A couple from Bolton were looking forward to their dream wedding, which was finally taking place after being postponed four times during the coronavirus pandemic. Having initially planned to get married in 2019, Molly and John Goldie had waited patiently for their big day.
They chose the stunning venue of Thornton Manor, a Grade II* listed building in the small village of Thornton Hough in Wirral, Merseyside, for their wedding. Set in beautiful surroundings, the manor house has provided the backdrop for several high profile events, including Coleen Rooney’s 21st birthday party, as well as being the location where Brexit talks between Boris Johnson and then Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar took place.
Molly and John, who are now married, paid around £11,000 for the ceremony in the impressive manor house. Their guests had also booked all 22 rooms as well as a number of cottages on the estate, Liverpool Echo reports.
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But the pair’s dreams quite literally went up in smoke when a devastating fire tore through the roof of the manor house in early February, two months before their big day. While there were no injuries in the huge blaze, the dreams of the young couple, like large swathes of the building, had been reduced to rubble.
Molly and Jordan urgently contacted Thornton Manor and its owners Thornton Holdings Ltd, to enquire about what this meant for their dream day. They were devastated to be told that not only could the wedding they had planned not go ahead, but the business could not afford to refund them the £11,000 they had already transferred.
In the weeks following the February blaze, it emerged that Molly and Jordan were far from alone. Scores of couples who had booked the beautiful manor house for their weddings would be told the business was unable to fulfil their bookings and would be unable to pay out refunds.
But the story of the problems at Thornton Manor and the nightmares faced by so many couples who had booked there is far more complex than the fire that engulfed the venue in February of this year. The story also goes back much further than that.
A decade-long planning fight
Just weeks before the fire tore through Thornton Manor on February 5, a decision was made that would have major ramifications for the luxury wedding venue, its owners, staff and many people who had booked to have their weddings there.
A decision was made on January 20 that would bring an end to a decade-long legal battle between the venue’s owners, Thornton Holdings Ltd, Wirral Council and various other bodies. That fight had started back in 2011.
At that time, it was reported that Wirral Council had wrongly sent Thornton Manor a document which stated the venue could build three large marquees on green space within the estate without any conditions attached. However, this was not what the council’s planning committee had agreed to at a meeting on the issue a year earlier. The error was blamed on an IT failure.
The council then insisted a number of conditions were to be added to the planning permission, including a time limit of five years, at which time the marquees could be pulled down if the committee wished. On its website, Thornton Manor offers wedding events at its luxury Lakeside Marquee, its Walled Garden Marquee and another at its picturesque waterside Dell Pavilion. Each of these can be used as individual wedding venues.
The venue’s owners sought to fight the conditions that Wirral Council wanted to attach, and eventually the battle ended up in the High Court in 2018. The ruling went in favour of the local authority as the court cited the original planning permission was given in error and therefore not valid. Thornton Manor contested this decision at the Court of Appeal in April the following year, but it upheld the High Court’s decision.
Wirral Council then reassessed the application for the three marquees and rejected it, deeming it an inappropriate development on greenbelt land that could harm protected species and heritage assets at the Thornton Manor estate. The council then issued an enforcement notice requiring the three marquees to be removed.
The dispute continued as the venue appealed the refusal of the planning permission and the enforcement notices. But in a new ruling released on January 20 of this year, the government’s Planning Inspectorate dismissed the new appeals from Thornton Holdings and said the marquees must be removed within six months of that decision date.
It was a decision that Thornton Holdings said at the time would have huge consequences for the venue. The business told the planning inspector that removing the marquees would mean the company ‘would default on its financial obligations’ and would ‘result in job losses and the manor and grounds being sold.’
Dreams turning to nightmares
Of course news that the planning inspector had ruled that the three marquees would have to be removed by July 21 would have caused deep concern for any couples who had already booked to hold their weddings in those venues on the estate after that date.
One of those couples was Kayleigh Parkinson and James Egginton. They had booked a wedding in one of Thornton Manor’s luxury marquees in December 2020 for a date of August 5 2022.
The pair, both serving soldiers in the armed forces, claimed they were told by Thornton Manor that, despite the ruling to remove the marquees by the end of July, their August event could still go ahead. Concerned and unconvinced, they decided to move their wedding to a new venue and hoped they could get back some of the money they had put down already.
But like a lot of other couples they received a letter from Thornton Manor telling them it could not afford to refund them and to contact their insurance.
Ms Parkinson said they had paid around £1,900 for a 50% deposit on one of the marquees. At this stage there has been no sign of that money being paid back. With their rearranged wedding costing Kayleigh and James a further £6,000 they are deeply unhappy with the response of Thornton Manor.
Ms Parkinson said: “I feel lucky in a way that I’ve not lost as much as other brides as I held back a little bit and didn’t go all in on the packages. But it is still my hard-earned money. It’s not like we can just work overtime to get the money back. We have to deploy somewhere around the world and be away from our friends and family. My partner is away in Germany, I’ll be going away as well just to get the extra money they’ve taken to fund the new venue.”
Ms Parkinson said she believes the only way she will recoup the lost money is by going through the small claims court. But with her wedding now just weeks away she said all her attention is focused on that.
She said: “Because I’m so close to the wedding date I don’t have time to keep up with everything at the moment. But I can’t enjoy it while this is hanging over me. It’s disgusting how Thornton Manor has treated us.”
Night of fire
Two weeks after the planning inspector had handed down the devastating judgement, Thornton Manor was continuing to host weddings as normal. One such wedding was taking place on Saturday February 5.
But just as the fun-filled day was reaching its climax and the dance floor was getting lively a fire alarm at around 9pm put an abrupt end to the festivities as guests were forced out of the manor house and into the chilly February evening. Angie Worster Morrison was attending a relative’s wedding on the day. She had travelled from London with her husband, her daughter and her daughter’s husband, and her parents.
Ms Worster Morrison said she was having a cigarette outside the venue when people began to pile out around her. She told the ECHO: “I didn’t even know there was a fire alarm – I thought people were coming out to see some fireworks or there might have been an evening photo shoot.”
Matthew Tolley, the wedding DJ on the night, previously told the ECHO he led the evacuation efforts following the raising of the fire alarm. Mr Tolley said: “I told everyone to get out and looked at the fire alarm with the groundsman. It showed there was a fire in the boiler room so we went and put it out with an extinguisher.” Shortly after fire crews from four Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service engines arrived on the scene and started working to stop the blaze spreading.
(Image: Angie Worster Morrison/ LiverpoolEcho)
Ms Worster Morrison said after around an hour, staff at Thornton Manor encouraged guests to re-enter the building, assuring them the fire was now out. But minutes later staff alerted the mum and her family to a strong smell of smoke in their rooms due to their proximity to the boiler room.
Ms Worster Morrison claimed she was led up to their bedrooms by a member of staff only to be met by a fire officer who told them it was not safe for them to be there. They went back downstairs and re-joined the party.
But later that night the fire alarm went off again and people were “frantically shouting to ‘get out’”. Wedding guests and staff left the hotel to see the fire had not been contained at all – and in fact had now spread to the roof.
Ms Worster Morrison spoke of the terror she experienced as she came outside to see the roof of Thornton Manor engulfed in flames. She said: “It was mental – there were fire engines turning up all around us, people were screaming, the air stank of smoke. If me and my husband had gone up to our room and fell asleep we would not be here right now – we’d be dead.”
One couple who did return to their bedroom were hotel guests Sean and Mandy Martin. Mr Martin told the ECHO he was awoken by fire crews banging on his bedroom door telling them to get out. He said: “We were asleep but they hammered on the door for us to get out. They were very professional and seemed as if they had the scene under control. But when we left we saw the flames had taken over the whole house.”
Ms Worster Morrison said she found her mum “sobbing” at the events transpiring around her, while wedding DJ Mr Tolley said he “burst into tears like a big baby” when he was driving home. He added: “It really, really could have been a bigger disaster as a lot of people could have gone back up to their bedrooms after the first evacuation.”
While fire crews from all over Merseyside battled to control the blaze, guests, confused by the events around them, were forced to find alternative accommodation and transport. Ms Worster Morrison and her family spent three hours trying to find a new hotel – eventually finding one in Toxteth.
The family, who had travelled up from London, lost all their possessions in the fire – with an overall price value of £15,000. But Ms Worster Morrison said the long term effects of narrowly escaping with their lives has had a greater impact on their family.
She said: “It was bloody traumatic. I’ve got four children – two of them are teenagers. It’s been horrendous for them – they were absolutely terrified when they found out.” The mum-of-four also claimed “there was a complete lack of aftercare from the hotel” with no contact from anyone following the events. She added that her appeal for a refund for the night of the fire and the breakfast the next day fell on deaf ears. She claimed Thornton Manor told her that due to already paying for suppliers and caterers they were unable to issue a refund.
In the following days Thornton Manor declined refunds to not only guests on the night of the fire but couples who had booked in for the following weeks. Jordan and Molly Goldie decided they had no choice but to have their wedding at a different venue on the same day – at a huge additional expense – as they had already booked catering and entertainment.
The manor house had been gutted by the blaze, evidenced by images shared with the ECHO at the time, so the venue offered the couple the chance to move their wedding to one of the three marquees on the estate grounds. But Molly said: “If we wanted that we could get one much cheaper”. Speaking to the ECHO in February this year she added: “Thornton Manor has told us they can’t afford to refund the money but what about us?” Thornton Manor told the couple via a letter they were unable to refund them and advised them to contact their insurance.
Where do things stand now?
As things stand, in less than a month, Thornton Manor will be required to remove the three large marquees on its grounds. We contacted Wirral Council to find its current position on the situation.
A council spokesperson said: “In order to comply with the decision of HM Planning Inspectorate, the marquees at Thornton Manor must be removed by July 21. If Thornton Manor does not act in line with the decision by HM Planning Inspectorate, the council has a duty to enforce it.”
The council said that if the business were to attempt to retain one or any of the marquees, then they would have to submit a new planning application, which would need to show that there were ‘very special circumstances’ as to why development should be permitted within the Green Belt. At this time no such application has been received by the council.
In terms of affected customers, Wirral Council did confirm that there is an ongoing Trading Standards investigation ongoing regarding Thornton Manor. There is also an ongoing investigation by Merseyside Fire and Rescue into the causes of the fire in February.
We have attempted numerous times to contact Thornton Manor and Thornton Manor Holdings with a series of questions but have received no response.
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