Inheriting the family pile can present many problems. Historic country houses, built for entertaining on a grand scale and for accommodating servants, are often far too big for modern-day heirs and heiresses. Yet putting up the “For Sale” sign can feel like failure.
Mark Warde-Norbury was faced with this predicament when his parents passed away and Hooton Pagnell Hall became his responsibility.
The striking castellated property is the focal point in the pretty village of Hooton Pagnell, near Doncaster, and has been in his family since the 1600s.
With a deep affection for the place and unwilling to pull the plug on well over 300 years of family history, Mark had to decide whether to relegate the mansion into the role of little-used second home or find a way of injecting it with life and purpose.
He works in financial services and his main home is in London, where he lives with his wife Lucianne and their children.
“It would break my heart to sell the hall so that was never an option but I can’t live in it full time like my parents did, although I am up here regularly on business,” says Mark, who manages the surrounding estate land and buildings.
The upkeep of the building, which is an architectural smorgasbord of medieval, Elizabethan, Georgian and Victorian features, was also a concern. It is a costly business. The electricity bill alone is £5,000 a quarter so revenue-generating ideas were welcomed.
After friends suggested it would be the perfect venue for weddings, he decided to turn the medieval tithe barn into a wedding venue and the east wing into a boutique hotel with live-in managers. This left the main part of the hall for family use only.
“It made sense. These places need people living in them not just physically because they need heating, but spiritually,” says Mark.
He hired Karen Storey and Sara Cussons, of Cussons and Storey Interiors, which has form for this kind of work. One of its first projects was turning an orangery and cottage at Karen’s home, Settrington House, near Castle Howard, into a wedding venue with guest accommodation. The pair are adept at tackling everything from design and planning to project managing and interiors.
The cost of the conversion was funded with cash generated from a clear-out of the hall’s capacious attics, which contained three centuries of family clutter. Sifting through it and deciding what to sell and what to keep took two years.
It was, says Mark, “an emotional process” that resulted in the sale of more than 2,000 items, including a letter from Florence Nightingale, Victorian toys and tribal weapons.
Among the more unusual items were a stocking belonging to Queen Victoria and a poignant letter written by former estate manager Bernard Wilson to his younger brother Dr Edward Wilson, who died alongside Captain Scott on his doomed expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The elder sibling wrote: “Goodbye old chap and take care of yourself... God help you.”
The auction at Bonhams generated just over £1m, with an 1802 painting by Paul Sandby fetching £218,000. It was bought by the family in 1890 for £1.
The financial boost means that the boutique hotel is now up and running and managed by Jeanette and Laurence Hill-Wickham. Their food is a big attraction as Laurence is a renowned chef.
The decor has also contributed to the success of the eight-month-long project. After stripping out the east wing and reconfiguring the space, the rooms were decorated in soft neutrals and blues.
The colour scheme was prompted by Lucianne Ward-Norbury, a Pilates teacher, who is keen to use the hotel for Pilates retreats. “She wanted a relaxed and restful style with colours sympathetic to nature,” says Sara Cussons.
The period features have been preserved and while some of the furniture is new, it is interspersed with finds from the main house, including cabinets, paintings and antiquarian books. “Guests say that it’s like going to stay in someone’s country house and that’s exactly what we wanted,” says Karen.
The main part of the hall was left untouched, apart from a drawing room that was updated. It is a beautiful home with layers upon layers of family history. Every picture, artefact and piece of furniture tells a story of previous inhabitants.
Among the most precious are watercolours and sketches by Mark’s gifted and adventurous ancestor, Julia Warde-Aldam. A redoubtable Victorian, she managed the family’s estates, including Hooton Pagnell, during a “golden era” when they were rich from selling coal-mining rights on the land. During the First World War, Julia opened Hooton Pagnell Hall as a hospital for wounded soldiers. She served as matron and administrator and maintained close friendships with ex-patients, who sent her gifts, including a stuffed crocodile.
She also was fond of far-flung travel and painted much of what she saw, including the Pyramids. “One of the advantages of having that big sort out was finding a portfolio of her work,” says Mark.
Her portrait and some of her paintings are now on display in the east wing hotel. There is also a striking montage of theatre brochures and opera programmes that Julia had collected from her visits to top London shows. They generate a great deal of interest from guests keen to know more about her and the property’s history.
“She was remarkable and I think she would like the idea of us using part of the hall in this way,” says Mark. “I am very pleased we did it. It has brought life to the house and it helps bring people to the village.”