The communityrun country pile
Rival groups of locals want to take over the running of Lydiard Park in Wiltshire, reports Eleanor Doughty
‘We have to look at what is a sustainable model for the future’
In a world of ever-tightening purse strings, the nation’s country houses face a continued battle for survival. When crisis strikes, the troubles tend to fall on the shoulders of one family, perhaps supported by a few willing volunteers. But at Lydiard Park, a Grade I listed Palladian house just outside Swindon, this responsibility has fallen to the community.
The home of the St John family, later the Viscounts Bolingbroke, since 1420, Lydiard functioned as a family home until the early 20th century. After Lady Mary Bolingbroke died in 1940, the estate was broken up and the house and park put up for sale.
Local businessman and philanthropist Francis Akers, concerned that a commercial bidder might spot the property on the open market, bought it and its parkland for £14,250 in 1943, with the sole intention of handing it over to the Swindon Corporation for public use.
“It would have been a great pity had this glorious old English home passed into the hands of people who were not concerned with the future development of the country surrounding Swindon,” he said at the time.
Now, as councils struggle to keep public services open, locals are once again stepping forward to come to Lydiard’s rescue. A handful of volunteers – including Francis Akers’s great-granddaughter, Gina – have formed the Love Lydiard Trust. Their goal is to save the house, not by raising funds for its physical restoration, but by bidding to take over its running as a community building.
The Trust – which counts among its 11 members former National Trust executive Rob Hebden, Lord Joffe of Liddington and current Lydiard staff – has been made a legally binding community group using the Localism Act.
Gina Akers admits that this “isn’t the easiest of things” to set up, but it “demonstrates that we are credible”.
As well as potential bids from private buyers, the Love Lydiard Trust, which funded its offer from private donations, is up against a second community group.
The Lydiard Park Heritage Trust has also put forward a bid to prevent the house “falling into the hands of the profit-orientated private sector with all the inherent risks to heritage and public good,” says its chair, Mike Bowden.
A decision is expected on March 15, and if either of the community trusts wins there should be minimal disruption for the public.
“We have never believed there was a need or public support for radical change,” Bowden says. “Our plans are unashamedly focused on heritage, while crucially retaining full and free public access to the park.”
Taking on a property of this size is no mean feat. Both trusts have ideas for new revenue schemes at Lydiard – which members are keeping close to their chests until the winner is revealed.
Akers is realistic about the task at hand. “A lot of people are angry with Swindon Borough Council because they think they should somehow find the money, but it’s austerity cuts – it’s happening all over the country.”
The annual bill for Lydiard is roughly £400,000 a year. “It’s not just financially intensive, but time intensive,” Akers adds. “That’s the thing that people have to realise. If we want to maintain these buildings then we have to look at where the funds are coming from, and what is a sustainable model for the future of that.”
Her plan is to discover Lydiard’s unique selling point. “You’ll always have a pool of people who go around visiting every historic building and country house,” she says. “I’m one of them! They’re great, but the way to win is to go beyond that. Each place has to find its niche.”
She uses nearby Longleat, the Marquess of Bath’s Elizabethan mansion that is home to the worldfamous safari park, as an example. While 260-acre Lydiard cannot compete with lions and tigers and bears, it does have a well-established park with a Grade II listed lake where people picnic throughout the summer, a rhombus-shaped 18th-century walled garden, and an annual visitor count of about 19,000.
Inside, portraits of the St John family hang on the walls of the state rooms, and estate events operate year round – including open-air cinemas, craft fairs and dog shows.
Although Akers has a personal link to Lydiard through the actions of her great-grandfather, she is driven by more than a sense of inheritance.
“At times I ask myself whether I would be involved with this if I didn’t have the family connection, and I think quite honestly that I would be,” she says. “It’s a sense of duty for me – not just to my family, but to the community.”
Neighbourhood watch: Gina Akers, above, is trying to keep Lydiard Park in local hands
Family trust: Francis Akers bought Lydiard House, below, for public use in 1943