Whitbourne Hall, stately home owned by a community

PUBLISHED: 11:39 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:53 20 February 2013

Whitbourne Hall, stately home owned by a community

Whitbourne Hall, stately home owned by a community

Juliette Kemp meets the community that loves, lives in and keeps alive, an extraordinary property

Country house rescued

Juliette Kemp meets the community that loves, lives in and keeps alive, an extraordinary property

Gone are the days when ownership of a multi-roomed stately home in the country, surrounded by acres of land, was an automatic badge of wealth and privilege.

Today, many 21st century country house owners are struggling to find
the money to pay for the upkeep of these properties.

Herefordshires clutch of stately piles includes several in private ownership. Without automatic access to an ever-dwindling grants pot, their owners can no longer just live in them.

Wedding venues, film locations, conference centres all are being used to raise the vital money needed to plough back into stately bricks and mortar and, in these tough economic times, the challenge is harder than ever.

So when one of the nations foremost hoteliers comes knocking, complete with a Channel Four camera crew in tow, its probably worth taking her advice.

Whitbourne Hall, on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border, was one of three big properties to come under the scrutiny of Ruth Watson and the first of those to be broadcast in the Country House Rescue series.

However, unlike the other houses, featured, Whitbourne Hall is not owned by one family but a community, people living in apartments converted from its rooms and outbuildings.

Viewers of the episode, broadcast last year, watched Ruth Watson battle to get all the residents on board with her proposals to boost the Grade II* buildings income by increasing the number of wedding receptions held at the hall, among other things.

With some unwilling to back the measures and others eager to get cracking it appeared that not even Ruth Watson was going to be able to turn around Whitbourne Halls fortunes.

And yet a visit to www.whitbournehall.com reveals a classy, smart website, promoting it as the ideal venue for wedding celebrations and other prestigious events.

Whitbournes residents are, indeed, going for their own country house rescue.

Built between 1860 and 1862, by Edward Bickerton-Evans, the son of the founder of what was then one of the worlds biggest vinegar distilleries, the hall now sits in eight acres of land.

The community was founded more than 30 years ago by the son of the then owner and, after three years or so, in a bid to raise money for the outright purchase of the hall a number of leases were sold and some large rooms and outbuildings converted in to apartments. Whitbourne Hall Community Limited was born.

Residents paid a maintenance fee and parts of the house were gradually sold off to cover the cost of conservation and restoration of the main ground floor rooms. Which was fine until about four years ago when the group started to run out of things to sell. The community realised that they would need to do major restoration work in order to continue to attract the public to the rooms, a project which took much time and effort from residents.

One of the 38 residents and a member of the communitys events
group, Des Dodge, remembers it well.

Some of the rooms were quite dilapidated and we needed to upgrade them in order to use them more commercially, he says.

Minds were also concentrated by the state of the orangery, recalls the chair of the events group Susie Knight. It became unstable and thats when English Heritage got involved. The renovation work on this was significant and cost a lot of money. This made us consider the long-term funding of renovation and conservation at the hall. We were obliged to stabilise the structure for Health and Safety reasons but we could not afford to repair it as the cost was beyond us. It is an amazing structure but sits there with no glass or roof.

Following this, a few more outbuildings were converted and sold which helped bring the ground floor rooms to a level where they could be hired out for reasonable rates. There were the occasional open days but then resident and events committee vice chairman, Raj Saini, who was also facing an uphill battle in marketing the hall, saw an appeal from the makers of Country House Rescue for struggling owners to get in touch.
The uniqueness of Whitbournes situation prompted an enthusiastic response and the episode was filmed over eight months with Ruth
working closely with Raj, events committe secretary Quentin Colley and Des in particular.

And as a wake-up call, it couldnt have been better. Despite the apparent mixed reception for Ruths moneymaking proposals and an eye-watering ongoing renovation and conservation estimate the residents of Whitbourne Hall decided to engage an events management company. Members interviewed several candidates and chose to work with Portcullis, which specialises in bespoke country house events.

Not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet, which would be true of any community, says Susie. Its fairly unique that we have to make collective decisions and thats a difficult and slow process but it has its benefits.

The programme highlighted that there are people who have been here for a long time and have put an enormous amount of energy and time into the hall and are much more lets do our own thing bit by bit, which is how they have managed for 30 years but others feel that we need to think a bit longer term.

We havent got time, the cracks keep appearing and the job will get bigger and more expensive, warns Des, indicating towards the main hall which boasts the largest glass ceiling of any private house in Europe and is in need of some serious work.

As Ruth pointed out, there are now no more rooms left to sell, we now have to be more inventive. With the community working on a business plan, things are definitely moving ahead; we have developed our website and were much more active with business arrangements. Being on the programme made a huge difference the attendance numbers for our open day were up, says Des. We are now on the map and saying weve been featured on Country House Rescue is a good thing to have on your CV. We are working with our new partner company, Portcullis, to identify a range of possible exclusive events that will provide us with an income to support our renovation and conservation projects.

We know and understand that the residents have to pay the houses running costs but there are areas of this property which have to be preserved and thats where we need outside help.

All three agree that it is vital that the building stays. Its part of our heritage, insists Des, while Susie offers: Although we are located outside the village, if the house were not here it would have a significant impact on the local community and economy. It would be an awful shame if the house just disappeared.

Whitbourne Hall is quite unique, adds Raj. Its a hall for the common people. Were all commoners yet we can all have access to this and share it with others who want to preserve our heritage.

So it may be a long and expensive road ahead but its a path being trodden with renewed confidence and vigour by the Whitbourne Hall folk.
Predicts Des: Theres huge potential. Were doing better than we were before Country House Rescue and with much more enthusiasm and energy.

Part of that is down to the fact that were beginning to see progress and the rooms are now up to scratch and all the energy weve put in during the last year or two has come through. I think theres a bright future here.

Whitbourne Hall
Whitbourne, WR6 5SE
info@whitbournehall.com
www.whitbournehall.com
Wedding packages:
Portcullis Event Management
01902 798118
email:
enquiries@portcullisevent management.co.uk


What to see on a visit to Whitbourne Hall

1. The library or Little Drawing Room with wallpaper registered with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and gilded wall decorations
2. The drawing room dominated by huge mirrors and a spectacular chandelier. Used for wedding receptions and concerts
3. The main hall with its blue glass ceiling. Corinthian columns and the original coloured tiled floor combine to create a grand space
4. The dining room with its black marble fireplace and an original mahogany dining suite
5. Great staircase an impressive focal point of the main hall with a spectacular statue, carved by one of the residents, at the top
6. The grand, pillared portico


GETING"THERE:
Directions: From Worcester, take the A44 towards Leominster. Take the right hand turning signposted Whitbourne (a few miles past the Talbot at Knightwick turnoff). Take the first left, signposted to Tedstone Delamare (single track road). At the give way, turn left again. Follow the road for about a mile. At the first house on the road, turn left into the drive for Whitbourne Hall.

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