In the last in our series on how to run a country house, Robert Ropner tells Catherine Scott how he turned his family seat Camp Hill into an adventure playground for everyone.
When Robert Ropner took over the Camp Hill estate near Masham from his father, former Olympic bobsleigher, Bruce Ropner, it was something of a poisoned chalice.
The stunning 10-bedroom country house had been in the family for four generations, but by the time it came for Robert to take over there wasn’t enough agricultural land left to support the estate.
“My family were ship owners and builders and lived at Thorp Perrow. My great grandfather had four brothers and when he eventually left the family home he looked for an alternative house in the area,” explains Robert.
He eventually came across Camp Hill in 1945. The imposing Georgian house built in the late 18th-century by John Serjeantson had been been a family home, agricultural estate and sporting residence to the Serjeantsons, Leylands. Taken over by the Government during the Second World War, army nissan huts were dotted across the 300 acre estate and when Ropner’s own father took over in 1978 he set about making vast improvements to the family home.
“It is a beautiful house,” says Robert. “It is rather like an inverted tardis – it looks bigger on the outside than on the in. It is really liveable in. My children love to bring their friends home for university to stay.” The Ropners have three children, one at university and two working.
Bruce, who was something of a thrill seeker - as well as being a bobsleigher, he was a huge motor enthusiast and founder of the Croft Motor Circuit - still lives on the estate. He’s now 81, although Robert says he’s more like 61 and his Olympic legacy lives on.
Camp Hill today still boasts the only privately owned, dry bobsleigh push-start track in the country which is now one of the many attractions which draw people to the house.
It was in the early 1990s when Bruce realised that it was time to pass over running the family estate to his son. Robert was by then was married to Jo and the family was living in one of the cottages on the estate.
Over the years the farms around Camp Hill and the 1,000 acres of agricultural land which supported it in the 1800s had shrunk to around 300 acres. Robert knew that in order for his family home to survive he would have to diversify and he established Camp Hill Ltd.
“I was working for the family business at that stage, and I could have declined moving into the house, but I am a hands-on person and I really like a challenge. I realised that I had to come up with a game plan to make this place work.”
Being a thrillseeker like his father, Robert came up with an idea to breathe new life into the estate and a way of securing its future.
“The inspiration came from my father who had always been had great enthusiasm for organising events with friends on the estate. This place has been his life since he was 11 or 12.”
It was the 90s and business had money to spend. Robert saw a gap in the market for well-organised corporate team building events on the estate.
“There wasn’t a lot of cash to throw at it,” he admits. “We had to work hard to create something unique which we could keep reinventing to keep companies interested.”
Robert’s challenge was to find the corporate clients prepared to take a risk with a new business. Having previously worked in engineering, Robert pulled on all his contacts and succeed in attracting some big companies.
“We set up a permanent infrastructure which could cope with 100 plus people taking part in a variety of activities from 4x4 courses and assault courses to team building events and clay pigeon shoots. The concept was born out of the belief that in today’s service driven economy, success is inextricably linked with the need for management to motivate, reward, train and retain staff.”
And his hard work paid off, landing the contracts of many top blue chip companies catering for 10 to 1,000 people at a time.
But by this stage Robert’s wife Jo was getting sick and tired of delegates traipsing through her home.
“She gave me an ultimatum,” he admits, “She said we were going to end up divorcing if things didn’t change.”
So Robert set about developing the dilapidated Home Farm on the estate which hadn’t been used since the 1970s. He created The Orangery which is now the headquarters for the business.
It has a cafe, conference and meeting facilities and, most importantly, freed up Camp Hill to once again become the family home Robert had always intended.
Things were going well but Robert is acutely aware that he has to remain one step ahead of the rest and that the corporate bubble could well burst, as it transpires it did when the recession hit in 2008. He also needed something to attract members of the public in the quieter summer months.
And so in 2003 he set about developing a high wire adventure course through the trees in one of the estate’s woods.
“We had great fun building it but then realised that we’d built something that no one would be able to go on.” So they set about redesigning it and by August 2003 the first Aerial Extreme was opened.
It now attracts in excess of 15,000 visitors a year and as a proven concept enabled the development of a further five sites nationwide with more planned over the next five years, including many urban areas.
Further diversification in 2005 saw the introduction of an equestrian centre with dedicated educational facilities for visiting horses and riders. Eleanor Mercer Equestrian specialises in cross country training.
Camp Hill is a huge success story, although the recession was a huge blow.
“We saw a 50 per cent decline in two years,” says Robert who had to take what he describes as ‘pretty firm action’ to ensure his dream survived. He has looked to new markets such as schools and colleges and this year, with the introduction of glamping, is looking to exploit the family market further with hen and stag parties and weddings.
“I was approached by Kerry (Roy) who came to me with a proposition for glamping in one of the woods which had been partially cleared in my father’s day.”
Construction of Camp Katur started in January and is now open for business.
It includes a mix of safari tents, yurts, bell tents, tipis and ‘Hobbit’ houses all around a large field.
There is everything a ‘glamper’ could need from personal barbecues, to hot water showers in some of the tents, all run by solar power. There is even an Eco Spa with a log burner powered hot tub and sauna. Nothing has been forgotten – not even the hot chocolate for the kids.
All you have to take is your own food, wine and bedding. In the safari tents you even get to sleep on a wrought iron bed to ensure a good night’s rest before embarking on one of more of the adrenalin fuelled adventures such as quad biking, off-roading, Aerial Extreme or Zorbing (running inside a big plastic ball on a pond– great for burning off the extra calories), to name but a few.
To keep ahead of the game and to take a bit of pressure off his shoulders, Robert is looking to attract other ‘like-minded souls’ such as Kerry into Camp Hill.
“We have always got to keep it on our terms,” he stresses. “I don’t want lots of mechanical things like a theme park; I want it to be back to basics.”
Corporate clients are still a large part of Camp Hill, making up around 60 per cent of their business, but Robert is aware that there is so much more to attract families and other groups to the estate. He is also aware that this will need careful managing – at the end of the day Camp Hill is his home.
His main challenge now it seems is to let the public know what he has created at Camp Hill and that it is for them.
“The cornerstone of Camp Hill’s success is our ambition to always be better by adding value to our customers and our people. We’ve done this by never standing still, always seeking out new ways to do old things and using our imagination to create something completely different.,” says Robert for whom standing still is not an option.
“I am always looking to see what the next trend is and whether that is something we could do here.”
Robert Ropner had a dream, to create the ultimate adventure playground and to ensure the future of his family home Camp Hill. It appears that he has succeeded in both.