Me and my home: Christine Armstrong

After 15 years renting a manor hall, an animal lover tells Alex Mattis why her family loves life on the estate more than ever
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Christine Armstrong is a nursing-home manager. She lives with her boyfriend Karl, a police detective, and daughter Lucy in Mere Hall, an 18th-century manor house in Staffordshire

Christine Armstrong is a nursing-home manager. She lives with her boyfriend Karl, a police detective, and daughter Lucy in Mere Hall, an 18th-century manor house in Staffordshire

I haven't always lived in grand places - I grew up in a council house in Dudley. And Karl's from Leicester, so we're not your typical lord and lady of the manor. Where we live was originally the coach house and stables to the main hall. That burnt down in an accident, so in 1725 this building became the hall. It has five bedrooms, three bathrooms and two staircases. The rooms are huge - you could fit a Wimpey home inside the sitting room.

Outside are stables, a cattle byre and a granary. There's also a large French barn, where prisoners of war were housed during the Second World War. You can still see names and dates scratched into the walls.

We have nearly 20 acres of land. I keep acquiring more to house my animals. I keep everything from pigs to peacocks to rheas, which are similar to ostriches. They're great - they look like something out of Jurassic Park.

We rent, as there's no way we could afford to buy a house like this. But I've been here for 15 years and I've just signed a lease for another 15. It means we can lay down roots. It's important to have security when you invest so much in a place.

This house was something of a find. We came across it because my ex-husband was a vet and had a surgery round here. He knew that much of this area was landed estate and had heard there were properties available to let. We called the agent to ask if they had any smallholdings or a little farm. It turned out this was vacant.

It was a ramshackle, old house that had been empty for five years. We were offered it for a peppercorn rent because we agreed to spend our own money doing it up. We made it habitable - we put in central heating, installed the Aga and added all the furnishings. It was two years before we could afford to carpet the floor.

The landlords offer reasonable rents because they want trustworthy people who'll look after the properties. We're responsible for everything to do with the upkeep of the building, other than the walls and the roof. And, as part of the lease, we have to allow hunting, shooting and fishing rights across the land.

The hunt can come round twice a week during the season. It's a real pain, actually - the horns and barking dogs frighten my rheas. They jump over the fences and I have to spend days trying to find them again. I don't agree with hunting either, it's cruel.

Our rent may be cheap, but the maintenance bills for a place like this are phenomenal. It costs a fortune to heat and light. There's also a huge amount of work involved. The outside of the property needs decorating every three to four years. And inside, it's like the Forth Bridge - it never ends.

To get around this, we recently took part in BBC1's Houses Behaving Badly. They send you off somewhere special for the day and, while you're out, make over three of your rooms. I knew nothing about it until a film crew turned up at 7.30am one morning. It absolutely floored me - they'd been dealing with Karl and Lucy behind my back.

They redecorated my office, Lucy's sitting room and our en-suite bathroom. They used a Regency-style wallpaper that costs £75 a roll. Originally, they hadn't wanted to do this house as it looked like too big. But they adored the location and the animals. They also liked the fact that I asked to spend my day out learning how to rear alpacas. Everybody else wants to go to a beauty parlour. There was a reason for the course; I've just bought three llamas. I want to breed them and start a llama-trekking business. We'll take people out walking, only with llamas instead of dogs. The pub is even putting up a hitching post for them.

It's hard work living in a house like this. I get up at 5.30am to feed the animals, which can take an hour and a half in winter. I feed them again when I get home from work, before checking the fences and cleaning the sheds. Trying to keep the place tidy is a nightmare - we're all scruffy urchins here. My cleaning lady left before Christmas and I haven't been able to replace her, so it can get too much.

There are other disadvantages - the phone is always down and the electricity goes off all the time. It's isolated in winter, too. We've been snowed in for four days before. The drive is three-quarters of a mile long and, unless a farmer comes to dig us out, we're stuck. But it's a good excuse not to go to work.

Ultimately, I love the peace here. No matter how stressful my day, a calmness comes over me when I reach the drive. I've a beautiful, big house with lots of animals - exactly what I always wanted.

If other people feel inspired, they should find out where their landed estates are and contact the estate agent. There are waiting lists, but properties do come up. As well as places like this, there are two-up, two-down farm cottages that anyone could afford. It's not that hard - after all, we did it.

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