“At some point I’d wanted to have a house and garden open to the public – only I expected it to be when I was older,” said Andy Gray-Ling, the current owner of Arreton Manor. You might expect these words to be competing with a mouthful of silver spoon, but in fact it is a boy from east London who is sitting in his manor house, lord apparently of all he surveys. Who’d have thought it?
Andy and Julia Gray-Ling are the people responsible for re-opening Arreton to the public, to popular local acclaim after it had been kept private for seven years. They bought the house with what some of their forebears might once sniffily have been called ‘new money’. And that’s right. The fortune that maintains the beautifully proportioned creamy stone house is not just new money: it is brand spanking hi-tech state-of-the-art money. At Arreton these days the creakingly old blends with the pin new with surprising ease.
The reality as to how the boy from Leyton ended up owning Arreton is behind slatted blinds obscuring the view into an old outbuilding. This is Andy Gray-Ling’s studio: one of the most hi-tech recording studios in England. It is this technological wonder housed in a 17th century cottage which sums up the new owner of Arreton.
Andy is a record producer and writer, a veteran music man of 22 years. He was responsible for some of the household names of 80s music, such as Human League, Tori Amos and Gary Newman. He writes film scores too – SwordFish was one of his – and is now producing a new generation of acts which include Ian Brown, Korn and Republica. If they don’t yet ring any bells with you – and Andy is adamant that the latter are to have a worldwide smash – one of his more notorious commissions was for the theme tune for Channel 4’s Big Brother – though he is quick to quash any thoughts that the latter had a bearing on funding Arreton. “That didn’t pay for this,” he snorts. “Now if it had been ITV not Channel 4 it might have done”.
“I made the decision nine or 10 years ago that I could make money as an expert in new technology, and it was the right move,” he explains. Because it is such a high-end studio, he and his family can be where they want to be: and that, firmly, is the Isle of Wight. He and Julia had long outgrown their London house – “I had a living room stuffed with equipment” – and had moved out to Hertfordshire, doing that classic eighties thing of buying a converted barn. A 17th century converted barn.
“I have a passion for 17th century architecture and furniture,” Andy explains. “We were on holiday on the Island and my dad spotted a house for sale in Bembridge which seemed very cheap. Then on the day we were due to go home we heard Arreton had been on the market though it wasn’t any more. I looked it up on the internet and wrote to the owner. Within two months we’d bought it.”
That was in September 2003, when the chasm between Island prices and those of the southeast mainland was rather larger than today. But even so, the Gray-Lings got a good deal. The previous owner, Julia explained, had spent more than he paid for the house on doing it up and during the process had decided he didn’t like the Island.
“Before him, owners had done little more than tart the house up – it was all bodged. But I walked in and everything had been done, and by big contractors on the Island,” said Andy, “I met every one of them. I had a structural engineer look at it – the walls look like they’re falling over in places, but they’re really secure. I couldn’t wait to get in, I was so excited about it,” he goes on in characteristic measured tones.
With the house structurally sound, they could put their money into furnishing it. “Just as well,” says Julia. “It was empty, and I mean completely empty. They’d taken the light bulbs and loo roll holders, everything.”
Furnishing the place was fun but required the sort of dedicated eye for detail that Andy has. He is also fortunate in finding a skilled restorer in Newchurch. “Denis is a genius. You buy a piece, he restores it, you’d never know,” he says. “I found stuff on the internet mainly: it’s impossible to find anything local. When you’re looking for 17th century furniture there’s a difference between finding the odd piece and having a choice. I’d rather have a choice.”
Choices scare some people but this couple seem to thrive on them. Taking the garden in hand was as necessary as getting the house right, but Andy went against the trend of slavishly returning to what was originally there, to create his own little piece of Hertfordshire’s Hatfield House. “I’d fallen in love with the idea of symmetrical parterres and knot gardens. A bit grand for this house maybe, but the right period. The only original bit of the garden was the apple orchard, and to be honest it was a pretty uneventful apple orchard. Now this is the only house on the Isle of Wight with a knot garden.”
In fact for all that he is owner, manager and meticulous researcher, Andy is at heart a bit of a backroom boy. Not for him is employing contractors and letting them get on with it. Once he had decided on his deeply terraced garden – constructed from the stone of the demolished Ventnor Metropolitan hotel – it was he who drove the digger and the dumper. “I call on help when it’s tricky. But I don’t like help.
“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve done for how much. Two half-acre gardens from scratch for a hundred grand. You do it slowly, over three years. If you sat down and wrote down what it was going to take you wouldn’t start. But if you put enough hours in you get there. It’s all about time.”
You get a sense from them that anything can be achieved. Its not twitchy energy, but a calm sense of dynamism. Julia has no background in either catering or management. Before she had her children, Amie, now seven and Will, five – she was a secretary/pa – and presumably a Woman Friday if ever there was one. Now, however, she has a staff of six running the tea rooms and brings in a couple of extras when hosting the select eight to 10 wedding receptions per year. Add to that the helpful and seemingly weatherproof man on the gate and the chatty lady in the shop and she’s got all bases covered. Bed and breakfast is on offer too at present, though they plan to curtail that once some accommodation for self-catering is up and running:
“You’ve inherited my ‘I can do anything’ attitude,” Andy says to his wife. “And you’ve not made any mistakes during the learning process at the cost of anyone’s wedding, or tax or VAT returns.”
Julia’s touch can be seen in the little gift shop. This, refreshingly not placed at the end of the guided tour but housed in the desperately atmospheric Old Stable, is stocked with a pleasing selection of gifts that are not daunting in price.
For a week in June and again in August Arreton takes on a bit of a carnival atmosphere, when a historical re-enactment group come and stay. Living history week evolved at the request of the group itself, but is happily embraced by Julia and indeed the whole family. “Amie, being a girl and being seven, dresses up with the actors. In August she will be in costume the whole time.”
Open air theatre also happens in August. Isabelle Savell, local am-dram impresario, asked to resurrect a tradition that had died when the house was closed to visitors. The result is four nights of (hopefully) balmy summer evenings, al fresco eating and drinking, and theatre on the lawn
For all this, Arreton is primarily the family’s home. They’ve even got Andy Gray-Ling’s father (“Plain Jack Ling, “I’m not posh like my son”) as tour guide. They have become part of the community, their children go to Arreton St George’s primary school, and they like to relax, if that’s the word, on Andy’s racing rib, designed in Carisbrook.
The couple don’t attempt to deny that the public are an intrusion, but “we do cut it down to just four months now. You can grin and bear that.”