Inside the Yorkshire stately home opening its doors to the public for the first time

Birdsall House, near Malton. Picture Tony Johnson.
Birdsall House, near Malton. Picture Tony Johnson.
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It’s one of Yorkshire’s best-kept secrets. Now hidden stately home Birdsall House is to open its doors to the public for the first time in its history. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Tony Johnson.

Hidden away in its own private valley on the edge of the Wolds, Birdsall House is one of Yorkshire’s best-kept secrets. Only a privileged few have been lucky enough to visit this enchanting stately home, which has been in the same family since it was built in 1540.

Lady Cara Willoughby outside Birdsall House.

Lady Cara Willoughby outside Birdsall House.

Now the latest incumbents have decided to open the main wing of the house for weddings and events. It’s needs must, as maintaining a a vast, grade II* listed structure with 256 windows costs a small fortune.

The decision to end the family’s 478 years of exclusive use was taken by the Honourable James and Lady Cara Willoughby. They haven’t yet taken on the full mantle of responsibility for the Birdsall estate, which is still run by James’ parents, Lord and Lady Middleton.

“We were conscious that a house like this has to be lived in, otherwise it loses its heart, so we decided to leave our farmhouse and move here. The family has lived here for hundreds of years and we didn’t want to drop the baton.

“We also knew it needed to generate an income. The days when farming on the estate brought in enough money to keep a place like this alive are gone,” says Lady Cara.

The ballroom at Birdsall House

The ballroom at Birdsall House

She is a down-to-earth, fun-loving former graphic designer, who retrained as a milliner and worked for Philip Treacy. A mother of three, she is now spearheading the project to make Birdsall House pay its way.

Its grandest rooms, including the ballroom, dining room and a state room named the Oval Room, are now available to book for events and its first wedding showcase is on Sunday, April 29.

“It was a big decision but we will have stewards in all the rooms. They will be very discreet as it’s important to us that guests feel relaxed,” she says.

Given that reels and waltzes have given way to freestyle drink-fuelled pogoing, she has decided to ban dancing indoors.

The portrait of Sir Nesbit.

The portrait of Sir Nesbit.

“We love dancing but we can’t risk it in the house, so that’s why there is space for a marquee outside, where people can go mad if they want to,” she says.

There are also six guest bedrooms with views of the grounds and the Wolds beyond. Creating them was a major endeavour thanks to two-inch concrete floors. They 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. Birdsall House was the first home in England to have a private gas system and pipes under the floor fed gas chandeliers.

The system was rendered obsolete by the Army, which requisitioned the property as a recuperation centre in 1944 and the Ministry of Defence footed the considerable bill for an electricity supply.

Another view of the enormous ballroom.

Another view of the enormous ballroom.

“Having to remove the concrete did us a favour in a way as it allowed us to reconfigure the space and put extra bathrooms in,” says creative Lady Cara, a former Glasgow School of Art student who designed the interiors herself.

While a new floor was essential, the sturdy Victorian plumbing has coped with the extra bathrooms and a new eco-friendly woodchip boiler ensures plenty of low cost heat and hot water, while cutting running costs. The house, which must be kept at an ambient temperature to protect its contents, previously cost £100 a day in oil-fired heating.

Allowing paying guests to stay overnight was a key part of the plan. “It makes us different to most other historic houses and stately home venues that offer weddings and events,” she says.

It’s not the only difference. There is something truly magical about Birdsall. The first glimpse of the house takes your breath away and there is a profound sense of the past and that you’ve discovered something very special.

It was built on the ruins of a 12th century monastery, some of which are still visible at the front of the house. The Jacobean building was enlarged and owes its stunning looks to the Georgians and to Victorian architect Anthony Salvin who designed the North wing.

It is very grand and yet feels homely. You could imagine sinking into the Victorian armchairs in your dressing gown with a cup of cocoa, although you’d have to make sure to use a coaster on the antique table.

The dining room

The dining room

To banish the fear of ruining the rare and irreplaceable, Lady Cara has decided not to enquire about the value of the items in her new home. She’s also created a contemporary haven, where the children can run wild, play, paint and eat without fear of breakage and spillage.

The old back kitchen and five small rooms have been turned into a large living kitchen with a Lacanche range for Lady Cara. The family bedrooms and bathrooms are on the top floor.

“We do most of our living in that one room unless we have guests but the children are allowed to play in the whole house as long as they are careful. I have explained that if they break something it is irreplaceable. We can’t go to the shop and buy another,” says Lady Cara.

Tom, 10, Flora, nine, and Ru (short for Rupert), seven, enjoy skating in their socks on the ballroom floor and building dens in the Oval Room, whose width was built to equal the spectacular jump of Henry Willoughby’s horse in 1790.

Birdsall House is full to bursting with historic treasures, thanks in part to the taxman. The family had two other estates, Middleton Hall in Warwickshire and Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, until crippling double death duties in 1923 forced their sale.

The contents of the two enormous homes were brought to Birdsall which, in an effort to protect it from inheritance tax, was one of the first properties of its kind to be put into a company.

Everything in it has a story and exciting finds left behind by ancestors aren’t uncommon. The latest is part of a Tudor dress. The walls are also lined with an unbroken line of family portraits dating from 1588 to the present Lord Middleton and his son, James, a barrister, who will inherit the title.

Nesbit Willoughby (1777–1849) is by far the most striking. He commands the room from his position above a fireplace and the eye patch and devil-may-care expression are a clue to his antics.

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.

Lady Cara researched the family history, which she sees as part of her new job. “The whole project has been hard work but I don’t mind that and I enjoy showing people round. It helps remind me of how lucky I am to live here.”

LW Events’ services are part of the 
wedding package at Birdsall House. Director Lindsay Whitwell, winner of The Wedding Industry’s Yorkshire and North East Wedding Planner of Year will be at the Birdsall House Wedding Showcase on April 29, 11am-4pm. Anyone interested in attending is invited to pre-register atbirdsallhouseweddings.co.uk

The back kitchen and a series of small rooms were combined to create ths large living kitchen for the family. It was designed by Lady Cara, a former art school student and graphic designer.

The back kitchen and a series of small rooms were combined to create ths large living kitchen for the family. It was designed by Lady Cara, a former art school student and graphic designer.

Lady Cara in one of the formal rooms.

Lady Cara in one of the formal rooms.