The great philanthropist Thomas Cowley would be delighted that his old manor house at Donington is once again serving the local community.
Thomas Cowley left endowments to the village, such as the school named after him and money that still goes to pensioners each Christmas, and part of that was probably funded by the income generated by the land he owned locally.
The land is sold off now, but the current owner of Wykes Manor in Wykes Lane is opening the house and surrounding garden to visitors who are interested in gaining new skills or who want somewhere quiet to paint, study or simply have time out from a busy life.
Emma Van Spyk, who has lived in the house for seven years, has come up with lots of projects to make good use of the property but her latest plan is to get permission for a change of use for part of the old farmyard to be used as a centre where people can learn heritage crafts, aimed particularly at those who own old properties.
Emma says Lincolnshire has an “amazing amount of fantastic buildings”, but that owners are often hampered in looking after them by cost and the fear of tackling the process of gaining permission to carry out work. Emma should know – Wykes Manor is grade two listed and so far all she has done is “fix things and clean them”.
She adds: “It’s not the sort of house you can just live in and consider yourself lucky. You would be absolutely broken by it. It is huge and because of the listing it is really difficult to do anything at a reasonable cost. If you don’t maintain the gutters, the drains, the roof, you are flooded or have problems with damp.”
Emma, a mother of six, was renovating the house together with her son John until tragedy struck a couple of years ago and he was killed, aged 18, in a road accident as he returned home from 6th form in Sleaford.
Emma says it’s been a tough couple of years but her plan for the future is to build on that work and Wykes Manor will become a hub for the Lincolnshire Heritage Craft Centre, where owners of old properties can learn skills to help them renovate or preserve their homes, as well as hearing from experts about things such as the planning application process. Conservation classes would take place in existing old barns where people can actually practise skills and discover that older properties can be green, with information on heat retention and water harvesting.
Another old outbuilding has already been converted into a small chapel where people on retreat can find peace, although the house and garden are also used as an artists’ retreat centre, a tranquil, creative space where people might come for a day or longer. The property is also used for small conferences, art workshops, and Emma puts on cream teas in the summer months. She also holds two exhibitions a year, showcasing the work of local potters, furniture makers, wrought iron fabricators, jewellery makers and other crafters.
A women’s creativity group sometimes meets at Wykes Manor and Emma – an artist in her own right – runs art classes on Tuesdays, teaching basic skills to budding artists. Wednesday is Emma’s day in the studio, where she says she does a lot of still lifes as well as commissions for churches, such as renovating statues or producing paintings.
There is obviously a lot of education and creative work going on at Wykes Manor and Emma points out: “Education was Thomas Cowley’s main thing because he built schools and I’ll be tapping into that and the whole idea of putting back into the community. Hopefully, it will generate an income but we are in the conservation area of Donington and it’s about preserving what we have got and getting people working together.”
That includes migrants from Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Emma, who teaches English as a foreign language, says they are often very practical people who are willing to share their skills.
For information about the artists’ retreat or heritage skills contact Emma at 01775 822226 or visit www.wykesmanor.com