Standing in Shilstone’s impressive entrance hall, with its blazing fire and vaulted, lantern-hung corridor, it’s hard to believe that Sebastian and Lucy Fenwick’s home was once nothing more than a cluster of crumbling outbuildings and a lopsided farmhouse. Now lovingly restored, the Georgian manor house, with its hand-cut flagstones and panelled rooms, feels simultaneously ancient and modern.

The perfect classical proportions suggest the house has been standing here forever, and yet there is a notable lack of time-worn shabby in the overall chic: nothing is sagging, rotting, peeling or mouldering. Instead, glass sparkles and the fireplaces – which all bear the Fenwick family crest and initials – are clean and swept.

The couple bought the site in 1997 when Lucy, who is now a fine art consultant, was working at Sotheby’s in London, and Sebastian was restoring local properties. At the time, they were living in Sebastian’s house nearby, but he longed to build a family home. ‘I noticed Shilstone on an Ordnance Survey map and the site intrigued me,’ he says, explaining how he came to make the fateful visit that would result in a 20-year-long restoration.

On arriving at Shilstone, he quickly realised he’d stumbled upon a historic gem: what appeared to be an old farmhouse was the east facade of a once-substantial building, around which he found the remains of a designed landscape and clear signs of another, important, medieval house, later identified as the former Domesday manor of ‘Silfestania’.

Sebastian undertook an investigation with Devon Rural Archive, which revealed a rare Jacobean grotto and an 18th-century water theatre comprising leats, rills and cascades. There was also a 17th-century walled garden with a crenellated pavilion (or banqueting house), and a courtyard of fine barns, as well as the medieval foundations.

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English Heritage put Lucy and Sebastian in touch with the architectural historian Christopher Rae-Scott, who advised them on how the house might once have looked. ‘We saw an opportunity to recreate the past and build a new house in the classical tradition,’ says Sebastian, adding that Christopher’s meticulous drawings mirrored exactly what he had been imagining.

Work began in 2000 and all the stone used in the project came from a quarry on the land; each piece cut on site by hand. The couple hired a team of skilled local craftsmen who, amongst many exquisite details, produced a magnificent Devon oak staircase and several ornate plaster ceilings. Wherever possible, materials came from reclamation yards in order to add the illusion of age.

The family finally moved into Shilstone House in 2011, just over a decade after the foundation stone was laid. Lucy admits she occasionally despaired of the place ever being finished, and sometimes moaned about Sebastian building such an enormous ‘folly’ of a house. However, she knows the resurrection of Shilstone House is his lifetime’s work and a legacy for their 13-year-old son, Ned. ‘Anyone who’s ever built a house will tell you they’d probably never do it again,’ she laughs. ‘It’s a painful journey, but with the end in sight and with the mud receding, I’ve started to feel huge pride in it.’

And she is not alone in admiring her husband’s vision; Sebastian’s restoration and rebuild has won many accolades. Peter Beacham, former protection director of English Heritage, wrote to congratulate him, calling Shilstone, ‘a significant contribution to English architecture in the early-21st century’.

Now, another decade on, detail by detail, with painstaking historical accuracy, the build is nearing completion and the house has been decorated in varying shades of taupe and off-white, except where Sebastian’s choice of more vivid colours has prevailed, such as the blues and greens in the drawing and sitting rooms.

‘I dislike strong colours,’ says Lucy. ‘I love subtle, gentle shades, like soft greys, pinks and greens.’ The enormous master bedroom is a case in point: the walls are decorated in a pale, pearlescent grey – the perfect backdrop for the four-poster bed, which is draped in antique chintz. If she could, this is where she would spend all of her time. ‘The view over the valley is so beautiful,’ says Lucy. ‘I often don’t want to tear myself away.’

However, the kitchen is where she can usually be found, particularly now that she and Sebastian are working together to run Shilstone as a thriving wedding venue. ‘With eight bedrooms and six reception rooms, we decided to throw our doors open and to share the house. It’s lovely, but it’s hard work. When we started out, the Aga sometimes gave up on me when I was cooking for as many as 80,’ Lucy recollects. ‘But no-one seemed to notice and the wedding business has just gone from strength to strength.’