The history of Cowley Manor

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Cowley Manor is one of the most famous buildings in the country. This is partly because of its Italianate exterior which is rare for a grand stately home. Based on the Villa Borghese in Rome and echoing the architecture of Chatsworth and Cliveden, the Main House at Cowley was designed by R.A. Briggs to showcase this new style of country living. Take a look below to see the transformation of Cowley over the centuries.

The Kings of England

The land on which Cowley Manor sits used to belong to the kings of England. It was exchanged by Edward the Confessor in return for the land on which he built Westminster Abbey. Owned by Pershore Abbey until the 16th Century, it passed into the hands of the Brett family, until one member squandered the family fortune by over-indulging his passion for bell-ringing.

The Main House is, however, not as old as it looks. Although there has been a house on site for many centuries (Cowley is mentioned in the Doomsday Book), what you see here now was actually built just over a hundred years ago.

Sir James Horlick

Sir James Horlick, the malted milk magnate, bought Cowley Manor in the 1890s and set about a vast building and landscape programme. The Main House was nearly trebled in size, doubling the façade of an existing and charming 1850s building, adding the West Wing, and creating an elaborate and enormous ballroom (which was later demolished) that would have sat to the side of what is now Malt.

The Stable Block was built to house Sir James’s magnificent coaches and horses, one of the finest in the Cotswolds. Over the course of three years, a thousand trees were planted every day on the estate, with a large number of glorious features – cascades, fountains, follies and statues – being set into the grounds during this period.

Inspiring famous tales

Over the years, Cowley Manor was conceived as the height of modern living, built by fine craftsmen using traditional and local materials but also with new inventions and designs. It was, for example, the first private house in England to use concrete.

It showcased a new form of country entertaining, with grand rooms, and – very unusually – a major spa complex. There were Roman, Greek, and Turkish steam rooms, and also a range of subsidiary areas with water at varying temperatures for different moods.

Lewis Carroll (William Dodgson) visited Cowley regularly, staying with friends at what’s now the Old Rectory. Local history has it that Carroll wrote his best known book, Alice in Wonderland, during his stays in the village, drawing his inspiration from the grounds of Cowley Manor.

The Second World War

During the Second World War, Cowley was requisitioned to house the Cheltenham Ladies College – as a safe haven from German air attacks, as it was thought the Luftwaffe would find it difficult to launch raids down the narrow Churn valley. This proved to be correct, and the fine ladies of the College survived the War fully intact.

After the War, Cowley Manor fell into something of a decline with most of the original fittings and fixtures in the house and in the garden ripped out or allowed to disintegrate by the local council. It was bought by Peter and Jessica Frankopan in 1999 and over the next three years, Cowley Manor was scrupulously restored and rebuilt.

Peter and Jessica's renovations

The Main House, which had 47 bedrooms and countless sub-divided rooms on the ground floor, was transformed into 15 bedrooms with huge bathrooms and large public areas. The Stable Block was re-designed and re-configured with some bedrooms built over one, two, and three levels. C-Side spa was sunk into the Grade II listed grounds after exceptional permission was given by English Heritage, who have subsequently often referred to Cowley and C-Side as one of the most exciting and leading projects in a historical setting in the south of the UK.