A stately home originally built for £26,000 needs £10 million to secure its future. Richard McComb talks to Lord Cobham about the fight to save the family seat of Hagley Hall.
Just outside the private office of the 12th Viscount Cobham, in a grotto-like recess, is a bijoux indoor pond, about 6ft by 6ft. A couple of goldfish swim about in the shallow water. If only they really were made of gold...
The water feature was installed by one of Lord Cobham’s illustrious forebears for a different use. Back then, the hole was deeper and served as a plunge pool. It was ideal for refreshing the ennobled spirits after a day working through the estate accounts at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire.
The current Lord Cobham may regret the decision to fill in the plunge pool. There must have been times since he moved in to the Palladian home, less than four years ago, when a dip in soothing, cool waters would have reinvigorated body and soul after a look at the bleak balance sheet.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the roof’s been falling in at Hagley Hall.
A devastating fire on Christmas Eve 1925 wrecked the original mansard roof and a flat construction was put on to keep the elements at bay. It’s been leaking for years now, a drip, drip deterioration. Left untouched, damage to Hagley’s state rooms was inevitable.
A £871,618 project to return the roof to its pre-fire design was launched and is due for completion in a couple of months. English Heritage has stumped up £435,000 towards the preservation of this Grade I listed structure. Lord Cobham is providing the remainder. And that’s only the beginning of his outlay.
Hagley Hall is in need of a giant chunk of TLC – about £10 million pounds worth, in fact.
The current lord, stockbroker Christopher Charles Lyttelton, inherited the house when his elder brother, known affectionately as Johnny, then married to round-the-world yachtswoman Lisa Clayton, died in 2006. It quickly became apparent that the house, built from 1754 and 1760 at a cost of £25,823, needed massive investment if it was going to stay in the family.
“The whole maintenance deficit was put at something approaching £10 million. You cannot do all of that at once. You do the most urgent things first and then do the rest gradually,” says Lord Cobham.
“We have a restoration plan for the park and the hall. We are also looking deeply into the financial possibilities. We have sold as many things in the house that are not closely connected to the family as we can.”
By that, Lord Cobham means that pieces of furniture and artwork will not be sold off willy-nilly to keep the bank from the doors. There will not be a firesale, he says. The hall, properly managed, with a business portfolio of staging corporate events, lavish weddings and private lettings, will have to pay its own way.
The Cobhams do not have a bottomless pit of money and the viscount is not, in his own words, a “rich git who lives in a big house.”
The Old Etonian has no plans to repeat the sale of the aptly named The Misers, a 16th century oil painting sold in 2008 for £2 million. The picture was won by “Naughty” Tom Lyttelton, son of the hall’s founder George, in a bet in which he used the family home as a gambling surety. Naughty Tom proclaimed “avarice is the universal passion: for I will venture to affirm that, more or less, we are all gamesters by nature.”
It is not a reckless philosophy to which his present day descendant subscribes. While not wishing to scare the horses and give the impression the Cobhams are about to bail out, the 12th viscount is pragmatic in outlook and will not be gambling with his family’s finances.
His son, Oliver, 35, who will inherit the estate, is a specialist in brain imagery, and 33-year-old daughter Sophie is a cook in London. Lord Cobham has no intention of saddling them, or his wife Tessa, with unsustainable debt.
The sale of The Miser was countenanced because of the unconventional way the oil painting came into the Lytteltons’ possession. The family silver, though, is off limits, says the viscount.
“If you sell all the family pictures [and there are many] you are selling the guts of the family as well. We have always lived here. The place is steeped in the family. If we do move I would expect to take the stuff that is closely linked with the family with me. But it would be sad because the house and the family are indivisible.”
He adds: “There are a number of initiatives we are undertaking. If none of them work out then we are in an impossible position and it is recognising the position is impossible early enough, so there is enough to live off for the rest of our lives. I am not bleating about it but you cannot hope to be like Mr Micawber and hope something will turn up.”
The money-spinning plans include virtually doubling the space the hall lets to businesses. The £2.5 million green belt development has proved controversial with some local villagers who claim the office complex will cause traffic congestion and environmental damage.
Lord Cobham temporarily withdrew the planning application a few months ago but insists the income that would be generated by expanding commercial lettings, raising £360,000 a year, is vital for the hall’s restoration and long-term future.
He is keen to stress that the heritage business – of which the maintenance of architecturally and historically important buildings forms a part – has to be a joint venture involving the landowner, the community and restoration bodies such as English Heritage and Natural England, which are assisting with proposals to regenerate the park.
As we sip late morning coffee in his office, it is a theme to which Lord Cobham returns, not out of self-pity but simply to tell things as they are.
“It is very difficult for people to realise the realities of being here,” he says.
“I reckon to keep the house up to standard you are talking £200,000 to £300,000 a year for maintenance and staff to keep the place clean. Decorating the rooms is massively expensive nowadays. I am making it sound dreadful, but it is a hell of a fun challenge.”
Lord Cobham’s idea of fun probably differs from most people nudging retirement. The 64-year-old, a “semi-retired” consultant with City-based number crunchers Smith & Williamson, is a fanatical glider pilot but the day-to-day management of the ancestral home keeps his feet on the ground.
Surely the upper-floor damp problems can’t be that bad, though. Aristocrats are known for spinning a dramatic line and I suspect the rain water “egress” from the roof isn’t as bad as all that.
The buckets, mops and soggy sheets scattered all over the place, in bedrooms and corridors, are a giveaway. There are clusters of retaining vessels where you might expect china plant holders. The air is filled with the unmistakable stench of damp and insidious rot.
“There’s not really a room that is free of it up here,” says the viscount as he takes me on a whistle-stop tour of the place. He thinks it will cost the “thick end” of a six-figure sum to redecorate the top floor. “That’s if I ever get round to it,” he adds.
I reckon this is a conservative estimate. There appears to be about 5,000 bedrooms up here. The only one unaffected is used by brides to doll themselves up and pamper their persons on their big day at the hall.
It’s pointless cranking up the radiators to dry out the top floor. The rain doesn’t stop and the place is so vast. As Lord Cobham points out: “They throw a party in Abu Dhabi every time we turn the heating on.”
I ask if one area used to be the servants’ quarters. “I think so – not that we’ve ever had any since I’ve been here,” says the viscount.
Despite the huge challenges, he remains remarkably upbeat and describes the complicated funding for the hall as an “interesting puzzle” rather than an albatross.
“You knew the thing was going to be difficult,” says Lord Cobham. “You knew you were going to have issues and you have to keep going until it is impossible. If it is just difficult, you keep going because you knew it was going to be difficult.”
He adds: “Nobody said it was easy.”
Neither did anyone say the restoration would be finished in his lifetime.
“It will never be complete. It moves on. The house breathes,” says Lord Cobham as he wanders off up a darkly lit staircase, the portraits of his ancestors looking down.
* Hagley Hall is staging a weekend of events to raise money for the Christchurch earthquake appeal in New Zealand on July 9-10.
The Lyttelton family has close ties to Christchurch and Lyttelton going back to the foundation of the Canterbury Settlement in 1850.
George William, Lord Lyttelton, was chairman of the Canterbury Association, which organised the first settlers to Christchurch. His great grandson – the father of the current lord – was governor general of New Zealand from 1957-1962.
The main park in Christchurch is named after Hagley and the nearby port takes the family name of Lyttelton.
Highlights of the charity weekend include a concert given by Jonathan Lemalu and friends at St John’s Church, in the grounds of the hall, on Saturday. Lemalu is a world-renowned New Zealand-born Samoan opera singer and will be joined by leading Kiwi musicians. The concert will be followed by a gala dinner. Tickets for the concert and dinner are £100 per person. On Sunday, the hall will host an afternoon of family fun, including a vintage car rally, and an aerial acrobatic display. Admission is £10 for adults. Under-16s go free.