Massimo is a Glaswegian attorney of Italian descent who inherits that famous Italian passion. Karen is a chartered accountant and a “canny Scottish lassie.” So when Massimo fell in love with one of the largest, most splendid but down-at-heel ancient mansions in Barbados, and vowed to restore it to its former glory, Karen had the wisdom to humour him and help him make it happen.
A Clifton Hall plantation is first mentioned in a mortgage recorded in 1656 in the name of Ferdinand (or Ferdinando) Palleologus, the legendary descendant of the last Imperial Emperors of Constantinople, buried in the beautiful St John’s churchyard, half a mile away. It’s thought that he named his house after Clifton in Cornwall, his family home and birthplace after his father Theodore emigrated to England. He may also have owned Ashford in St John, and he became a prominent man in the parish, as vestryman, churchwarden, trustee, lieutenant, and surveyor of the highways. His son Theodore returned to England and when the Greeks rose up against the Turkish rule in the 1820s and had traced Ferdinando to Barbados, they were disappointed in not finding a potential sovereign here.
By 1674 the property was owned by the prominent Quaker John Rous. His son, the Honourable Samuel Rous, president of the Governor’s Council, increased the size of the plantation to some 300 acres. In 1810 it was bought by General Robert Haynes, the powerful scion of another Royalist family which owned much of the lands in St John and St Joseph. When the last Haynes died, the great house was bought by Peter Morgan, Minister of Tourism in the administration of Prime Minister Errol Barrow, and later the Barbados High Commissioner to Canada.
When Peter Morgan bought it in 1979, the house had probably not been painted for a century, and family antiques were permanent fixtures in a dark and daunting castle—with seven bedrooms and a single bathroom. Morgan’s renovation some 30 years before transformed it, but by 2009 it was ready for another reincarnation. And Massimo Franchi has done just that, learning the skills of restoration as he went along.
Clifton Hall is a remarkable house, a grand Georgian mansion with a magnificent Palladian double entrance staircase at the east front, a luxurious eight-foot wide arcaded open gallery, paved with marble tiles, on three sides, and spacious reception rooms. It followsthe traditional Georgian English footprint of a central entrance hall leading to a splendid stair hall in the middle of the house, although the original entrance hall has been incorporated into the dining room to create a much larger banqueting hall—graced with an enormous mahogany dining table and beautiful chandelier.
On the right, with five double doors opening to the gardens to the north and east, is a huge drawing room. It’s not hard to imagine the elegant balls that would have been held here in the Victorian era, with huge doors, high ceilings and the Atlantic breeze keeping the room wonderfully cool. Karen and Massimo’s palette of vivid red in the dining room and bar, warm mauve in the drawing room and canary yellow in the stair hall complement the mahogany antiques and staircase and bring these beautiful rooms to life. Architectural detail is highlighted with the majestic staircase (three flights) and features such as the rare 18th-century HL hinges on the drawing room cupboard doors.
The centre piece in the drawing room is the uniquely Barbadian antique liquor cabinet, replicated by Basrat Sugrim, master cabinet maker of St Lawrence in Christ Church. This grand Georgian main house, with four bedrooms upstairs and cellars underneath, is actually the new part of the house, probably built in the 1830s after the great hurricane of 1831, but it could be earlier, based on some of the structural details, perhaps as early as the 1780s. It is attached to a much, much earlier house, which now forms the kitchen wing, but with a full upper floor with three bedrooms and an attic above that.
This wing is a single room wide, long and narrow and tall—a typical medieval style 17th-century house, with gable windows at attic level and even a very special version of the traditional Barbadian great house’s “poor relation’s room” at the far end of the upper corridor. The juxtaposition of a Georgian great house to a 17th -century medieval house, coincidentally, is also seen at Halton Great House in St Philip, also owned by the wealthy Rous family, and featured in an earlier issue of MACO.
Massimo has transformed this wing too. The ancient, huge kitchen fireplace is preserved but an ultra-modern Italian kitchen has created a chef’s paradise, with lots of space to rush madly about preparing amazing food. Beyond the “kitchen wing” is a “recreation wing.” There is yet another beautifully restored and preserved fireplace and brick bread oven, a sitting room with fireplace (for our freezing winters of 20 degrees Centigrade in the winter), changing rooms for the pool, luxurious lounge and huge patio for al fresco dining. This looks on to the extensive orchard and running track. You earn your oven-baked pane e prosciutto and Prosecco after your run and swim.
Upstairs has been wonderfully transformed, with new, lavish modern bathrooms— these are all works of art, some tiled with beautiful coral rocks from the local area. And the bedrooms, with their reproduction antique four- poster beds, large windows and cool colours beckon the guests. The single original bathroom of the last century had an amazing 18-inch shower rose made by a blacksmith, of tin, with a hundred or more punctured holes. Massimo’s artistry has produced bathrooms of spa quality.
The house and gardens are also full of surprises. Ancient copper guttering from the Georgian parapet roofs (designed to withstand hurricanes by protecting the eaves from the high winds but which had to be changed) has been recycled into elegant plant pots on the terrace.Clifton Hall Great House is close to Hackleton’s Cliff—the 1000-foot escarpment that defines the beautiful Scotland District— the rugged hills leading down to the Atlantic Ocean at Bathsheba and Bath. The huge green sward to the north, surrounded by flowering trees— flamboyant, cassia fistula, ylang ylang and others—provides access to the fabulous trade winds that keep the house cool.
What else do you need to complete Paradise when there is beauty, an awesome sense of history, nature at its finest, and a sense of perfect peace in a place that’s survived the struggles of nearly 400 years, but has been restored with love and reverence, and reborn for a splendid future.
Clifton Hall great house is to be shared—and the Franchis are willing to host private functions, romantic weddings, incentive or fund-raising banquets. The most wonderful ambiance of natural beauty, architectural and cultural heritage is a jewel setting to be shared and enjoyed by all.