Taking centre stage

PUBLISHED: 12:40 11 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013

Drawing room

Drawing room

Actors Michael and Lindy Hennessy's early Victorian home is just a stone's throw from Cheltenham's cultural centre. Photography by Nicholas Yarsley

Actors Michael and Lindy Hennessy have a very old photograph in their possession dating back to the 1920s. It shows their back garden, scene of the district's annual garden party, with a row of pretty young ladies coyly lifting their skirts by an inch or two to show off their ankles.

"They were taking part in the prettiest ankle competition, which is certainly more genteel than a knobbly knees contest. But then this is Cheltenham," says Michael with a smile. "We don't know who won, but we do know our house was one of the earlier houses in this part of the town."

Built around 1840, this distinctive early Victorian house stands detached in a popular tree-lined road and is just a mile from the centre of this Regency spa. In its 170-year-old history it has been everything from a private house and a day nursery to a small privately run, five-diamond hotel called The Acanthus Court.

"We think the hotel was named after the cornicing in the house which strongly features the acanthus leaf," says Michael. "Back then, the hotel owners lived in the garden apartment while the guests stayed on the other two floors."

"When we moved in with our two daughters six years ago we reversed the situation," says his wife Lindy, a former professional dancer in London. "We live in the main house with its four bedrooms and four en suite bathrooms and we let out the garden apartment occasionally to tourists and visiting actors."

The house has many charming period features such as the marble fireplaces, double doors between drawing and dining rooms and high ceilings with elaborate plasterwork. The garden too is charming with its vine-covered pergola which yields a sweet white grape, type unknown. Stone busts, statuary, fountain and water features add to the effect and on a central stone column there is an antique armillary sphere, a device used in astronomy for plotting the movement of celestial bodies and for more earthly pursuits... like telling the time.

"Luckily, the house was in very good condition and had some fine drapes to most of the windows when we bought it," says Michael. "So I decorated the bedrooms and replaced the carpets to lose the corporate hotel look, built extra storage and shelving and laid a limestone floor in the hallway. I also created an island unit in the kitchen, installed a granite work surface and hand-painted the units."

However it is what Michael has done to the exterior of the house that is most striking, for running along the entire width of the back of the house, between garden level and raised-ground floor is a custom-built, period-style cast iron balcony with decking and steps curving down to the garden. He got together with a local foundry and set about designing the balcony utilising original decorative castings called 'The Cheltenham'. He also hand-picked brackets and various ornamental details from the Regency and Victorian periods. "It was key that the balcony was in harmony with the period of the house and echoed the balconies which are prevalent all over Cheltenham, and it does. I'm very proud of the finished result," says Michael. The final touch was to turn the kitchen window into French doors so that the family can step out onto the balcony then down the steps into the garden.

"He's completely transformed the back of the house," says Lindy. "Having been an art student, Michael is brilliant at design and very hands on when it comes to DIY."
"Although a lot of re-painting was carried out, we chose to leave the rich red walls in the drawing and dining rooms, not just because we felt they were very much in keeping with the period, but also because I heard somewhere that the Victorians believed the colour red in a dining room to be a positive aid to the digestion," says Michael.

Their furnishings, antiques and décor throughout the house certainly help to create a sumptuous period atmosphere. Michael has even designed and had made his own 'Victorian' lamps, such as the green, stained glass "snowdrop" wall lamps which used to grace the walls of his snooker room at a previous home.

Their antique Victorian brass four-poster bed came from a small ad which they answered in London and turned out to belong to Graeme Garden of The Goodies. Their French mahogany 18th century dining table dates from the reign of Henri 11. It came from an antique shop in Windsor and is teamed with a set of early 20th century Thonet bentwood dining chairs.

When he's not acting, Michael works as a freelance copywriter in advertising. Hence, the walls of his study are covered not just with awards he has won for his TV commercial scripts, but also with his collection of old theatrical and advertising posters, plus a display of original packaging dating back to the 1950s and earlier. When he's not writing ads, he's busy working on novels, plays and scripts for TV and films and trying to find outlets for them. And when he's not writing, he's travelling far and wide with Lindy.

"Why do we love it here so much?" says Lindy. "Because it's a unique house and situated just a short walk from the centre of Cheltenham with its rich architectural and cultural heritage in the heart of the Cotswolds. In fact, everyone loves it, especially people from overseas."

However the Hennessys are now thinking of moving on and their charming home is for sale. Tel Lindy on 07811 174824 for details.

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