Hodsock Priory: New lease of life

A multi-million pound makeover means there's more to Hodsock Priory than its famous snowdrops. Sharon Dale reports.

When George Buchanan gave up his career as a theatre manager to return home to a country pile on the Yorkshire-Nottinghamshire border, it must have seemed a long way from the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.

Yet the skills he learned backstage and in the bright lights of London are exactly what he needed to transform the family seat and secure its future. Already famous for its snowdrop walks, Hodsock Priory has star quality, but while the gardens were a success, the house was out of bounds for visitors and in need of some renovation.

In the family since 1765, it had been split into three apartments in the 1970s by George's father.

"That was very innovative for the time and it worked. We lived in one section and let the rest out.

"But it had got to the point where it needed work and I could see it had potential as a venue. "Funnily enough all that I learned about looking after old theatres came into play here. It's the same principle entertaining people in old buildings," says George, 35, who took over responsibility for the house and garden from his father, Sir Andrew, in 2006.

"I grew up knowing that there was a certain expectation that I'd take it on, but definitely no compulsion," he says.

"In fact, I was happy to do it. I'd reached a crossroads, where either I progressed to managing arenas or I came back. I decided I wanted my children to grow up here."

His plans to keep 22-bedroom Hodsock as a family home and transform it into a venue for weddings, events and holidays were ambitious and costly.

Over the last four years, he has spent over 2m raised from savings, grants and a loan, but it has been money well spent.

The former servants quarters are now home for George, wife Katherine, an actress turned chef, and their children Elsa, five, Lawrie, three, Guy, two, and seven-month old Tess.

The basic design allows them to indulge a passion for contemporary art and design.

The grander part of the house is for weddings, events and guest bedrooms. He has also added a seamless extension from Georgian-style brick made by Ibstock of Leicester to create a function room.

"My father was very supportive, though he wasn't keen on turning the drawing room into a bar, but he sees it was essential," says George, who worked at London's Hammersmith Apollo looking after the likes of David Bowie, Prince and the cast of The Lion King.

"Lots of big country houses do this and it's survival by diversification. These places are very expensive to run and there's a duty to keep them in good order.

"Fortunately, I love the hospitality business and this place is ideally situated. We're minutes from the A1 but we are still very rural," says George.

Hodsock's lavish makeover began with a complete rewire and replumbing.

It was a major job. The original house on the site was 12th century, but this one is Georgian with Victorian additions. It also includes an adjacent Tudor Gatehouse dating from 1500.

The exterior is architecturally stunning, but its butterfly roofs, tall chimneys and finials aren't easy to maintain.

What George quickly realised when he started renovating was that the Buchanans had a lot to thank the Land Girls for.

The 40 girls worked the farm and lived in the house during the war.

Fed up with leaks and blocked toilets, they did a magnificent make-do-and-mend job of patching up the roof with pitch and farm sacks, laying new drains and installing electrics in the gatehouse.

"They were its saviours. The house was very neglected when they moved in. Some of the patching up was rudimentary, but it's worked all these years and the drains are still brilliant," he says.

As a thank you, the "girls" were invited to tea and were thrilled to see what the Buchanan family has achieved.

The interiors are now luxurious and completely in keeping with the period features thanks to interior designer Sophia Playne.

Fireplaces stored in the attic and cellar were put back in their original places and family portraits and furniture were incorporated into the elegant scheme.

After the house, George turned his attention to the old milking parlour, which now has 10 guest suites offering B&B accommodation and he is hoping to introduce an arts and culture programme to Hodsock including theatre, outdoor cinema and workshops.

His next job is to prepare for the 20,000 visitors who will come to see the snowdrops in February.

The garden has been open in February since 1991 thanks to his mother, Belinda, who helped turn a neglected five acre jungle into a beautiful garden and woodland with the help of designer Kate Garton.

"That's one of the jobs we do regularly. Digging up clumps of snowdrops, separating them and replanting. We must have about six million now," says George, who may soon have to turn his hand to farming vegetables.

His father, who is High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, still runs their 800-acre farm but preparations are being made for George to take it on.

"My father loves farming. It's not really my thing but we'll see what happens," says George who reveals that one of the sumptuous guest bedrooms at Hodsock was once his own teenage domain.

"Back then it was covered in posters and full of fishing rods. We had some fantastic teenage parties. I remember one in the gatehouse when I was so nervous about keeping everything safe I didn't dare drink. I suppose that responsibility was instilled early on and you either love it or hate. I love it."

Hodsock Priory, www.hodsockpriory.com

YP MAG 8/1/11