James Hervey-Bathurst of Eastnor Castle, Herfordshire
PUBLISHED: 15:04 06 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:39 20 February 2013
James Hervey-Bathurst leads by example in the campaign promoting the heritage of the county by running his own successful attraction, says Rachel Crow
With heritage, like many other areas of the public sector facing drastic funding cuts in light of the Governments budget announcements, the preservation of privately-run stately homes such as Eastnor Castle will become increasingly important. Over the past 20 years, James Hervey-Bathurst has turned his family home into a successful commercial business, which also contributes to the countys tourism package.
Growing up at the family seat of Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury, James retains fond memories of childhood play with his brother George, riding their bicycles around the empty state rooms of the imposing 97-room fortress of a home. Much of the castle had been shut up since 1939. It was lovely growing up here, but nothing like living in a stately home because that part was shut off. It was dry and safe and we could go in there and play, although we had to put our coats on first because it was so cold, he says.
On the misty winters morning of my visit, the gentle light and crisp bite in the air added to the magical atmosphere as the grand silhouette of turrets and crenellations of the Norman revival-style castle appeared above the wide cedars standing sentry along the driveway. Built between 1810 and 1824 by the 2nd Baron Somers, Eastnor stands now as a reminder of a period long since passed.
James inherited the family seat in the late 1980s on the death of his mother, the Hon Mrs Elizabeth Hervey-Bathurst. The 62-year-old father of five was a lawyer, banker and latterly deputy chairman of recruitment consultants Norman Broadbent, before taking over the Eastnor Castle business. Since then he has become heavily involved in the heritage and tourism sectors and combines running Eastnor with his responsibilities as president of the Historic Houses Association, vice president of the European Historic Houses, chairman and trustee of the UK branch of the World Monuments Fund and a Visit Herefordshire Ambassador.
In 2009 he was appointed a CBE for Services to Built Heritage and is perfectly placed to appreciate the successful marriage that can be achieved between business and heritage. With the assistance of a relatively small staff, Eastnor Castle is used for a wide variety of corporate and private functions in addition to the busy visitor programme, while the 5,000-acre estate hosts the annual Big Chill music festival among other events and has also been used by Land Rover for more than 30 years to test and demonstrate its vehicles.
When my brother and I grew up here it was a very difficult time for people with large houses because of the effects of the war and high taxation afterwards, he explains. My parents moved in in 1949 when most of the castle was shut up. They refurbished the small rooms at the south end of the house, which is our private area, and then put just enough furniture downstairs to show the castle from time to time to the public.
The family occupied only about 20 per cent of the house, while the majority remained untouched. You couldnt afford to live in the rest of the house because there was no hot water or heating and my parents were very short of money then, because everybody was, adds James. Instead, what funds that were available were used to restore the estate and its cottages and bring the farmland back into hand. The house was a low priority.
When James and his first wife Sarah took on the family pile in 1988 they wanted to revive the principal rooms and make Eastnor a viable place in which to live and work.
Over the course of the next 10 years, they carefully restored many of the rooms to their former glory. The bedrooms just needed heating and plumbing and decoration, aesthetic touches, so we did it room by room. We got people to pay to stay in the rooms as we did it, so it was almost self-funding, James explains.
Assisted by a grant from English Heritage to tackle exterior repairs, James admits that by comparison to the prospect faced by some stately home owners the task was, pretty easy... The house wasnt derelict; it just needed the life breathed back into it. It was really exciting to do and we wanted to try and be authentic. We bought over 100 lamps for the rooms and tapestries and had pieces of furniture restored. I love the things in the house. We have an interesting and diverse collection.
Among the many aspects to be admired now are the Meyrick Collection of medieval armour from Goodrich Castle near Ross-on-Wye, bought by the 3rd Earl Somers in the 1870s and on display in the Inner Hall; the Gothic Drawing Room decorated to the designs of A W N Pugin; the 17th century Flemish tapestries in the Long Library; the baronial proportions of The Great Hall and the decorated ceiling of the grand Dining Room.
James offers a consultancy service for other estate owners who want to put their family homes to commercial use, but admits that in his own case, much was down to luck. We didnt really plan it. We opened the doors and were lucky that due to the internet and liberalisation of the weddings market we got a lot of business from people wanting to get married in an historic house. Luckily they book in advance and dont cancel and its great fun.
Like every business they were hit by the recession, experiencing a drop in visitor numbers, blank weekends and fewer corporate shooting parties. But things have recovered now and are better, James adds optimistically.
So how does he find sharing his home with members of the public and a spectrum of commercial operations?The children, of whatever age, seem to like having a big house and space. I think wives, on the whole, sometimes dont like having people around the place, James notes with a wry smile. He and his second wife Lucy, and their two young daughters divide their time between Eastnor and London, where Lucy runs an interior design business. We can live quite separately and entertain friends to lunch while a wedding is going on in the house. Weve tried to keep it flexible so it is a house as well as a business and we can easily switch. I like that people who come here seem to enjoy it, and like seeing the fire lit and our cat walking about the place and our family pictures dotted about. Heritage is incredibly important if we want tourism and most visitors to this county include a visit to a historic property, so its an important part of the tourism package.
What do you think Herefordshire needs to survive and prosper in 2011?
Eastnor Village is a wonderful example of getting people to work in the countryside with the benefit of modern communications. We have Land Rover workshops; a blacksmith who does work for architects all over England; Roger Oates floors and fabrics; D3 Active who use Eastnor for team-building activities; a wine merchant; potter and Vincent Wildlife Trust, so there is reasonable diversity. We are lucky in this part of the county to have easy access to the motorway and have good communications and those things need to be done elsewhere.
The access for West Herefordshire is improving but needs better networks and an improved rail service.
What needs to be done to promote tourism in the county?
If you count up throughout the year, we probably get 100,000 visitors here, not all to see the castle but for the festivals and camping and other events and I think the important thing for Herefordshire is that we have various pockets of attractions and destinations. One of the things Im keen to do as a Herefordshire Ambassador is ensure a joined-up approach to the Malvern Hills AONB between Worcestershire and Herefordshire, so people dont visit and get no further than Malvern. The Wye Valley AONB has its own map, which carries through all of the counties and we need something like that for the Malvern Hills area.
I think there are things people havent learnt to appreciate as much, such as the rural tranquillity, landscape and historic buildings, so what the county needs is to package better the things we have got.
I think the churches in Herefordshire are fantastic, for example. The Monuments Fund is helping with the restoration of Shobdon church and it is a fantastic place. You could go on a trail of a wonderful variety of interesting churches and while youre on the trail youd then spend time in wonderful pubs and villages, so would see the quality and diversity in architecture and offerings of the county.