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Bid to restore manor house ended in feud


A couple’s disastrous bid to restore a crumbling farmhouse - once owned by Thomas Cromwell - triggered a venomous family feud.

School governor, Emma Stephens-Dunn, 36, and her drama professor husband, Nick, 43, wanted 16th Century Manor Farmhouse, Lower Benefield, near Oundle to be their dream home.

The historic manor of which the farmhouse formed part is recorded as having been bought by Thomas, Lord Cromwell, at the height of his power in 1538. It had been in Mrs Stephens-Dunn’s family for years

But local planners swooped after the couple replaced the roof’s traditional Collyweston slates with ‘conservation slates’ and demanded it be changed - a job which could have cost £100,00.

Having already run through all the money they had set aside for the project, the couple ended up sleeping in the building’s damp cellar with their one-year-old son, Central London County Court heard.

Their other three children, aged 13 to seven, had to share a room on the ground floor, while the two top storeys were ‘uninhabitable’.

Mr and Mrs Stephens-Dunn lived like that for years and only moved out a few months ago, said Judge Patrick Talbot.

Desperate to rid themselves of the burden, they tried to sell up - but encountered bitter opposition from Mrs Stephens-Dunn’s uncle, Michael Cawthorne.

He has run an ‘old-fashioned’ timber business from barns on the estate for almost 40 years and fiercely objected to being ‘driven from his home’.

Now, however, Mr Cawthorne, 69, will have to move on after Judge Talbot ordered the sale of the whole estate.

Manor Farmhouse and its surrounding land - which includes ancient monument, Benefield Castle - was bought by Mrs Stephens-Dunn’s father and stepmother in the 1970s.

Following her father’s death in 2002, Mrs Stephens-Dunn and growing family moved into the house.

They are now living in Stamford, but remained saddled with a punishing mortgage and the running sore of their dispute with planners.

Mrs Stephens-Dunn’s elderly step-mother, Rachel Cawthorne, lives in a converted barn on the estate but had no objection to the couple’s plans to sell up.

But Michael Cawthorne told the couple through solicitors: “I do not see why I should be driven out of my home by your irresponsible actions”.

Mr and Mrs Stephens-Dunn said they had “tried extremely hard to make Manor Farm work” and they too would be losing their longed-for family home.

However, Mr Cawthorne remained immovable and the dispute ended up in court.

The judge said partition of the estate was banned by a restriction in the title deeds.

In line with the terms of a family trust, Mr and Mrs Stephens-Dunn will receive 60 per cent of the sale proceeds. Rachel and Michael Cawthorne will each get 20 per cent.


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