The com­mu­ni­tyrun coun­try pile

Ri­val groups of lo­cals want to take over the run­ning of Ly­di­ard Park in Wilt­shire, re­ports Eleanor Doughty

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Historic Homes -

‘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

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