Take a look through one of the grandest properties in Orford
PUBLISHED: 11:10 17 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:07 17 April 2018
For Chris and Fiona Gerard, life doesn't get much better than at their Orford home. Words and images: Tony Hall
For a man with a passion for boats and sailing, like his father before him, and with a family equally enthusiastic, buying a home in the sailors’ haven of Orford, must be a dream come true. To buy one of the grandest properties in the village, on Church Street, must surely be the ultimate.
Chris Gerard was born and brought up not on the coast, but in Cambridge, where his father, Stephen, built seven sailing boats in the back garden, ranging from 23ft to 34ft. “The family owned a Silhouette, a Halcyon 23, then an S&S (Sparkman and Stephens) 34, which we keep on swinging moorings at Ramsholt.
Father went on to buy the Carillon of White, the sister ship to Sir Edward Heath’s Morning Cloud 3, which my twin brother, Nick, races in Majorca.” Having caught the sailing bug at a tender age, on leaving school at 18 Chris joined the Royal Navy, at Dartmouth, as a midshipman.
One year at naval college was followed by four years as a commissioned officer which included service in the Falklands conflict as bridge watchkeeper on the destroyer Bristol.
After working four hours on, four hours off for 140 days, Chris decided to apply to be a naval helicopter pilot at Biggin Hill. “But, as my instructor remarked, ‘your arms are not joined to your legs’, an essential requirement.” He left the Navy received job offers from National Car Parks, Gallagher Tobacco and Charingtons the brewers.
At the age of 23, he plumped for the latter and rapidly climbed the ladder. He lived in Wandsworth, while his work base was at Foxearth in Suffolk, where he was district manager for 32 tenanted pubs spread from Milton Keynes to Clacton.
By 2001 the business was split into brewing under Bass, pubs under the Mitchell & Butler brand and Intercontinental Hotels. Chris was overseeing 400 hotels, pubs and restaurants throughout the country.
In 2003 he left to start his own group, Innventure, which now has six hotel/restaurants at Cambridge Letchworth, Hitchen, Welwyn, Fleet and Saffron Walden, employing over 190 staff.
Moving to Orford
It was in 2016, when Chris and Fiona came ashore at Orford from their boat, with friends Mike and Judith Shallow. Says Chris: “We were walking up Church Street to go to Butley Oysterage, past this house which was for sale. They said really you ought to buy it.” So Chris and Fiona sold their Queen Anne house in Whitwell, Hertfordshire, and took possession of The Great House in March 2017.
The imposing house was originally built around 1820 by the owners of the Sudbourne Estate as a shooting lodge for weekend guests and parties. In 1966, Lord Bridges, who was a diplomat and ambassador in Rome and Moscow, bought the property as his country home.
Lady Bridges was a keen gardener and, until her death in 2005, she and her gardener, Bob, created the mature gardens you see today, which Bob still tends.
In a perfectly executed, almost military operation, this beautiful property was transformed in just six weeks from the Gerards taking over into a stylish country house perfect for modern living.
The trade secret was to use tradesmen from the shop fitting community – in this case Concorde Build – who are well versed in turning around jobs in a very short time. Fiona masterminded the project.
“Being an interior designer and project manager over the years obviously helped,” she says. “Everything had to be forward planned, from building permissions, materials, interior decor and furniture.
“All had to be on site on time. For instance, when the job was finished and the full pantechnicon arrived, I was able to direct the men to exactly where everything should go – quite something with a six bedroom, four reception room house.”
Fiona is originally from Guildford. After sixth form college, she followed her love of design and studied at Inchbald school of Design in London. With a colleague, she started a company, Alternative Plan, designing luxury kitchens and bathrooms, for domestic commercial clients.
While living in Wandsworth, she met Chris at a barbecue. They married in 1998 and had two sons, James and Charlie. Living in Limehouse, Fiona started LimehouseProjects.co.uk on her own, mainly working on interior design for architects.
“In 2005 Chris’s business was really taking off and I started on the refurbishments and design of the new businesses. Rather like here at The Great House, Chris is good at the practical layout, how a place will work and function, then I take over.
“I love period buildings, preserving, but giving them a twist with modern fittings such as steel and glass, maybe industrial fitting, as here with some of the lighting. I love light, colour, the contrast of contemporary with traditional architecture and period furniture.
“My favourite room is the Oriental style sitting room, with the black Bergere chairs, my grandmother’s Japanese wood block prints, and the long case clock, whilst Chris likes the breakfast/garden room, as it is an extension of this garden.”
Chris says that while the couple are not yet retired, they are looking ahead to those days. “The village is alive, with interesting people, a real community, informal and relaxed.
“We’ve got to know more people here, in a short period, than anywhere else. Needless to say, it’s a sailor’s dream. We’ve joined the sailing club, have a swinging river mooring and have already sailed across to Holland with three other boats for holidays.”
The house and village certainly suit Fiona well, who says she can lie in her bath and see both the castle and the river at once. “With a village shop, two pubs, two restaurants, plus the sailing, what’s not to like?
“We regard The Great House as a new awakening for us, but likewise for guests and the property itself.”
The Great House Orford is available for holiday lettings, contact: Big House Holidays. www.bighouseholidays.co.uk, tel: 01394 389188 or Suffolk Secrets www.suffolk-secrets.co.uk, tel: 01502 722717. Fiona is also creating a gallery at The Great House Orford, partly to reflect her love of art, but also because she feels it is important to preserve the sea wall and defences. Part of funds from sales at the gallery will be contributed to the campaign to save the Alde-Ore estuary.