TV property expert Sarah Beeny has thrown open doors of her project

My battle to build my very own Downton Abbey… for £1m: Suspicious locals, sneering putdowns, and four children marooned on a building site. Now TV property expert Sarah Beeny has thrown open the doors of her most ambitious project yet

The TV presenter Sarah Beeny and her family couldn’t be more excited about spending their first Christmas in residence at their rather grand new country pile. Three years after moving from London to Somerset, their ‘mini Downton Abbey’ is finally nearing completion after a marathon build full of mud, sweat and tears.

At last they can say goodbye to the shabby kitchen in the 1970s property on their land that they’ve called home since buying a 220-acre former dairy farm near Bruton for just over £3 million in 2018.

And hello to the gleaming navy-coloured solar-powered Everhot range cooker in their stunning new bespoke kitchen with white marbled countertops, overlooking a lake and green rolling fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

‘Last year this was a building site, but we were determined to have our Christmas dinner in this house, imagining what it could be like,’ says Sarah, 49, giving me the first official tour of their baroque-inspired mini stately home.

‘There was no running water or heating here, so we had to cook everything at the 70s farmhouse [a five-minute walk to the new house], put it all in the car boot, drive it up here. We sat at a trestle table eating our turkey wearing hats to keep warm. It felt like camping out.’

Sarah with her husband Graham Swift, 48, who designed the house, and their four boisterous sons Billy, 17, Charlie, 15, Rafferty, 13, and Laurie, 12

This year Christmas dinner will be very different – served to 15 guests under a sparkling chandelier in the magnificent, luscious green and gold panelled dining room at a table majestic enough to seat the Royal Family.

Those around the table will include Sarah’s artist husband Graham Swift, 48, who designed the house, and their four boisterous sons Billy, 17, Charlie, 15, Rafferty, 13, and Laurie, 12.

All this will be familiar to fans of the Channel 4 series Sarah Beeny’s New Life In The Country, which has followed the progress of the family’s grand project as well as its tribulations, complicated as it was by pandemic delays, material shortages and soaring costs.

Their vision has not always made them popular with a few viewers — or some locals, although Sarah insists the welcome they’ve received has been ‘amazing’.

The timing of the series – the first season aired a year ago — was branded by one viewer as ‘tone deaf’, when so many struggled through lockdown trapped in cramped living quarters. Their home was derided by another as a ‘middle-class monster’, while others have raised eyebrows over their successful planning application.

Objections from some locals ranged from fears that access to a new driveway would compromise safety at a ‘notorious’ stretch of road to complaints about ‘construction of a large dwelling with no historical context, on a greenfield site in open countryside’.

But after three years, Sarah has emerged triumphant, if somewhat battle scarred.

The TV presenter Sarah Beeny and her family couldn’t be more excited about spending their first Christmas in residence at their rather grand new country pile. Three years after moving from London to Somerset, their ‘mini Downton Abbey’ is finally nearing completion after a marathon build full of mud, sweat and tears

‘It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but we like it,’ she says, welcoming me into the vast hallway with beautiful stone floor and fireplace, beside which Graham is attaching twinkling lights to a tastefully decorated 10ft Christmas tree.

The three-storey, seven-bedroom house is certainly an eyeful, appearing like a honey-hued mirage at the end of a long, winding farm track pitted with craters.

‘I’m not sure we set out to build a small Downton Abbey, but other people have said that’s what we were trying to create,’ Sarah says. ‘Graham is an artist and his passion is historic architecture, and through my TV and property renovation work I’ve been in thousands of people’s houses and you pick up ideas along the way.

‘This house is a reflection of all we’ve learnt over the years, but it doesn’t really matter what anyone else says or thinks because they don’t have to live in it. It is still a work in progress, but I don’t think I’d change anything.’

At first glance the mansion belongs in a period drama, but behind the limestone facade and heritage green windows lies a modern, eco-friendly structure.

It’s essentially a concrete-filled flat pack, powered by solar energy. And with their own borehole and sewage treatment facility, they aim to be off grid by the summer, enjoying a house with no fuel or electricity bills and zero carbon impact on the environment.

They are proud of that, and of their long-term plans to regenerate their vast farm. Since their arrival, they have planted 22,000 trees, and have plans for landscaped gardens.

‘But it’s been a muddy, uphill battle,’ says Sarah.

Graham adds: ‘Sometimes my head was telling me how lucky we are, while my heart was saying ‘What have you done?’

Sarah with her family at a reindeer ranch

Their original £500,000 build budget has been truly busted and is likely to end up closer to £1 million. ‘Our lives would have been much easier not doing this, but you don’t get often get an opportunity to build a house in the country and it would have cost £2.5 million if we hadn’t done all the project managing ourselves,’ Graham says.

‘There were lots of moments when I just wanted to jump into the car and leave,’ adds Sarah. ‘But there’s only one real option when you are wading through mud and that’s to keep on walking forwards unless you want to sink.

‘On the surface, it’s an amazingly idyllic life, but it’s not always easy. To begin with, I massively missed London, having moved to a place where we knew absolutely no one.

‘The first year was spent settling the boys into their new school, worrying if they’d make new friends, and then it all became rather weird when Covid struck.’

Like everyone else, they struggled with home schooling during lockdown — all four boys are dyslexic — and a sense of isolation in a remote 1970s farmhouse where they had no history.

To add to Sarah’s challenges, the menopause then kicked in.

‘While we felt incredibly lucky to be here in the country, I was thinking, ‘Why am I so depressed by everything?’,’ she says.

‘I’d tell myself, ‘We’re fine, we’ve got food on the table, our children are healthy, I should be happy, but I’m not.’ Then I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I’m the worst person in the world because I’m not happy’, and these thoughts would go round and round in my head.’

This year Christmas dinner will be very different – served to 15 guests under a sparkling chandelier in the magnificent, luscious green and gold panelled dining room at a table majestic enough to seat the Royal Family

Eventually a blood test revealed she had untraceable levels of the hormones oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and Vitamin D.

‘It’s a bit better now, thanks to HRT, but it’s ongoing. I hadn’t realised how much impact the menopause would have on me, emotionally and mentally.’

Sarah, who first burst on to our screens 20 years ago with her series Property Ladder, has form for this kind of leap-of-faith adventure, but dealing with hormonal changes on top of everything else at times sapped her confidence.

In 2001 the couple spent £435,000 buying the semi-derelict 96-room Rise Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire, with TV cameras capturing their £500,000 renovation to restore the Grade II-listed building to its former glory.

While they hoped to relocate there, Sarah’s TV career kept the family in London so they turned it into a spectacular wedding venue, which they sold to an events firm for £1.4 million in 2019.

They ploughed everything into their new venture, along with the proceeds of the sale of their extended seven-bedroom London home — which went on the market two years ago with an asking price of £3.5 milion.

While it was a wrench leaving the capital, Sarah — who grew up in the Hampshire countryside — felt the time was right to return to their country roots.

The second series is under way and it’s all very Swallows and Amazons, with the family building a James Bond-themed, alpine treehouse for the Christmas Special, where they host an outdoor party, feasting on turkey cooked al fresco over an open fire.

Sarah’s brother Diccon, who is married to Graham’s sister Caroline, also features in the show, along with their four children.

The family have built a James Bond-themed, alpine treehouse which is lit up with fairy lights

Sarah was just ten when her mother died aged 39. She is also close to her architect father, who recently suffered a stroke, and family means everything to her. ‘I’m not going to say people don’t irritate each other — they do — but the benefits you get out of a close, extended family far outweigh the minor irritations,’ she says.

As for her marriage, that too is apparently rock solid after 30 years together. ‘I’m not going to say Graham and I get on all of the time. That would be a lie. We have our ups and downs,’ she adds.

‘But Graham said to me once, when we were really getting on badly for a little while, ‘The thing is, Sarah, I’m not going to divorce you. I’m not prepared to see my kids only every other weekend and neither are you.’

‘He went on, ‘Therefore we’re going to stay married and we can either choose to be unhappy or happy.’ So I said, ‘Shall we just be happy?’ And he went, ‘That’s a good idea.’ So we are.’ Among the most hurtful criticisms they received on social media after moving out of London were accusations that they were ‘selfish’ for uprooting their sons from their friends in the city and dumping them in the sticks.

Actually, Sarah reveals, it was concern over their sons’ education that drove the move.

Somerset is home to a leading public school, one of the first in the country to recognise dyslexia and develop a visionary approach to education. Their musically talented boys are now all thriving. Their non-arts focused, academically driven private schools in London weren’t always the best fit.

‘I wouldn’t have moved them unless I thought it was right for them and they’re really happy here, with great new friends,’ she says. ‘I once joked that I’d buy them a Steinway piano if they all passed their Grade 8. I fear I might have to find a way of backing out of that deal. ‘

The farm was sold with existing planning permission for a new house, but Sarah and Graham had to reapply because they wanted to build on a different field with a better aspect, sheltered by trees.

‘A couple of people have said, ‘You only got the planning permission because you’re on the telly’, but the local authority was very scrupulous,’ says Sarah, whose vision is to eventually open a film school and TV production studio on the site.

‘Being on TV can actually work against you, because councils don’t want anyone to accuse them of giving permission just because of who you are.

‘When we were restoring Rise Hall we were warned by the local council, ‘If you put your head above the parapet, don’t be surprised if it gets shot.’

‘Here, I’m really impressed with how open they are to new ideas and excited about things that will bring new opportunity.’

Traditional rural communities are not always renowned for giving a warm welcome to DFLs (Down From Londoners) but, a few planning objections aside, Sarah says: ‘People were so lovely to us when we moved here, it was amazing. No one has been funny with us.’

Indeed, her new fridge was stuffed with smoked salmon for a house-warming party for all their village neighbours before the Omicron variant struck.

‘It took time to make new friends, but I have a few kindred spirits now, which is wonderful,’ she says, adding that they have no idea what their Somerset idyll is now worth because they have no intention of ever selling. ‘The children would never forgive us if we sold it, and as a parent I’d do anything to make them happy.’

Sarah Beeny’s New Life In The Country, Channel 4 and All 4

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