Dean. A galaxy of theatrical and literary greats, past and present, performed in the barn which was converted into a private theatre, yet none of the high society comings and goings and technicolour events of the past outshines the remarkable real life rags-to-riches story of the present incumbents.

Jane Pedley’s husband’s family have owned the manor for almost 45 years. Today the 66 acres which go with the house include not just the private theatre but also a fishery and a caravan park. ‘We’ve always been hands-on,’ says Jane, ‘and we don’t have any full-time staff.’

Neville and Vera, parents of the present generation, bought the estate in 1971.

They first met on Valentine’s Day in 1950 at the valedictory ball held by the Shoreditch college where Vera was training to be a primary school teacher. Neville was a student at another college nearby, with plans to be a maths and woodwork teacher. For him, meeting Vera was love at first sight. She played hard to get, but he won his girl in the end.

After their marriage at Saffron Walden church in 1952, their first home together was a one-up, two-down with an outside loo and a tin bath that had to be emptied in the yard.

The cottage was tucked behind a grocery shop Neville’s parents had just bought in Saffron Walden. Vera taught at the local St Mary’s Primary School, while Neville got a job at the newly-opened County High.

Although Vera had found her niche as a teacher, it wasn’t long before Neville had other ambitions.

As he recalled later after he founded what became one of the world’s leading manufacturing companies of hotel furniture: ‘On April 1, 1954, the big break was made to the horror of my in-laws when I left the safety and security of teaching and set up as a self-employed person making furniture from a Nissan hut we had purchased for seven pounds and erected in Hodson’s Yard.

‘Shortly after this we were able to hire the old school workshop behind Abbey Hotel where, gradually, through working long hours and with money my wife earned as a school teacher, we slowly bought real machines.’

It was 19 years later and with their three children — Susan, Martin and Alan — that they bought the mansion which changed all of their lives.

They moved to Little Easton Manor with its eight bedrooms, countless bathrooms, embassy-sized reception rooms and rolling acres on Vera’s 40th birthday.

‘The previous owner had left without leaving a single light bulb, carpet or curtain, but true to character, Vera remained undaunted and within just a few days had project managed the soft furnishings for the whole house,’ her husband later wrote in his memoirs.

Once installed as the new people at the manor, their entrepreneurial instincts were soon roused by the business potential in the grounds.

It was immediately evident that the theatre needed work to restore it to former glory. The tithe barn had originally been converted into a small theatre by Lady Warwick for her family’s amusement.

‘She installed the stage and gas lighting,’ says Jane, Neville and Vera’s daughter-in-law. ‘The countess was “my darling Daisy”, the notable beauty and keen cyclist who was the inspiration for the popular music hall song of the time Daisy, Daisy Give Me Your Answer, Do. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, was among her many admirers.’

In Edwardian times Ellen Terry frequently took to the stage at Little Easton with her poetry readings, while during World War I, H G Wells and his son Gip starred in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Later, when Basil Dean was in residence — he bought the manor in 1925 when he married the Countess of Warwick’s daughter, Lady Mercy Greville, and sold it in 1939 when they divorced — Hermione Baddeley, Gracie Fields, Charlie Chaplin and George Formby were among the headline acts who performed there.

The original stage was still intact when the Pedleys arrived, but trees had grown through the roof and the floor was covered in layers of chicken manure.

Neville and Vera set about the restoration with a view to it being, ‘used as a place where people meet, play, sing, dance and celebrate’.

For the best part of the past 40 years, it has been just that: an atmospheric super special venue for plays, concerts, wedding receptions, private parties and exhibitions — you name it.

But it hasn’t just been the theatre at Little Easton Manor that has helped to fund the upkeep of the estate. Many films and, more recently, TV productions have been made in the grounds.

After restoring the barn theatre and a further outbuilding — the Turkey Barn is now licensed for civil weddings — the Pedleys looked for other sources of income.

The manor’s four ancient carp lakes are now a popular coarse fishing venue for local anglers and an extensive lakeside field has been utilised as a caravan rally site.

Jane explains: ‘Neville’s father was one of the founder members of the Caravan Club, so obviously he wanted to continue the family association.’ After Neville died in 1999, his widow continued the business on her own with the support of her family and friends. Eventually her health started to fail, she became increasingly frail and the family moved in to nurse her.

Following Vera’s death at the age of 81 in 2012, her daughter-in-law has largely taken over as chatelaine of the family estate.

Along with her husband, Martin, and son, Oliver, now the estate manager, she has become responsible to a considerable extent for the smooth running of not just the Grade II listed eight bedroom mansion, but also for the business enterprises rooted in the rolling acres that belong to the house.

Over August Bank Holiday Sunday and Monday (August 30 and 31), thousands will turn up for the Countess of Warwick’s Country Show held annually in the grounds of Little Easton Manor.

As great a deal as that is, with huge sums raised for The Five Parishes charity which supports the local churches in the immediate area, the Country Show takes up just one weekend of the year. With this kind of enterprise there’s hardly a day in the year when the Pedleys are at home alone.

‘It’s a magical place,’ observes Jane. ‘You feel it as soon as you get here.’

Now it’s for sale

Little Easton Manor and all that goes with it is now for sale for £4.5million with Carter Jonas Bradshaws at 141 Hills Road in Cambridge. For details, call 01223 403330

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