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  • Writer's pictureElise Garner

Spotlight: Greyfrairs

This month we spoke to Caroline Fisher from Greyfriars - a grade 2 listed mansion that's home to two luxury holiday apartments on the edge of the beautiful village of Winchelsea.

1. How would you describe your business to us?

Greyfriars is an historic property under a programme of restoration, it offers two five-star holiday homes each with a private garden and hot tub. We are also an exclusive small wedding venue.

2. When did it all start for you here?

There’s the history of the building itself, which is fascinating, and then there’s the story of the four years since it has been our home.

Greyfriars estate is a site of national historic interest, because of the Franciscan Abbey ruins that are in the grounds. These date back to the thirteenth century. The ruins that are left today form only one-eighth of the original size of the abbey.

Greyfriars house was built in 1809 using stone from the ruins – which is why the house itself is also protected. It was built in the gothic style by Richard Stileman.

In more recent times it has been used as a school, a care home, and has housed a charity but for the last few years it has been our family home. It’s Grade II listed so our restoration project is meticulous and given the age of the property, it needs extensive work – not least on the 100 leaky windows!

We didn’t seek out a project this large, we simply fell in love with the setting and the history. We took it on because it’s the most magical place to live – it needed a family to bring it back to a sustainable future. It needed people living here to breathe life back into it. When we took it on we knew we’d need to have a business here, not least to help fund the restoration work. One wing of the house, which had been added some 50 years after the main building and had originally been the staff quarters, needed tackling quickly. It had some of the worst areas of deterioration, but we also realised that it lent itself to being sympathetically converted into two holiday homes each with spectacular views of the Abbey ruins.

Despite Covid, we managed to complete this part of our restoration project in time to open the doors to Eagles Nest and Herons Wood in April 2021.

3. So what's your background?

I’m from the west country and as a young woman I was a competitive show-jumper – my first business venture was born as a way of funding my show-jumping career. I set up a day spa business in Cornwall at a time when no others existed in the area, and I ran it for ten years very successfully. It was my passion, and I invested all my time and effort into learning about running a small business.

With property development in my family, I bought and restored two Victorian properties and that ignited a lifelong passion for restoring historic buildings. Sadly, my show jumping career was ended by a riding accident, and a change in direction followed. I moved up to London and had an exciting and inordinately fun few years as a manager at the Harrod’s 5th Floor Spa. The sort of job that is 24/7 and required dealing with a hugely varied international clientele with complete discretion. Following that I spent a few years running my own day spa in North London before changing direction again into full-time property development, where I undertook two projects a year.

I sought out ‘problem’ properties that no one wanted reconfigured and renovated them, focusing on a small patch of London - NW1 and NW6 which I knew very well. By this time, I’d met my husband, who travelled extensively with his job, eventually being offered a position in the US – Boston. I was less than enthusiastic about the extremely harsh winters, but of course we did go, and I took on a complete restoration of an historic building in Charlestown, Boston – a lovely bow-fronted townhouse that had been due for demolition. Boston was also when we grew our family – having our daughter and our son.

Moving back to the UK we settled for 12 years in leafy Surrey where we purchased and subsequently doubled the size of the house which would become our home, alongside other projects.

We came across Greyfriars accidentally and it was a long and very winding road to finally taking it on. The whole family was involved in the decision.

I was under no illusion as to the size of the challenge, the building had a good roof and was structurally in good condition but had over 100 leaky windows, is a Site of National Historic Interest with Abbey ruins in the garden, and 18 very overgrown acres.

It was quite simply the most spectacularly beautiful building in a wonderful setting. I could clearly see the potential to sympathetically restore it by creating low-impact sustainable businesses. This has come to fruition with the completion of the former servant’s wing into Eagles Nest and Herons Wood - our two luxury holiday homes.

4. What makes your business unique?

While of course the history of the building is unique, most guests don’t choose us for that reason alone. It’s much more about the luxury offering in a beautiful setting, close to the beach and in a gorgeous village. Added to that we have the option to bring your dog too. We also make sure we give our guests a bespoke level of service – if it’s a special occasion I’ll make sure everything about their stay is tweaked to suit. We’re all about making sure their experience is high quality and seamless.

I’d also say that having grown up in the west country the weather we get in this little corner of East Sussex is more reliable, certainly for a holiday. It’s much drier in this part of the world! There is also so much to do in the area, and we don’t have anywhere near the traffic congestion that other parts of the country suffer during holiday season (aside from maybe Camber!) – guests can go out for the day and visit different towns and villages, historic buildings, gardens and shopping and still only have spent a short while in their cars.

5. What values drive your business? The integrity to give the best possible experience for every single person who chooses us.

In the same way that I used to love seeing guests leave my day spa, de-stressed and rejuvenated, I love making sure our Greyfriars’ guests are really valued and looked after while they are here so that they leave feeling rested and having enjoyed a five star stay.

Of course, the skill lies in making all that look effortless, and you need to have the dedication to repeat that level of attention to detail for each and every guest, each and every time. I’m very happy being behind the scenes making sure everyone is comfortable.

6. What can we look out for in 2023?

Our next big focus for the business is Greyfriars Events which will enable us to offer the small ballroom and the restored formal garden and rose garden for a limited number of exclusive weddings and special events each year. The weddings will be for no more than 70 guests. Additionally, we will be able to host up to 3 music events each year. We also feel there is a market for bespoke private lunches or private dinners. We have the setting to be able to facilitate perfectly private occasions for those who are looking for something luxurious and totally discreet.

It will be wonderful to be using more of the building. It hasn’t been an easy process – the restrictions around planning and permissions to be able to offer our ballroom as a venue have been stringent – understandably so – but in turn, having the room used for exclusive events will ensure that the renovation work can continue, and the building can have the future it deserves.

Added to that our work continues to bring the whole building up to better sustainability standards so we have another planning application underway to help us do that.

7. What challenges does your business face this year?

Undoubtedly the barriers for projects on sensitive sites and historic buildings are the huge costs of planning applications and associated environmental surveys.

While of course there needs to be a system in place, I believe it needs an overhaul and an upgrade. The existing system isn’t really fit for purpose anymore.

At a day-to-day level one of the challenges has been finding suitable staff to help with the running of a hospitality business – namely housekeeping and cleaning.

Of course, rising costs are also a challenge – our electricity bill has tripled.

8. What are you most proud of in your business?

Having never renovated for holiday homes before I’m enormously proud of the standard and quality we’ve achieved. I simply worked on the basis that I knew about historic properties, and I knew the standards I’d renovated to from properties I’d developed for sale.

I want our holiday accommodation to look impeccable and I’m confident of our quality. We’ve won consumer choice awards with who are one of our booking agents.

9. If there was one piece of advice you wish you’d had been given when you opened your business what would it be?

Don’t spend on the big-ticket items for the first year.

10. What's the biggest change you’ve seen in your business or your business sector since you started?

Without a doubt it’s been the shift from landlords with buy to lets to holiday lets and the consequential flooding of the market.

Thanks to the Government’s decision to change to no longer allow mortgage payments to be offset against rental income, millions of small landlords who had buy to let properties as pension alternatives have had to switch to holiday lets because there is less risk and a higher return.

This now means the holiday lettings market is swamped and has been destabilised. The implications for this aren’t only that it has hammered small businesses, but also that huge numbers of properties are now sitting empty for big chunks of the year which isn’t good for any village, town or high street.

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