Olivia Cunliffe-Lister has no regrets about giving up her career and London life to become chatelaine of one of Yorkshire's most important historic houses.
Simon and Olivia Cunliffe-Lister were up a mountain in Peru when they finally got round to having a serious chat about Burton Agnes Hall, which he had inherited at
the age of 12.
One of the most important historic homes in Yorkshire, the magnificent Elizabethan house and surrounding land were left to him by his distant cousin, Marcus Wickham-Boynton, a wealthy art collector (read more about the collection here ) and successful racehorse stud owner. The estate had been in the family for over 900 years.
Keen for her young son to have a “normal” life and job before addressing this enormous responsibility, Simon’s mother, Susan Cunliffe-Lister, had taken the reins in a selfless act of maternal love. She was doing a sterling job of running the property and boosting visitor numbers in an interregnum period that had no specified end.
“Simon told me very early in our relationship that he had this unusual aspect to his life but after that we never had a conversation about living here. We were busy with life and careers in London,” says Olivia.
“We took a year out to travel and were on the mountain discussing what we wanted in the future when we decided to move to Burton Agnes and make a go of it. We got really inspired because we could see the house had an enormous amount of scope.”
The couple met at Durham University, where he studied engineering and she studied English, and moved to London after graduating. They had a small house in the capital and she worked in business and product development and he in business banking.
“We used to come up to Burton Agnes Hall with friends when we were at university but it was all very relaxed and fun. There was no sense of responsibility because Susan took that on and she never put any pressure on Simon to come back. She was happy to keep the show on the road as long as he wanted. She was tremendously generous,” says Olivia, 42.
Since moving to the hall, which is between Driffield and Bridlington, 15 years ago, she and Simon have gradually taken on the running of the house and estate, and are building on his mother’s legacy.
The Hon. Dame Susan Cunliffe-Lister, a renowned gardener, is now busy as Lord Lieutenant of the East Riding of Yorkshire, while spreading her time between helping out at Burton Agnes Hall and looking after the walled garden at the Swinton Park Hotel and estate, which is run by her elder son, Mark – Lord Masham – and his wife Felicity.
“Susan did the most fantastic job here. She is also a wonderful grandmother and our children adore her,” says Olivia.
She kept the house going but her main contribution was in designing and nurturing the award-winning gardens and creating a calendar of events to boost visitor numbers. The house has been open to the public since 1949 and, during his tenure, Marcus opened it for a short period between lunch and afternoon tea. The hall is now open for nine months and the gardens almost year round. “His life had a formality we wouldn’t recognise. He took afternoon tea and dressed for dinner. We live very informally,” says Olivia.
She and Simon, a keen saxophonist, have introduced an annual jazz and blues festival and have just put the finishing touches to a woodland adventure playground with zip wires, tyre swings and a tower with a corkscrew slide.
The couple have five children: Islay, 12, Joss, 10, Otis, eight, Inigo, six, and Sholto, three, and are keen to encourage families to visit. “We wanted to create a whole day out for families and others who travel here, so there are willow dens, the woodland walk, an enchanted woodland with fairy doors, the sculpture trail, the house, the gardens, the shop, plant sales and the cafe.”
The Cunliffe-Listers are hands-on with everything. The dried flowers on sale in the shop are a winter activity for the children and their grandmother Susan. She has shown them how to dry the fresh flowers before threading them onto wire stems so they can be sold in small bunches. Olivia, who loves baking, splits responsibility for “keeping things going” with Simon.
“Simon has a business and financial mind and logical rigour, and he is a very good manager. I get involved in the visual aspects and the customer experience and coming up with new projects.
“Our biggest challenge is keeping the house fresh and relevant. We have 60,000 visitors a year. Half of them come to see the house and half for the gardens, and events with an increasing number of people having receptions and special occasion dinners here,” she says.
Creating revenue from the hall, which was built between 1598 and 1610, is a must to pay for maintenance and repairs, although thanks must go to Marcus Wickham-Boynton. He used his wealth to renovate the house and restore its decrepit long gallery. He also secured the property’s future in 1977 by giving the hall 42 acres of gardens and grounds, 600 acres of agricultural land and a cash endowment to the charitable trust that oversees it.
He is also responsible for boosting its impressive art collection. He brought Epstein bronzes and works of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Susan, Simon and Olivia have added to the collection by supporting contemporary artists and there is furniture by John Makepeace, a glass sculpture by Colin Reid and a spherical sculpture on the lake by Giles Rayner.
“They aren’t originals but we have added a couple of prints by David Hockney because he used to come here and paint and come to events, so we really wanted something of his to mark his connection with the house,” says Olivia, who has a fledgling plan to convert the old bakehouse into holiday lets.
The art, architecture and gardens are breathtaking. Simon Jenkins, author of England’s Thousand Best Houses, puts it in the top 20 and calls it “the perfect English house”. But the whole place feels welcoming and homely.
“It is a home first and foremost,” says Olivia, who has never regretted moving to Burton Agnes Hall. “It is very different from where I grew up. I lived in a Victorian terraced house in London but this is a wonderful place to bring up a family and we have a cracking team of people working here.
“It’s not a place frozen in time. It’s a place that is evolving and it’s a wonderful feeling to focus your energies on keeping the house relevant and loved.”
For details visit www.burtonagnes.com