CONCLUDING our series revealing great Yorkshire houses through the eyes of people who work in them, Stephen McLarence reports from Newby Hall. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
“Before I worked here, I used to come and feel better just for being in this garden,” he says as we stroll down an avenue of lime trees. “You connect with certain places and this was one of them.” He first visited Newby 30 years ago with Kay, now his wife. “We sat over there, in that seat in the Orchard Garden” but he had no inkling he would ever experience the garden from the inside. Now, even after a 20-year working relationship with its every shrub and fountain, he’s still clearly thrilled...
“Since I’ve worked here, I’ve seen an osprey down at the pond, I’ve stood and watched kingfishers, and when I came in early one morning, I watched a badger just mooching around for 10 minutes.
“This place changes people. One lady came up to me after she’d been walking round, put a hand on my shoulder and just said ‘Thank you’. There are a lot of pressures in life these days and people get so much out of being here.”
Glance at Newby’s guide book and you sense why. Forty acres of lily ponds, pergolas and gazebos; bowers, terraces and urns; clematis and honeysuckle, the celebrated herbaceous borders, the water gardens and tropical gardens and gardens that are just gardens.
The photographs pulsate with the colour and luxuriance of the place... and, on my first visit here, I’m taking it all on trust. Because, for reasons to do with newspaper deadlines, I’ve come on a chilly day, with pale sun occasionally filtering through the mist; a day of damp soil and muddy shoes.
How many gardeners are there here, I wonder. “Six and three-fifths, and seven volunteers,” says Mark. “When people asked Mr Richard’s father how many there were, he used to say: ‘There are five of them and five of me’.”
Mr Richard is Richard Compton, the hall’s owner, whose family has lived here since 1748. The family tree bristles with breeding... lords, marquesses, countesses, earls, the odd Prime Minister, the occasional Viceroy of India: a continuity of family-living that shifted a gear in 1948 when Newby Hall opened to the public.
Today, Richard Compton, his wife Lucinda and their three children Ludovic, Orlando and Sasha, occupy a small part of the house, which was built by, or at any rate under the guidance of, Sir Christopher Wren, and has Robert Adam interiors and one of England’s largest collections of Chippendale furniture. It is, Richard agrees, “a pretty good pedigree”.
The family confine themselves to what’s effectively an apartment – albeit a remarkably well-appointed one – which runs to sitting room, kitchen and three bedrooms. Sometimes, he says, they have to pull down the kitchen blind to stop visitors peering through the windows.
“If you’ve never experienced living all your life in front of everybody else, it’s jolly difficult,” he says. “There’s no privacy.” Though it is, as he admits, a way of life they’ve chosen by hiring out their house to weddings, dinners, drinks parties and corporate entertaining.
“We often hear the wedding guests outside and we have to be quiet because it’s their day,” he says. “We can’t have the television too loud. But houses like this one were built to be full and to be bubbly and have noise. If you mothball them and use them as museums, you lose the sense of a ‘live’ house.”
Opening your home to the public isn’t now just a matter of rope barriers and pot pourri. Newby offers Family Days Out, with a miniature railway and children’s adventure garden, and has embraced the cyberworld. It seems odd to sit in a room lined by 18th century estate plans and listen to Richard Compton – High Sheriff of North Yorkshire – talk about Twitter, Facebook and You Tube. “We do it to raise our profile to people,” he says. “It’s a marketing tool.”
As a businessman formerly working in London magazine publishing and deputy president of the Historic Houses Association – “the trades union of the private owner” – he’s well aware that the 500 of the association’s 1,500 members who open their homes to the public need to raise awareness and income however they can.
Their efforts, he says, aren’t helped by the government’s tax policy on Maintenance Funds which owners set up to plough money back into repairs. Over recent years, the tax rate has risen from 34 per cent to 50. And in some cases, income is taxed again, also at 50 per cent, when it reaches the house it’s intended to support – in effect a 75 per cent rate.
“The heritage people in the government support our case, but they’ve got to get through to the Treasury,” he says. “For every £1 spent at a heritage-based tourist attraction, it generates up to £24 for the local economy. I don’t think they’ve taken on board how important heritage properties are for Great Britain PLC.”
House-owners finding it hard to cope financially may have to sell their home to rich buyers “and the last thing they may want is people coming round; the losers are the nation”.
To see what the nation might lose at Newby, administrator Stuart Gill takes me on a whistle-stop tour, complete with a few statistics. Newby pulls in 130,000 to 140,000 visitors a year – 95 per cent from Yorkshire – but most of them come for the gardens. Only perhaps 20 per cent also take in the house.
We start, logically, in the entrance hall, an essay in symmetry and what would now be called “through-planning”, with chairs made by Chippendale and designed by Robert Adam, echoing the floor pattern. We see where the Georgian part of the house gives way to a Victorian extension, creating a significantly heavier mood that culminates in the dark-wood Billiards Room, a room that almost strokes its own side whiskers. On a table is a portrait of a family member murdered by Greek brigands in 1870. In his memory, his grieving mother built the Church of Christ the Consoler in Newby’s grounds. Now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, it’s a fine Victorian shrine with exceptional stained glass.
Back in the house, the Tapestry Room features the only pieces of Chippendale furniture known to retain their original upholstery and covers. The Axminster carpet was designed by Adam and the walls are resplendent with Gobelins tapestries. As Stuart says, all the room’s features were created together and have gently faded together. Roman gods pose artfully in the statue gallery.
The house’s elegance is echoed in the garden. “It’s a very personal garden,” says Mark Jackson. “An ongoing dynamic garden not frozen in any particular period, though it’s generally perceived as an English country garden. There are some gardens you can become intimate with in a day, but you need to revisit this one.”
He first worked here as a student on a year’s placement from Askham Bryan College. “I thought then that this was the place I wanted to be,” he says. He had been working at Ferrybridge B power station, but when that closed in 1992 he decided to try for a career in horticulture.
During his placement he approached Richard Compton’s father, Robert, and was taken on: “It just seemed that it had to be.” Much of the present garden was created by Robert’s father Edward (the Major). “He said he’d inherited a beautiful picture – the house – but he didn’t have a proper frame for it.”
The frame is now complete and hugely popular. “On a busy Bank Holiday 2,000 people can be going round at the same time, but you can still find a relative level of tranquillity,” says Mark. “I’ve been to other gardens where you can almost end up in a processional when it’s busy.”
He went self-employed for a while and came back as head gardener in 2002. “I felt in awe of being custodian of such a big thing, of being part of the development of Newby and its future,” he says.
“Most people who come into this industry aren’t doing it to have a nine-to-five working day and weekends at home. They do it as a passion. I do. I love growing plants. Yes, it’s an obsession... but in a positive way.”
Newby Hall and Gardens 0845 450 4068; www.newbyhall.com Open to September 25. Closed on Mondays, except on Bank Holidays and in July and August.