March 8 2014 Latest news:
Friday, January 31, 2014
With privilege often comes great responsibility – owners of beautiful British stately homes increasingly need to diversify and raise revenue in order to secure the future of their unique properties for generations to come. Stacia Briggs met Harry and Rachel Buxton of Hoveton Hall shortly before it opens its new B&B rooms.
When Harry met Rachel, he told her that the house he lived in was “quite big”.
He wasn’t kidding: Hoveton Hall boasts 51 rooms and 620 acres of parkland, gardens, woodland, arable and grazing agricultural land and has been in the Buxton family since 1946. Harry and Rachel are the third generation of Buxtons to make it their home, alongside their four young children, Samuel, William, Charlotte and Juliet.
“We met at university. I initially thought that Harry meant he lived in a pretty large house – I’d been brought up in a normal house, so when I first visited Hoveton Hall, it was pretty daunting and I was a bit overwhelmed, but to Harry, it was just home,” said Rachel. “He wasn’t at all what I thought someone who’d live at a house like this would be like. He’s not stand-offish or toffee-nosed – if he was, I wouldn’t have married him!”
Friendly, warm and welcoming, the Buxtons are ideal candidates to run a bed and breakfast business, a business that might prove to be the cash injection needed to ensure the junior Buxtons can inherit the hall when they are older and continue the work of their forebears.
“When my grandparents lived in the hall when I was a child, I remember it feeling very dark, very cold and very Victorian,” said Harry. “We lived in a house on the estate but we’d come here often and it was quite formal – we’d be introduced 10 minutes before dinner and then taken away again. Breakfast would be with the nanny – it was a big day when mum and dad asked if I’d like to join them, instead!”
Harry and Rachel’s own children stand on far less ceremony.
An antiquated bell system still exists for each room, all of which sound like the doorbell. One night, Harry checked the front door twice, having heard the familiar bell, but then realised the ringing was coming from a bathroom. Fearing the worst, he tore upstairs to see if a child was in trouble. Actually, the child in question had hoped his father could bring him a drink – “I had words,” he laughed.
“Growing up here is the most amazing experience for any child. All this is your playground,” he added, pointing to the grounds.
“When I was a child, there were three farm workers who had houses on the estate and their children were – and still are – my friends. When you’re young, you don’t even think about class systems or differences, it’s only adults that complicate life with that kind of nonsense.”
Harry’s grandfather died when he was 13 and his parents moved to the hall shortly afterwards. “It was just the most amazing place to have parties – these houses were built to entertain,” he said, while admitting that not everyone finds it easy to get used to the temperature in historic halls, which is rarely on a par with super-heated modern homes.
“There was no heating whatsoever upstairs and it was freezing. I think you realise that it’s part of the territory if you have a house like this because that’s how it’s always been. We have, however, had heating put into the new guest rooms – I think that if you’re on holiday you don’t expect to be cold, whereas we’re used to it!”
Harry married Rachel in 2003 and the pair moved to Norfolk later that year. In 2004, Harry took over the management of the estate (which includes his agricultural business, HB Farming) while his parents Andrew and Barbara continued to restore and improve the hall’s stunning 15-acre gardens.
“The gardens are beautiful and we’re happy to encourage people to visit and enjoy them. We’re not an insular family, we haven’t got a 10ft wall around the place and anything that helps to contribute to the running costs of the estate and the gardeners’ wages is a hugely positive thing,” he said.
Rachel joined Harry in his estate management role in 2009 and the couple realised that in order to keep the hall and estate in the family, more revenue would have to be raised. The gardens, though beautiful, only draw visitors for a short period of time every year.
“We realised that the way forward was to have lots of little businesses that all contribute to the whole, which is where the idea of having a B&B in the hall came from. ”
In addition to the agricultural business and the gardens, Hoveton Hall also hosts wedding receptions and the family has let the east wing for years as self-contained accommodation.
“It sounds very grand – ‘the east wing’ – and makes you think of Holkham Hall or Downton Abbey but it’s actually nothing like that at all,” laughed Harry. Andrew and Barbara moved out last autumn and work has just finished on the two B&B rooms – a double room with a separate twin bedroom and bathroom and a double room with an en suite – in time for them to open for Valentine’s Day weekend.
The Buxtons are looking forward to welcoming guests into what is very much a family home. Rachel, a keen cook, will be making breakfasts and the children are looking forward to an endless source of new playmates.
“We love entertaining and having a house full of people – we hope we’re a welcoming couple and we’re certainly used to having lots of guests. There were 16 people here for Christmas!
“Of course we know it will be hard work, but we’re not afraid of hard work. Realistically, if the B&B pays for the running costs of the hall, we’re very close to breaking the back of it and keeping the place going, and that’s what we want.”
Harry added: “Ultimately, we’d like to pass on the house and estate to our eldest. We could just forget it all, sell up and move on, but we feel like custodians of this amazing place and my parents did a great job here and we want to continue that.
“When my father moved in, my grandfather gave him one piece of advice: ‘when it rains, this is where you put the pots…’. The roof was leaking like a sieve. My father had to spend nearly all his retirement money on re-roofing the house!
“It’s an expensive house to live in. Everything is on a far grander scale than a normal house – if we want to redecorate, it’s a huge expense. I say to the children: ‘if you graffiti the wallpaper, bear in mind that’s what you’ll be looking at for the next 30 years when we can afford to do it again!’. When it comes to making enough money to keep it in the family, I’d rather try and fail than never try at all.”
For more about the hall, see the new issue of EDP Norfolk magazine.