Leave London life behind and set up shop in the countryside

When a London solicitor wanted to set up a centre for alternative therapies, a family legacy came in useful. Christopher Middleton reports
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The Independent Online

Five years ago, you wouldn't have recognised the MacCaws. Husband Tim was a lawyer with Gillette, working all hours and clocking up thousands of business air-miles every month. Wife Charlotte was a former Wimbledon junior tennis player, who for the past 10 years had been in permanent pain from an inflamed back, barely able to drive their two sons to school.

Since then, everything has changed. They've moved out of London, Tim has left his job (after 30 years), and Charlotte is not only moving freely, but has taken up tennis coaching again. On top of all that, they've swapped their suburban home in Southfields for a 70-acre country estate in Somerset.

It wasn't, however, a lottery or pools win which made all this possible, but a death. When Tim's father died in 2004, he bequeathed them the 600-year-old Manor House, on the outskirts of Stoke Trister, near Somerset.

It sounds nice, but in fact this inheritance was a windfall of the distinctly bruised-apple kind; MacCaw senior had lived on his own in the house for the last 10 years, following the death of his wife in 1993, and the house was in a poor state of repair, matched only by the dilapidation of the surrounding farm buildings. As for the agricultural land, it was generating a mere £80 a week in rent from local farmers.

In short, the simplest thing would have been to sell the place (for an estimated £750,000), pay the inheritance tax (£200,000) and pocket the rest. But then an idea started to form.

"For some time, I'd been getting tired of all the stress and travel in my job," says Tim. "Also, I'd become increasingly drawn to the notion of doing the same sort of work as my mother." She hadn't been a lawyer or an accountant - but a radionics healer. That is to say, someone who gets sent bits of their patients' hair or toenails and then transmits healing back via telephone or "the ether".

In others words, about as far away as you can get from being a solicitor. Meanwhile, Charlotte too had become a paid-up convert to alternative therapies, despite having a father and brother who were both eminent and specialists in mainstream cardiovascular medicine.

"Basically, conventional treatments had failed me," she explains. "Over a period of 15 years, I'd been to nine different physiotherapists, and each one had been forced to admit they couldn't cure my back problem. It was only when I turned to nutritionally-based therapies and energy-healing techniques that my condition started to improve."

Both independently and together, Tim and Charlotte began to contemplate not just moving in to Manor House, but converting its various piggeries and cattlesheds into some kind of alternative treatment centre, complete with holiday cottages. And the idea sprouted not just legs but wings when, at 55, Tim was offered the chance to take early retirement, and he grabbed it with both hands.

Over a relatively short period of time, then, their being landed with a crumbling country estate had gone from millstone to milestone. They sold their London home for £1m (prime location, just a short lob from the All England Club), paid the inheritance tax on the Somerset property, and set about the rebuilding work with the money that was left.

Firstly, the main house needed a complete overhaul, both inside and out, with £20,000 going on the roof alone, and thousands more on various plumbing disasters (flooded boiler room, flooded drawing room). Next, the farm buildings had to be transformed from muck-plastered milking parlours into immaculate, underfloor-heated treatment rooms. That's not to mention the spring-fed pond that had to be unclogged and the gigantic metal barn that had to be dismantled and removed. Or the telegraph pole that had to be transplanted from the old burial ground out the back, after a dowser had found it was at a crucial energy-crossing point, and might therefore interfere with the general karma of the house.

At the same time, though, as ensuring a high standard of finish on the treatment rooms and Pilates studio, the MacCaws had to adopt a rather less precise approach with Manor House itself. As befits a home first documented in 1380, and actually pictured on a surveyor's report in 1560, the building has a host of inbuilt architectural quirks, not least the 4in gap between the floor and the bottom of the ancient loo door.

"Funnily enough, that gap's quite useful," says Charlotte. "As you're coming up the staircase, you can look through and identify the feet."

Although the building works have now used up all the money from the sale of their London home, Tim and Charlotte don't for a moment regret their move to the country, or having put all their eggs in the alternative treatment basket (they've named their venture the Vale Healing Centre 01963 33360; www.valehealing.co.uk).

"This is a chance for us to begin a new chapter in our lives before we're too old," says Tim. "And with the money coming in from my pension, we can afford to maintain the hedges and fences on our land, which we wouldn't otherwise be able to do (rental income having sunk to around £40 a week)."

As for Charlotte, she feels she has emerged from beneath a long, dark shadow.

"For 15 years, my back was so bad that I merely existed, rather than lived," she says. "I functioned because I had to, but it was a daily struggle. Now I've got this new lease of life, and I'm going to make the most of it."