50 years of the Amesbury Abbey Group

For 50 years, a family-run care group has offered luxury retirement and bespoke nursing to baronesses and Generals, Spitfire aces, resistance fighters, judges and professors.

With grand facades, gorgeous interiors, fine dining and bridge evenings, the Amesbury Abbey Group’s stunning period properties in Hampshire and Wiltshire have taken nursing care and retirement living to new levels of luxury.

Mary Cornelius-Reid MBE pioneered the concept of luxury retirement living in Britain, setting up the Amesbury Abbey Group in 1972 and offering a slice of history alongside bespoke nursing and dementia care and independent living.

Then a night sister at Winchester Hospital, she saw there was a gap in the market for comfortable nursing for the elderly and set out to deliver it on a grand scale – whether that was bringing in real camels for her ‘living Nativity’ display or having Harold Macmillan drop in for tea.

The Amesbury Abbey Group’s first home was Winton House, a stately Elizabethan home in Nether Wallop, and today is made up of Queen Anne country house Sutton Manor, just outside Winchester, and the grand Palladian mansion Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, which once counted Stonehenge as part of its estate.

The group also has a retirement village in Portugal – the first of its kind to open in The Algarve - which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

Luxury independent retirement living is available in properties scattered through the stunning grounds of Amesbury Abbey and Sutton Manor, with nursing care in both the main houses.

This concept of retirement living was unheard of in the early 1970s, when Mary Cornelius-Reid embarked on her ambitious enterprise, buying Winton House, a Victorian country pile in 20 acres of gardens and parkland in the picturesque Hampshire village of Nether Wallop, in 1972.

She and her two young children, Rosemary, 11, and David, 8, set up home in the upper floor apartments.

“We started with just a couple of residents,” said Rosemary, the eldest of the three Cornelius-Reid siblings and now chairman of the Group.

“We would decorate each room as a new resident arrived, until eventually we had to move into the coach house in the grounds, where Naomi was born.”

Once Winton House was full, Sutton Manor – standing in 60 acres of grounds in Sutton Scotney just outside Winchester – and Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire were added to the Group. Lastly, Mary built a retirement village in the Algarve, Monte da Palhagueira, opened by Sir Cliff Richard. It features its own Anglican church, that Mrs Cornelius-Reid had built, and which was consecrated by the Bishop of Europe.

“The houses filled quickly,” said Naomi, now the group’s MD.

“Mum had spotted a hole in the market for those people who were the ‘walking wounded’ – they wanted something that was like a hotel, but with a little bit of extra assistance. She found these gorgeous old homes that needed restoring and did them up to be something splendid.

“We worked around all these fantastic period features, but Mum was always one for going wild with wallpaper and the ‘next big thing’. When avocado baths were in, that was what we were installing. Now we’re a little more focused on Farrow and Ball!

“She put the sherry out and always insisted on beautiful fresh flowers in every home because she thought that was what people should have.”

While other nursing homes were very much a functional facility, what Mary Cornelius-Reid was offering something on a different level. Sutton was home to the late Marchioness of Zetland and Lady Betty Winnington, the Queen’s cousin who brought up Lord Lichfield – a regular visitor. Lady Winnington developed a bond with the ducks in the grounds, who took to sleeping under her bed and once burst in on a drinks party to look for her.

The actor Christopher Lee’s mother lived at Winton – “It was very odd when he rang up,” says Operations Director David Cornelius-Reid, “I really did have Dracula on the phone!”

“Mum installed a bar in the drawing room at the Abbey, and the residents would all appear in white tie,” says Naomi.

“One of our staff members who has been with us for 27 years remembers people playing the grand piano, drinking cocktails and dancing until the wee hours.

“It’s different now, as people tend to require much more nursing care, and we have adapted to meet the changing needs of our residents. What we did for people then is very different to what we do for them now, but it’s still very much a home from home, which is what people love.

“I don’t think anyone is currently mixing cocktails until two in the morning, but it’s a wonderful heritage to have and we certainly have some wine connoisseurs who enjoy the wine tasting afternoons we lay on.”

It didn’t take long for Mrs Cornelius-Reid to realise many of the people filling her rooms were not in need of high-level nursing care. 

“They were always nursing homes,” said Rosemary. “There were some who came who needed nursing care straight away, but a lot came in several years before they needed it, and that’s really where the independent living came from. Mum realised they weren’t ready for a nursing home, so she turned the houses and cottages on the grounds into independent retirement living.

“She thought all some of these people really need is their cleaning, gardening and food taken care of and they’d be perfectly independent. They’ll also know that they’re near the nursing home, so won’t have to move again when they need a little more care.

“That’s where the concept came from, and she was the first to do it. She was chairwoman of the Nursing Home Association when she had this idea, and every time you see an independent living retirement set up it comes back to mum’s clever idea. It was that vision that led to her receiving an MBE in 2001 for services to health care.

“I think part of why she was so successful was that she wasn’t doing it for business reasons. She treated her residents as guests and so she was the best businesswoman without any business background because it was just intuitive to her to make sure people were well cared for and felt at home.”

 

Naomi says the fact that all three of Mrs Cornelius-Reid’s children are today running the business is a testament to her mother’s passion.

“It’s the family and the history that sets us apart, I think. It is an extended family as much as it’s a business. The residents love the staff, the staff love the residents; it’s so much more than a business. We’ve had people with us for more than 20 years – both staff and residents – and I think that’s why they stay so long. We are a family.”