To the victor, the spoils

Admiral Lord Rodney built Old Alresford House with the proceeds of his naval victories. Its current owners have spent 13 years restoring the home to its Georgian glory, says Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online

It is the view from Old Alresford House that strikes the deepest chord with Peter McDermott. Each time he looks out over the parkland he is conscious that the landscape today would be as familiar to its first owner as it was more than 250 years ago. Like many 18th-century country houses in Hampshire, it was built by a distinguished naval officer with the financial rewards of his service. In those days, if the Navy captured an enemy ship, the officers and crew received bonus money, and Admiral Lord Rodney used the proceeds from his victories over the Spanish and the French to finance the construction of Old Alresford House, choosing the site of an earlier house to create one of the finest properties of the period.

"When I walk out there I am seeing exactly what he saw," says Peter McDermott. "The only house that is visible was built just 15 years after this one. We also have old drawings, which must be from about 1760, showing sheep on the land, just as we have now. As in Georgian times the grass runs up to the house and in the spring it is fantastic to watch the lamb derby across the ha-ha. There is a walled garden with flowers, but we don't need a Versailles here."

In its beautiful, quintessentially English setting of lawn and trees running southwards to parkland and the 12th-century Alresford Pond - a wildlife reserve - the house enjoys a tranquillity that is almost impossible to replicate in a formal garden. Yet, set out from the rear of the house and it is only a 10-minute walk to the market town of Alresford, with its colour-washed Georgian houses.

It was 13 years ago that Peter and Gayle McDermott first set eyes on Old Alresford House in its 35 acres of land, a far cry from the cottage they originally had in mind. "We were shell-shocked and didn't talk about it for a couple of months. But we came back to it. Even though the house was sad and neglected, as soon as I saw the marvellous lead roof I knew it was a wonderful house. We bit the bullet."

The house they are selling now is of a very different order. The three magnificent reception rooms - among the finest in Hampshire, according to Knight Frank, the selling agents - have been decorated in a style in keeping with the fine Italian panelling, ornate fireplaces and moulded cornices. The dining room has Rodney's original rococo plaster ceiling, which commemorates the Eagle, his first command. In the east wing, the 70ft ballroom has a particular place in the affections of the local community. "We have had numerous events here, from weddings to charity functions, because there is nowhere else as large locally. But despite its size, the house still feels homely. It's quite shallow and as a family we would move from one room to another like waves," says McDermott. "The main thing we did was to open up the kitchen, which was originally lots of different rooms, and put in an Aga."

On the first floor there are five principal bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. Elsewhere there is a cottage and three other apartments, all with separate access from the main house. The extensive cellars, with a fruit store and wine cellar, run under the length of the house and have remnants of the old tracks used for transporting coal from one place to another. Other clues lead back to 1600 and the first house to be built on the site, which has been linked to Oliver Cromwell.

History is ever-present in the home, which was completed in 1751, says McDermott. "Over the years we have found some odd things in the garden such as an 18th-century silver box with a snippet of blonde hair in it, and clay pipes. During some excavations we came across a ring with the motif of a galleon on it and I am convinced it belonged to Rodney."

In 1764 Admiral Lord Rodney had the park laid out by Richard Woods, a contemporary of Capability Brown, and an old illustration by Woods shows how a carriage driveway once looped in front of the house. A flight of steps leads down from the terrace that would once have overlooked its route. Rodney was only able to enjoy the fruits of his expenditure for a few years before financial ruin forced him to let the house and he fled to France to escape his creditors. His son took over the estate, however, and was able to repay the debt and keep his father's pride and joy in the family.

Peter McDermott and his family have relished living in a house with such rich historical roots. George Rodney started out as a penniless captain and the ships and cargoes that paid for Old Alresford House are well documented. His fortune of £10,000 created a house that would now cost him £4 million. "You never feel alone in this house," comments McDermott, "but if there are ghosts here, then they are the friendliest people on earth."

Old Alresford House is on the market through Knight Frank (01962 850333) and FPDSavills (01962 8441842). The guide price is £4m