Hall of plenty

Re­viv­ing a run­down Doddington Hall es­tate may have seemed like an in­sur­mount­able task, but owners James and Claire Birch have turned it around – into a thriv­ing busi­ness, Clive Aslet dis­cov­ers.

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Dy­lan Thomas

Clive Aslet vis­its a re­vamped Doddington Hall

DODDINGTON HALL IN Lin­colnshire is one of those coun­try houses you find only in Bri­tain. The at­tics are full of old toys, mil­i­tary head­gear, un­wanted com­modes and a gi­ant fig­ure of the White Rab­bit, left over from an Alice in Won­der­land-themed event. The walls are cov­ered with ta­pes­tries, and there are so many of them, the house has its own stu­dio for tex­tile re­pairs. A col­lec­tion of Ro­man an­tiq­ui­ties, some found on the es­tate, is dis­played in the down­stairs lava­tory, along with a child’s pedal-op­er­ated aero­plane. Built around 1600, it has hardly changed from the out­side, and it has never been sold.

To­day’s owners are James and Claire Birch, who came here 10 years ago. James worked in the City, Claire in advertising – so ru­ral Lin­colnshire was about as far from their pre­vi­ous habi­tats as the moon.

Be­fore their ar­rival, the Hall had been home to Claire’s fa­ther An­thony Jarvis, who had farmed the 2,000-acre es­tate, mark­ing the end of his ten­ure by build­ing a stu­pen­dous pyra­mid from lumps of con­crete made avail­able when a su­gar beet pad was de­mol­ished. But in the 21st cen­tury, agri­cul­ture alone doesn’t gen­er­ally sup­port a large coun­try house, as it might have done in pre­vi­ous eras. ‘The Ge­or­gians said that you needed 1,000 acres for ev­ery bed­room,’ says James. Doddington has a dozen or so bed­rooms, but con­sid­er­ably fewer than 12,000 acres. Some­thing had to be done.

In their mid-40s and with three

teenage chil­dren when they took over, the Birches first had to adapt Doddington to mod­ern needs, fo­cus­ing on the kitchen and bath­rooms. The work was rel­a­tively mod­est: ‘We were lucky,’ says James, who, as pres­i­dent of His­toric Houses, has a keen knowl­edge of what other coun­try-house owners are do­ing. ‘These days, peo­ple want kitchens at the front of the house, over­look­ing the gar­dens and pos­si­bly the drive, but our kitchen had al­ready been moved.’ The best in­no­va­tion, ac­cord­ing to Claire, has been a wood­chip heat­ing sys­tem. ‘It meant we had to lose the Aga, which used oil,’ she says. ‘I’d thought a house with­out an Aga couldn’t feel like home, but we put ex­tra ra­di­a­tors into the kitchen and got an in­duc­tion hob – it’s fan­tas­tic.’

Else­where, Claire and James re­vamped their shared of­fice, re­plac­ing Vic­to­rian fur­ni­ture that didn’t suit com­put­ers with be­spoke pieces. The li­brary – where the floor had to be re­placed when it was found that the El­iz­a­bethan joists had rot­ted through af­ter hav­ing been placed di­rectly on soil – has been re­painted in Far­row & Ball’s Rail­ings, a mod­ern blue-black.

His­tor­i­cally, Doddington has had its share of mis­for­tune. In the 18th cen­tury, it was owned by John Delaval (also of Seaton Delaval in Northum­ber­land), one of eight broth­ers. Only John suc­ceeded in pro­duc­ing an heir, an­other John – who died of con­sump­tion shortly be­fore his 21st birth­day. The beer brewed for the party that would have cel­e­brated his com­ing of age stayed in the cel­lar; it is still there, never opened. By 1824, the house had passed through the fe­male line to Sarah Gun­man, the young widow of an ad­mi­ral. She was about to marry her long-stand­ing ad­mirer, Colonel Ge­orge Jarvis, when she too was car­ried away by con­sump­tion. As a tes­ta­ment to her love, she left Doddington to her fi­ancé. He was a tal­ented artist and a skilled wood carver; the print room re­mains lined with the draw­ings that he made on his trav­els, and a cab­i­net con­tains his large col­lec­tion of chis­els.

The 20th cen­tury brought death du­ties, and the con­se­quent strug­gle to make ends meet. ‘There were leaks all over the roof in the 1950s,’ says Claire. ‘My grand­par­ents put out bath­tubs to catch the wa­ter. But in those days, the gov­ern­ment gave grants in re­turn for pub­lic ac­cess, so the house opened one day a week from 1954.’ Now, times are more buoy­ant: 30,000 vis­i­tors come to Doddington each year, and dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son (un­til 23 De­cem­ber) it is open five days a week.

Then there are the for­mer

‘There were leaks all over the roof in the 1950s. My grand­par­ents put out bath­tubs to catch the wa­ter’

sta­bles which, un­der James’s man­age­ment, have come to house a num­ber of busi­nesses that form, in terms of vis­i­tor num­bers, a far big­ger at­trac­tion than the hall it­self. Each year 250,000 peo­ple pass through the shops, fore­most among them the farm shop, and the café and restau­rant pro­vide cater­ing for the many wed­dings held at the house. Bi­cy­cles and coun­try cloth­ing com­plete the of­fer­ing. Un­usu­ally, these busi­nesses are owned and run in-house, rather than pro­vided by ten­ants rent­ing the space, which cre­ates greater risk but also yields higher profit to the es­tate.

The Birches’ for­mer life now be­longs to a dif­fer­ent, dis­tant phase of ex­is­tence, and they have adapted to ru­ral liv­ing. The pri­vate quar­ters of the house are qui­eter now that their three chil­dren – Ge­orge, 28, Luke, 26, and Alice, 24 – have moved to Lon­don; but life is no less busy.

‘What I re­ally love is the lux­ury of hav­ing a veg­etable gar­den,’ says Claire. ‘It gives me huge sat­is­fac­tion that ev­ery­thing we eat or serve to guests is pro­duced from the es­tate.’ The only is­sue is lack of pri­vacy, what with clean­ers, elec­tri­cians, guides, de­liv­ery drivers, con­ser­va­tors and all the other peo­ple who con­trib­ute to the run­ning of a coun­try house – not to men­tion the vis­it­ing pub­lic. ‘I can’t even dream of spend­ing the morn­ing in a dress­ing gown, read­ing mag­a­zines, al­though that would prob­a­bly be a fan­tasy any­way,’ says Claire. ‘I don’t miss Lon­don, but, crazily enough, it some­times feels as though it would be a bit more peace­ful there.’ Ad­mis­sion to Doddington Hall is free with mem­ber­ship of His­toric Houses; his­tori­c­houses.org; dod­ding­ton­hall.com

Bot­tom Doddington’s ex­te­rior has changed lit­tle since it was built, c1600

Be­low Claire Birch, chate­laine of the house, in the main kitchen.

Right The early-17th-cen­tury Flem­ish ta­pes­tries were painstak­ingly re­stored in a five-year pro­ject, and re­hung in 2016. The crewel-work bed dates from the 1680s

Right The two-acre walled kitchen gar­den was re­stored to its for­mer pro­duc­tive glory in 2007. It sits be­side St Peter’s church – the orig­i­nal Nor­man build­ing was re­built in the 1770s by Lord Delaval

Above, from left The li­brary, with a por­trait of the present fam­ily; the 18th-cen­tury stair­case hung with ear­lier fam­ily por­traits; James Birch.

Op­po­site, bot­tom The draw­ing room has be­come a restora­tion stu­dio while the 17th-cen­tury ta­pes­tries are re­paired.

Clock­wise from be­low The Long Gallery; mod­ern bowls in an an­cient win­dow em­bra­sure; one of the Hall’s bed­rooms

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