Story goes on for house with lead role

Duncombe Park
Duncombe Park
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Unlike its fictional counterpart, the Yorkshire property that played Groby 
in Parade’s End has a bright future. 
Sharon Dale reports.

When that symbol of the Tietjens family, the Groby Great Tree, was dramatically cut down it was a metaphor for the loss of an era, a reputation and a home.

The anguish of Christopher Tietjens, aka Benedict Cumberbatch, at this savage act of vindictiveness touched thousands of TV viewers who watched the final part of Parade’s End last night.

But while fans are mourning the demise of this brilliant period drama, they needn’t worry about the centuries-old cedar. Not even a splinter was shed.

The Hon. Jake Duncombe, whose home, Duncombe Park in Helmsley, played the part of Groby, reveals that it was made from polystyrene and old branches, while the winged statue of Father Time that regularly flashed into view was also a replica.

The real one sits on the back lawn where he has been almost since the Baroque mansion was built in 1713 on the Helmsley Estate owned by king’s banker Sir Charles Duncombe.

“The director was very taken with the statue, which is a memento mori, but it couldn’t be moved to the front of the house so they made a fake one, which was amazing,” says Jake.

Duncombe Park won the part of Groby thanks to the location manager who remembered it from his days at a nearby prep school. It was perfectly cast. It was built to impress and in the book by Ford Madox Ford, the Tietjens’ ancestral home is in North Yorkshire.

Like Groby, it has been owned by one family for generations and has its own stories of romance, scandal and tragedy.

Bobby Shaftoe, of nursery rhyme fame, married heiress Anne Duncombe in 1774. He was bonny but he was also a cad and a bounder who came back from sea and squandered his wife’s fortune.

Later another early Duncombe defied convention to marry a village girl after spotting her swinging on a gate in the park, apparently singing: “What e’er may come; what e’er may fall, I will be the mistress of Duncombe Hall.”

Bowled over by her beauty, the substantially older Charles escorted her to her parents’ humble home and asked their permission to educate and then marry her. Isabella Scoulby became mistress of Duncombe in 1799.

Then there was sadness following the death of the Second Earl of Feversham at the Somme. The third earl was a child and when his mother remarried and moved, the house became an army hospital before being let to Queen Mary’s Girls School for more than 60 years.

Still, unlike Groby, whose fictional fate is left uncertain, the future of Duncombe Park is considerably brighter, thanks to its latest incumbent. Jake, who took control when his father died in 2009, has a firm grasp of the grade one listed house and the 13,000-acre Helmsley Estate. He is gently shaking it into the 21st century.

Filming is something he is encouraging selectively and Parade’s End could pay off in more ways than one, with talk of the “Brideshead effect” that propelled Castle Howard to worldwide fame.

“We didn’t realise it was going to be so big. It was filmed a while ago and Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t that well-known at the time,” says Jake, 40, who lives at Duncombe Park with his Italian-born wife Raffaella and their children Matilda, seven, Thomas, five, and Ursula, three.

He adds that his 150-room home was also in the running to be Downton Abbey.

“Julian Fellowes is supposed to have based Downton on Duncombe Park. He was at school at Ampleforth. My ancestor Charles Duncombe also owned a house called Downton. The producers came to look but in the end chose Highclere, which may be a good thing because filming can be very disruptive.”

It also means that the house is still available to hire for weddings and corporate functions and its gardens and parkland, a national nature reserve, are available for events and are open to the public from June to August.

The family home, however, closed to 
the public in 2010, after the accounts revealed a loss.

“In effect, we were paying people to look round. It was a difficult decision to close and certainly nothing to do with privacy. We were happy to share the house,” says Jake.

Those lucky enough to have been inside will know it is magnificent, thanks largely to Jake’s father Peter Duncombe, the 6th Baron Feversham, and his second wife Polly Aldridge.

They lived in a house nearby but got the ancestral home back in 1985 after exercising a break clause in the school’s lease.

“It was a little galling to be stuck in a smallish box on what, after all, was still a pretty sizeable estate,” he told an interviewer, “when our family home was occupied by schoolgirls playing badminton in the hall and splashing porridge on the portraits.”

They sold paintings, statues and properties to fund its restoration.

The best room in the house is the 40ft-high hall that runs up through two storeys and has giant Corinthian pilasters. It leads to the opulent 90ft long oak panelled saloon and to the withdrawing room whose walls are hung with gold silk damask.

“We lived right at the top of the house in three rooms at first and we gradually spread down,” says Jake.

“I remember thinking it was such a long way to go to answer the door. Now I think the restoration was a brave thing to do. It took five years and included getting consultants in to help them get rid of the smell of school dinners.”

These formal state rooms are not used day to day, which means the family needs just two cleaners and a caretaker rather than an army of staff

“We certainly couldn’t live in all of it anyway. The common perception is that historic house owners live like kings but we don’t. We occupy them because of the family tie,” says Jake, who lives in an apartment within the house after he and Raffaella moved from London, where he was a chartered surveyor.

Although he was second in line to his brother, he was considered best suited and knew for a long time that Duncombe was his destiny. After Eton and then Edinburgh University, he studied estate management at Circencester.

He takes a more hands-on approach to managing than his father and is a thoroughly modern aristo; he used to play drums in a band and is down to earth and friendly, with his father’s sense of fun.

Plans for the future include attracting more weddings and he is very excited about the International Centre for Birds of Prey in Gloucestershire opening a Northern branch at Duncombe Park next year.

Looking for new opportunities is essential to the estate’s survival, says Jake. The house is costly to run and brings its own peculiar niggles.

The teak windows don’t like modern cleaning techniques and the teak oil leaks as a result. Stilletos wreck the antique oak floor and the garden slopes are impossible to trim with modern mowers. Before the First World War it was done with a machine pulled by a donkey wearing leather boots to protect the turf.

There are also restoration projects to organise. A Doric Temple is next on the list.

Fortunately Jake enjoys his job, which he sees as a duty but not a burden.

“It is a big responsibility but it’s a family business and with the amount of effort my parents put into it, it was important that someone took it on,” he says.

“I feel very lucky and very privileged to live in such a beautiful place.”