Burton Court: 21st century stately home

PUBLISHED: 10:17 21 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:31 20 February 2013

Burton Court: 21st century stately home

Burton Court: 21st century stately home

Juliette Kemp begins a series of articles on the great properties of Herefordshire and the Wye Valley with a visit to Burton Court, open to the public but very much a family home

Open house

Juliette Kemp begins a series of articles on the great properties of Herefordshire and the Wye Valley with a visit to Burton Court, open to the public but very much a family home

In an age when many country house estate owners are forced to accept the harsh economic realities of getting their properties to pay for themselves, Burton Court is something of a pioneer.

Helen and Robert Simpson knew when they bought the 900 year-old property at Eardisland, near Leominster, that it was going to have to earn its keep. That was in 1960 and the Grade II* building was already something of a white elephant. But Lt Cdr Simpson and his wife set up a soft fruits enterprise, launched an exhibition of costumes and welcomed the public in on guided tours.

Burton Court was earning its living and, as the chill winds of financial constraint blew other country house owners into the same direction of having to find ways of funding their properties, it continued to forge a self-financing path.

Since younger son Edward, aged 36, took over, Burton Court has been increasing its national profile as a venue for corporate events, weddings, film and photo shoots and, for a place with a 900-year history, the future is looking positive.

At the heart of it all are Edward and his family his older brother Henry, despite being based in New York, also takes a keen interest in the business. There may be a glossy brochure promoting the weddings facilities, there may be a slick website detailing Burton Court, its history and its suitability for all kinds of functions, but the driving force behind this success story is the Simpson family who still live there and still want to take visitors around. For Edward Simpson, ensuring the future of his family home is more than just a labour of love it is his raison dtre.
Burton Court has been mentioned in the intermittent skirmishes between the English and Welsh since Medieval times the Prince of Wales (later King Henry V) stationed his troops there in 1402 to keep an eye on Owen Glendower.

The propertys architectural influences are broad: Norman, Medieval, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian. Its Great Hall, dating from 1330, is one of the finest surviving ones in the West Midlands, and with many of its original features intact the servants bells still adorn a corridor wall and can be rung and the servants quarters still retain their 1950s dcor Edward is working hard on preserving and conserving them, while introducing features to make Burton Court a very modern venue.

The gardens been replanted and designed by Simon Dorrell and, as part of a drive to up the game in the events market, the terrace has been landscaped to enable marquees to be attached to the building.

Plans include further landscaping to accommodate marquees for up to 300, promoting weddings still further and investigating the potential for hosting outdoor music events in the extensive grounds.

Edward has recently recruited a marketing assistant, Rachael Russell, but, in pursuit of the large venture, never loses sight of the small. He loves to welcome groups and show them round the ground floor rooms which are still, at the heart of the family home in which he takes enormous pride.

Edward says: Were very open to people coming in and sharing what we have and people love the lived-in feel. I love the tours because theres always lots of interesting questions and its nice to talk about what we love.

But you have to be pragmatic, you may love it but to keep it going it has to pay for itself, he says. That was the primary reason for starting the business; the guided tours were all very nice but nowhere near enough money in terms of what was needed to maintain and preserve. If you make a repair its a very specialist job, you cant just call in anyone, and its ongoing, I have an acre of roof.

Having launched the business in 2003, it took another two years to renovate the house to the point where Edward could launch its core income generator weddings. Now it averages about 20 during the summer season as well as being a prime location Channel 4s The Queens Wedding was shot at Burton Court and for photography; the variety of architectural styles making a great backdrop.

Combined with the winter season maintenance work and the guided tours theres plenty to keep Edward busy. But he never tires of living and working over the shop. Im always finding something about Burton Court, he says. The house is demanding but shes a personality, an object of beauty.

So is opening up to the public the way forward for other country houses? Architectural heritage is very important as are the links with history, says Edward but deciding whether to make a home a business depends on how workable it is in terms of functionality, layout and size.

All these country houses are designed for entertaining, its what theyve been doing for centuries, but to have them for the 21st century a lot of adaptation is needed.

Im confident we are holding our own. Business has already picked up from last year, so thats encouraging and I know it will eventually pick up again. We will keep building on the business and look ahead as to how it can be sustainable. Theres so much potential. We are entirely self-funding so everything stands or fails on what we do. Burton Court has survived for centuries.

Marketing assistant Rachael says: Its not just the house, its the people if you dont have the good service to match the product its not going to work. You certainly need the right character to run a place like this and you need passion and drive not just to see it as a cash cow. What makes Burton Court so special is Ed and his family because they want to share it.

With the Simpson family at its heart, one feels Burton Court will continue to survive for a few centuries more.

For further details about Burton Court, its facilities and events, or to enquire about arranging a guided tour telephone 01544 388222 or see www.burtoncourt.com

Burton Court highlights

Guided tours by the owners
2. The Great Hall with its spectacular overmantel mentioned in the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments
3. A wealth of beautiful period rooms and servants quarters
4. Curios and antiques including a spectacular pair of working musical boxes
5. Archaeological dig dating from Norman times
6. Garden and parklands covering 19 acres

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