DJ sets, pop-up bars and late-night opening: How Nostell Priory is putting a new spin on the country house

Nostell Priory is a house that people feel connected to.

Nostell Priory
Nostell Priory

The Grade I-listed National Trust property near Wakefield has always been a 'local' country house, with the majority of its visitors living within a half-hour drive away. Its staff have eschewed the commercial gains of mass market events such as music festivals, preferring to offer a bespoke experience for the loyal customers who consider Nostell to be part of their families' lives.

Now, they're looking to the future by tapping into social trends and the demands and expectations of a younger audience.

Restoration of the kitchen garden began in 2009 and it opened in 2012

The National Trust have formed links with Wakefield's growing arts scene, collaborating with the Hepworth Gallery to run an events programme that wouldn't look out of place in Shoreditch or Brighton.

Their adults-only Nostell Nights events offer visitors the chance to go behind the scenes and explore rooms usually out of bounds to the public - including the bedrooms slept in by the Winn family until the 1980s, the servants' quarters in the attic and the cellars - while enjoying a DJ set, workshops with local artists, artisan food, a pop-up bar and gin tasting.

The restored kitchen garden, which opened in 2012, now supplies the cafe, and the chefs and gardeners have harnessed the growing interest in 'no-miles meals' to run tours where they give advice on homegrown produce.

Senior marketing manager Jess Ambery Smith and her colleagues are working to raise the profile of Nostell - which also has 300 acres of parkland to explore - and attract visitors from further afield.

"At the moment our visitor base is very local. We have a lot of dog walkers, cyclists, a Parkrun - there is plenty for everyone here. The house has a world-class collection of Thomas Chippendale furniture, there are over 100 pieces and they're all still in their original locations.

"Visitor numbers are continually increasing but we want people to really engage with the story of Nostell. It was owned by the Winn family from the 1600s and they only employed the best people to design their treasure house.

"There are so many country houses in Yorkshire, but we have everything a stately home can offer. In terms of location, we are a little bit further away from other big houses, but we want more people to make the trip."

The September 27 edition of Nostell Nights will see the North Bedrooms, where the Winn family lived until they handed their ancestral seat to the National Trust, open after hours, while the Christmas event, All That Glitters, will allow guests a preview of the house's Christmas decorations - home-made by some of the 250 volunteers - before general opening the following day.

"People love going behind the scenes, especially our Upstairs Downstairs tours, which include the attics where the servants slept. There is a lot of interest in the below-stairs stories now - it's a bit of a Downton Abbey effect."

Activities are usually rooted in the Nostell spirit - for Halloween there are campfire tales about the house, while Apple Week and Pumpkin Week, the highlights of the autumn programme, shine a light on the orchards and gardens on the estate. Visitors can even bring apples from their own gardens to be identified by Nostell's experts.

In the build-up to Christmas and during the winter months, when the house is closed to the public (the grounds remain open all year round), there are 16 different craft workshops with local artists, covering skills from willow-weaving to silver clay jewellery-making.

While Christmas itself sees the house decorated in homespun style, Santa in his grotto and a trail in the gardens laid for families to follow. Although Nostell does not offer the high-budget, choreographed festive entertainment of other country house attractions, its more affordable and welcoming appeal is entrenched among generations of local visitors.

"Our USP is that our volunteers make the decs themselves, and they're inspired by our collections. We also open on December 23 and Christmas Eve, which is quite unusual for a house.

"People tell us that their families have been coming to Nostell at Christmas for two or three generations, and that it's part of their festive experience."

Despite the support of the National Trust, Nostell does face challenges as it attempts to balance the conservation of its collections and modern customer demands.

‘As a conservation charity, looking after this special place so as many people as possible can enjoy it is our key priority. For example, visitors often notice that the house is dark, as our conservation team keep light to a level that will protect the collections from too much exposure, which otherwise can cause significant damage to textiles in particular.

"There is an expectation that people will be able to see everything and that we are open all of the time, but we don't have the capacity to let people into all areas of the house, and we have to close during winter so that key conservation work can take place.

"We have had large-scale events like music concerts and steam rallies in the past, we have to balance our events programme with the conservation of the historic parkland, as having lots of people in a concentrated area can cause damage. We’d love our visitors to keep coming back to Nostell to enjoy the whole experience again and again, including the house, gardens and parkland. We would rather people engaged with Nostell instead and felt connected to the house. We want to build longer-term relationships."

There is free entry to Nostell Priory for all visitors on Friday September 20 and Saturday September 21 as part of the Heritage Open Days festival. Admission fees apply at other times. National Trust members are entitled to free year-round entry .