Heather, the Lady of the Manor, is enjoying a change of fortune that is about as close to a fairy tale as 21st-century Britain can offer
Whenever she walks up to the giant oak front door of her new home, with its family crest emblazoned on the wall above, Heather Vincent feels a little disorientated.
As the new Lady of Orchardleigh House, she knows she has every right to march straight in, just as she has every right to go wherever she pleases on the 500-acre estate, using whatever mode of transport takes her fancy.
She might choose a golf buggy (the estate has an 18-hole golf course), a top-of-the-range Jaguar (a wedding gift from her besotted husband) or even a helicopter (her husband’s is parked in the grounds).
But none of that stops Heather, 55, an otherwise confident businesswoman and mother of two, feeling like an intruder.
‘Walking up the drive, I still feel like the timid little girl I once was, scared of being told off,’ she admits.
And who can blame her? Heather is enjoying a change of fortune that is about as close to a fairy tale as 21st-century Britain can offer.
Her status as Lady of the Manor is just a few weeks old, following her marriage last month to Orchardleigh’s ebullient owner, 69-year-old self-made millionaire Chris Vincent.
The breathtaking 42-bedroom mansion, rich with turrets, curlicues and Latin inscriptions, would overawe any new chatelaine.
But what makes this story so extraordinary is that up to the moment she moved in, Heather’s whole life had been lived in the shadow of the mansion she now calls home.
She was born and brought up on the estate where her father, Norman White, was a tenant farmer to the owner, politician Arthur Duckworth, whose great-grandfather had the home built to his personal specification in 1856.
Her status as Lady of the Manor is just a few weeks old, following her marriage last month to Orchardleigh’s ebullient owner, 69-year-old self-made millionaire Chris Vincent. The pair are pictured together above
But so deep was the social divide that, until she fell in love with Chris Vincent, she had never walked through the front door.
‘I still have to pinch myself,’ she says. ‘I’ve been in love with this house all my life. It seems unbelievable that it’s my home.’
Heather’s parents, Norman and Mary — who had worked in Clarks shoe factory before their marriage — arrived on 300-acre Brookover Farm, one of five farms then owned by the estate, in 1963, with their first-born daughter Pauline. Heather was born the next year.
It was far bigger than the 50-acre farm Norman had previously worked on. But although the couple were delighted, theirs was a hard life which had changed little since the turn of the century.
‘Dad was a farmer’s son,’ Heather recalls. ‘He worked seven days a week. Even on Christmas Day he barely had time to bolt his dinner before getting back into the yard. Mum and my sister mucked in.
‘I learnt to ride almost as soon as I could walk so I could help herd the cattle. I was driving a tractor aged ten, and in haymaking season we worked round the clock.’
It was a fiercely loyal, tight-knit community which revolved around Orchardleigh Estate and the Duckworth family.
There is even a tiny 13th-century church on a miniature island, where Heather was christened.
Chris moved into a cottage on the estate just before Christmas 1999 with his then wife and their daughter Samantha, 22. Orchardleigh House itself was uninhabitable
Once a year, Norman would walk the mile-and-a-half up the drive to Orchardleigh House to pay his £1,100 annual rent to Mr Duckworth, a former Conservative MP.
And twice a year, Mr Duckworth would arrive at the farmhouse door to check on his tenants.
‘Mum would bake a special cake and there would be a few pleasantries,’ says Heather.
Heather was fascinated by the Grade II*-listed mansion. Fittingly, perhaps, given its new owners, the house is one of Britain’s finest examples of what was known as the ‘nouveau riche’ style of architecture, a fairtytale blend of Elizabethan and French.
Her imagination fired by the TV show Upstairs, Downstairs (the forerunner of Downton Abbey in the 1970s), Heather dreamt of one day working in the house.
‘My schoolfriends wanted to be nurses or teachers. I wanted to be a servant just so I could work in the house,’ she admits.
‘I imagined rooms dripping with chandeliers, highly polished furniture and huge velvet curtains.’
So deep was the social divide that, until she fell in love with Chris Vincent, she had never walked through the front door. ‘I still have to pinch myself,’ she says. Heather is pictured above aged three
An intensely private family, the Duckworths opened their grounds — which include a 23-acre lake, two walled gardens and an orangery — to locals for an annual summer fete. But the house was strictly out of bounds.
The nearest Heather got was walking up to the great front door as a little girl to beg a favour or deliver a message.
‘The butler would instruct me to wait on the doorstep until Mr Duckworth appeared,’ she recalls.
‘He was an elderly gentleman, always dressed immaculately in a sports jacket and bow tie — but I wasn’t interested in him. I just wanted to see inside. I never did.’
She was also intrigued by the family’s rather rackety romantic history. Arthur Duckworth’s first wife, Alice — a scion of the hugely wealthy Vanderbilt family —had fled the house during World War II after falling in love with American big band leader Benny Goodman, the ‘king of swing’.
She took the couple’s three daughters with her. Arthur remarried and had two more daughters, Michelle and Sandra, with new wife Elisabeth.
Even after she left home at 22 to marry her first husband, a floorlayer, Heather remained fascinated by the house.
Busy with her children — she is mum to Lydia, 17, and Ethan, 15 — and her job in a local bank, she popped home regularly and was upset to watch Orchardleigh’s downward spiral.
When Arthur Duckworth died in 1986, the family sold off the estate. It meant Heather’s family could finally buy their home. ‘Dad paid just over £90,000,’ she says.
But Orchardleigh House fell into disrepair after developers who planned to turn it into a luxury hotel resort went bust.
After the entire contents had been auctioned off by Sothebys for £3.5 million, English Heritage put the mansion, by that time a shell, on its ‘at risk’ register.
Then in early 1999, ebullient entrepreneur Chris Vincent roared down the drive in his Bentley and fell instantly in love.
‘Four lodges were up for sale,’ he says. ‘I took a peek, then drove up to see the house. The vista was picture-book perfect down to this dreamy lake bursting with lilies, but the house was literally falling apart. There were holes in the roof and windows falling out. I thought: “What idiot would buy this?” ’
His determination to be true to the fabric of the house is impressive. No walls have been removed or added and the kitchen, where caterers now prepare food for wedding banquets, has the original Victorian range and steam-driven plate warmer
But over the next few days the house wormed its way into his heart and Chris found himself parting with just over £2.2 million to buy the estate.
‘It sounds a bargain, until you realise the repairs were estimated at £6.6 million,’ Chris explains.
‘But a passion came over me. I knew it would be a lifetime’s work but I didn’t care. I had to own her.’
And with his infectious enthusiasm and passion for hard work, Chris was just the sort of owner the estate needed.
Brought up by his architect father and his mother, who ran an antique shop near Romsey in Hampshire, Chris left school at 15 and immediately started making a fortune in the most humble and unlikely way.
‘I realised there was money to be made as a steel fitter,’ he says.
‘I worked round the clock. I was earning £2,000 a week — a fortune in the 1970s. But I wanted more. I employed guys and trained to be a pilot so I could fly my team round the country, maximising work.’
Much of his work involved erecting grain stores. Fascinated by the farming world, Chris bought his first 81-acre farm in Salisbury, Wiltshire, before trading up to a 340-acre farm in Hampshire. He also ran a stables with 150 horses.
Excited by the challenge, Chris moved into a cottage on the estate just before Christmas 1999 with his then wife and their daughter Samantha, 22. Orchardleigh House itself was uninhabitable.
Heather swapped Brookover Farm, above, for Orchardleigh House. It was a fiercely loyal, tight-knit community which revolved around Orchardleigh Estate and the Duckworth family
He immediately showed a pragmatic approach to renovation. When he found that water from a gushing pipe had destroyed a section of wallpaper in the house’s splendid morning room, he simply had the missing section painted in.
‘Replicating the original paper would have cost £25,000. I paid a painter £250,’ he says proudly.
Fired up, Chris tore through the house. ‘It may sound fanciful but it was almost as though the house was helping us. Every time we had a problem, even as small as not having the right screw, one would magically appear at our feet.’
By 2003 Chris began running a small wedding business from the estate. Any money made went straight back into the house.
At the same time, his own union foundered. ‘My wife had never been as keen on the house as me,’ he admits.
‘I was so busy, I neglected her. By the time I realised, it was too late.’ The couple divorced in 2007.
Meanwhile, Heather’s marriage had broken up in 2012, her father had died, her mother had moved in with her sister and Heather bought her childhood home, where she opened a riding school.
She had heard a lot about the new Lord of the Manor, and at a party on the estate in the summer of 2015, she finally met him.
‘I was bowled over,’ she recalls. ‘Who could fail to be? Chris is so full of life and fun.
We realised we had so much in common. Most of all, I was stunned that a stranger could love Orchardleigh as much as I did.’
Two weeks later — after a first dinner date at nearby Charlton House Hotel — she finally walked through the grand wooden doors of Orchardleigh House and was able to explore inside the house she had loved so much from the outside.
‘The scale and size of the rooms blew me away,’ she said. ‘I loved the extravagant details — the parquet floors, the stained glass windows, the plasterwork shells above the doors and the staircase that seemed to go on for ever.’
Heather rapidly found herself being sucked into helping Chris. ‘I needed a feminine touch with the furnishings,’ he admits cheerfully.
Their relationship proceeded at breakneck speed. ‘I knew I was head over heels with him within the week,’ says Heather.
Some of Chris’s additions are a little unorthodox. In the middle of the exquisite parquet floor in the morning room, in place of the Duckworths’ hand-woven Turkish rug, lies a square of decidedly utilitarian industrial-strength carpet. The pair are pictured together above
‘We share the same sense of humour, the same philosophy of life. I love his kindness, his fairness and the way he treats everyone equally.
‘In January 2017 he took me off on his yacht for four months. We sailed 1,600 miles from Cannes to the Canary Islands. It was wildly romantic but also deeply testing — you really get to know someone on a small boat. From then on we were inseparable.’
On New Year’s Eve the couple got engaged and they were married in the little chapel on the estate on August 19 this year.
After their honeymoon in Devon, Heather moved into Orchardleigh House with her children.
‘The kids love it — they have known the house since they were babies and are wildly excited,’ she says.
With its numerous buildings, including the remains of a 15th-century castle, Orchardleigh can host two weddings simultaneously and Chris employs a staff of 80, including six groundsmen.
‘Our next project is to offer three-day wedding events, starting in the castle and moving on to the house, then our newly restored Palladian-style boathouse,’ he says.
Some of Chris’s additions are a little unorthodox. In the middle of the exquisite parquet floor in the morning room, in place of the Duckworths’ hand-woven Turkish rug, lies a square of decidedly utilitarian industrial-strength carpet.
Orchardleigh House fell into disrepair after developers who planned to turn it into a luxury hotel resort went bust. After the entire contents had been auctioned off by Sothebys for £3.5 million, English Heritage put the mansion, by that time a shell, on its ‘at risk’ register. Then in early 1999, ebullient entrepreneur Chris Vincent roared down the drive in his Bentley and fell instantly in love
As for the ‘lost’ artworks that once hung in Orchardleigh, Chris has simply had them copied by drawing on Sotheby’s auction records.
He has also added other ‘masterpieces’ for good measure. There are lurid versions of everything from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to a painting of a galloping Napoleon.
But his determination to be true to the fabric of the house is impressive. No walls have been removed or added and the kitchen, where caterers now prepare food for wedding banquets, has the original Victorian range and steam-driven plate warmer.
In the flagstoned hallway hangs the line of 33 bells the Duckworths used to summon staff.
Labels include ‘Mr Duckworth’s Business Room’ and, rather perplexingly, ‘Bachelor’s Bedroom West’.
‘English Heritage tell me they are the best array of bells in the country,’ Chris says proudly.
As she adapts to her new role, Heather takes comfort in the family’s motto, inscribed on one of Orchardleigh’s oriel windows: non nobis solum (not only for ourselves).
‘The Duckworths might very well be surprised to see me in their house,’ she says with a smile.
‘But I hope they’d be pleased. After all, I’ve always loved the house every bit as much as they did.’