Making Christmas dinner for John Cleese is definitely one of the highlights of Cara Willoughby’s year. That was back in September when the actor was at Cara’s stately home, Birdsall House, near Malton, filming for an upcoming movie, Father Christmas is Back.
The scene was set for a festive lunch and after a 15-hour stretch of working, the stellar cast, which included Cleese, Elizabeth Hurley, Kelsey Grammer, Talulah Riley, Kris Marshall, Caroline Quentin and others, was tired and hungry.
After eyeing up the cooked goose all day, Cleese asked if he could take it back to his hotel as a late-night snack. Deemed a health risk after sitting on the table for so long, the production company had to disappoint him but came up with the idea of delivering a Christmas dinner to him. “That’s when I ended up cooking a goose for him,” says Cara, whose life has changed immeasurably since she and her husband the Hon. James Willoughby opened up their beautiful historic home as a commercial venture.
Along with film and photo shoots, the house, which has six guest rooms, is now used for select weddings and events, offers house tours and plays host to part of the Ryedale classical music festival.
“The location filming came about after my kitchen was entered into a Country Life competition and won. Production company MSR Media in York saw it and got in touch. They have filmed here three times now and they are lovely and it’s always really enjoyable,” says Cara, a graduate of the Glasgow College of Art.
They also filmed Miss Willhoughby here with Kelsey Grammer, Caroline Quentin and Nathalie Cox. She is a sleuth so we are hoping that will become a TV series, then they can come back. I love the diversity of what we do. I can be fixing a leaky shower in a guest room one minute and helping Elizabeth Hurley with something the next.”
Hidden away in its own private valley on the edge of the Wolds, Birdsall House is a magical place that has been in the same family since it was built in 1540. The walls are filled with an unbroken line of family portraits dating from 1588 to the present Lord Middleton and James, his son, who will inherit the title. This period treasure lay undiscovered except by family and friends until almost three years ago when James and Cara decided to make their much-loved home pay its way.
They had already spent a considerable sum on work, which included creating a beautiful living kitchen, installing a biomass boiler and removing concrete floors in some of the bedrooms.
The floors were bowing under 110 times the maximum stress load and were in danger of falling in on the ballroom below. The concrete was laid to create a sound barrier against the hiss of gas when Birdsall House became the first home in England to have a private gas light system.
Maintaining the large, Grade II*-listed structure, which has 256 windows, also brings high annual costs and the days when farming on the estate brought in enough money to keep the property in tip top condition are long gone. Its grandest rooms, including the ballroom, dining room and a state room named the Oval Room, are strikingly beautiful but the cost of preserving them is also considerable.
The planned events help towards the upkeep but this year many were cancelled, which was upsetting and stressful. It is one of the reasons why Cara particularly looked forward to making this Christmas special for herself, James and their three children, Tom, 13, Flora, 11, and Ru (short for Rupert), nine.
A creative former graphic designer who retrained as a milliner, she loves cooking and brings artistry to trimming up. The stars of the festive show are three enormous real trees from York Christmas Trees, which also supplied 10 Downing Street this year. “The theme is usually golds and reds with a touch of blue in the Oval Room,” says Cara, who has added real candles, a tradition that she remembers fondly from her own childhood.
“Some of the candles are real flame and a lot are electric. It used to take me ages to go round lighting them and turning them off but this year I’ve got remote control tea lights, which I am thrilled with.”
Cara makes most of her own garlands and wreaths using skills picked up from her mother, a florist. Festive family traditions are observed including midnight mass on Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner at 2pm and with goose rather than turkey, followed by a walk today and time to chill. Then it will be back to the hurly-burly of Birdsall House events and thinking up new ideas. “We are very lucky to live here and it feels right that we are able to share the house,” says Cara. “Doing so has brought lots of happiness and laughter.”
*Birdsall House was built on the ruins of a 12th century monastery. The Jacobean building was enlarged and remodelled by the Georgians and Victorian architect Anthony Salvin who designed the north wing. Among its most famous inhabitants was Nesbit Willoughby (1777–1849). One of the most reckless characters in British naval history, he lost an eye, part of his jaw, and an arm and a leg along the way. He was also court-martialed four times, knighted twice for his bravery, hence his nickname “twice knightly” and helped inspire the Hornblower novels.
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