Big enough to be stately, small enough to be cosy

GREAT ES­TATES The Count­ess Bathurst has never counted the rooms at Cirences­ter Park, but Eleanor Doughty finds it’s a real fam­ily home

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

If you’re not care­ful, you might miss Cirences­ter Park as you drive through its epony­mous Cotswolds town. The back door to the 18th-cen­tury stately home is can­nily hid­den in plain sight off Park Street, in the old coach yard.

This in-town com­mu­nity feel is all part of Cirences­ter’s charm. It may be a sprawl­ing, 15,000-acre es­tate with the req­ui­site man­sion, end­less park­land, and polo club, but it’s also very much part of Cirences­ter town it­self. The Count­ess Bathurst has lived here with her hus­band, the 9th Earl Bathurst, for 22 years. They met on a blind date, and mar­ried in 1996. By then, he was di­vorced from his first wife, with whom he has two chil­dren: Ben, Lord Ap­s­ley, 28, and Lady Rosie, 26.

Lady Bathurst wasn’t too fazed by Cirences­ter when she first ar­rived: “Of course, I thought the house was big – you can’t drive down here for the first time and think, ‘ That’s an aver­age house’, be­cause it’s not.”

In the end, her dog, Breeze, moved in be­fore she did. “I lived in Dorset then, and we used to come up on a Fri­day and go back on a Mon­day. One day [Lord Bathurst] said to me, ‘If you were to leave him here dur­ing the week, you wouldn’t have to walk him, and then you could come up on a Thurs­day in­stead of a Fri­day.’ I’ll never for­get Breeze’s face when I drove off that Mon­day morn­ing.”

Cirences­ter Park has been in the Bathurst fam­ily since 1695, when it was bought by Sir Ben­jamin Bathurst, a gov­er­nor of the East In­dia Com­pany. The orig­i­nal house was Tu­dor-jaco- bean, but it was re­built be­tween 1718 and 1830. Be­fore that could take place, Sir Ben­jamin’s son, Allen, cre­ated the park­land around it. With its neo­clas­si­cal fol­lies and for­mal av­enues, it pre­dated the English land­scape gar­dens pop­u­larised by Lancelot “Ca­pa­bil­ity” Brown, be­ing wide and open, rather than crowded with parter­res.

Hav­ing been brought up at Cirences­ter, Lord Bathurst, then Lord Ap­s­ley, moved back in July 1987 – “the same year as I got my Land Rover,” he says cheer­ily. Since then, his wife has re­dec­o­rated the whole house, ex­cept for the lit­tle din­ing room and the li­brary. “The wall­pa­per in the li­brary is listed,” she says. She isn’t quite sure how many rooms there are in to­tal – “I’ve never counted them, but it’s not over 100” – but there are 15 be­d­rooms. She loves Cirences­ter Park, though. “Pevs­ner [who wrote about Britain’s great houses] was un­kind about it,” she says. “He says it’s not a very at­trac­tive house at all, but I think it’s lovely. It’s big enough to be stately, but it’s small enough to re­main a cosy home, and that’s im­por­tant to me.”

In­deed, the Bathursts’ kitchen, cur­rently full of spaniel pup­pies, is like any other, with post and bills scat­tered across sur­faces; Down­ton Abbey, this is not. Lady Bathurst has the same wor­ries as any other housewife: “I am just as house-proud, it’s just on a big­ger scale. In­stead of din­ner for six, it’s din­ner for 16.”

The house, large as it is, is close to town, which “makes us feel a part of it all, in­stead of be­ing the aus­tere grand house look­ing down at ev­ery­body from a great height”.

It is not open to the pub­lic ex­cept for Lady Bathurst’s spe­cial tours, usu­ally for his­tor­i­cal groups, at £25 per per­son. The money goes to­ward restora­tion of the paint­ings. “We haven’t got a roof to mend, for­tu­nately, so look­ing af­ter the paint­ings is my restora­tion project.”

As we walk around, she points out the works on her to-re­store list. “It’s a sense of achieve­ment. I’ve not gone to my hus­band and said I need a cheque for ten grand, I’ve earned the money.”

The other project that Lady Bathurst is es­pe­cially proud of is her hol­i­day cot­tages. “The idea kept be­ing bat­ted out of the park, but one came up that needed ren­o­vat­ing and I said, let me prove my point.”

That was the three-bed­room Ap­s­ley Cot­tage; now, there are two more – Clover Barn, which sleeps six, and Keeper’s Barn, which sleeps two, as well as a six-bed­room house they rent out in Devon. “I love it when peo­ple come,” she says. “I make them very homey. The big­gest com­pli­ment I could get is ‘Are you sure no­body lives here?’”

There’s a lot to Cirences­ter, in­clud­ing the polo club, of which Lord Bathurst is pres­i­dent. They farm the land, too, and this is Lord Bathurst’s pas­sion: “There’s noth­ing that makes him hap­pier than when he’s out check­ing the cat­tle, or walk­ing the farm.”

The Bathursts are also con­stantly try­ing to im­prove the park­land: “It’s come to the stage where we’re hav­ing to re­place some of the chest­nut trees be­cause they are too old.”

As well as all this, a hous­ing de­vel­op­ment with up to 2,350 prop­er­ties on the south­ern edge of Cirences­ter is in the plan­ning stages. “It’s go­ing to give more than 700 fam­i­lies the chance to get on to the prop­erty lad­der,” Lady Bathurst says. “It’s a 300acre space, but 100 acres will be green, with play­ing fields, places to run, ride a bike, walk your dog.”

If plan­ning is granted, the 12-year project will be­gin next year.

Lady Bathurst finds the per­cep­tion that they are do­ing this only for money frus­trat­ing. “It will be busi­ness as nor­mal,” she in­sists. “The money will be used to un­der­pin the fu­ture of the es­tate.”

For now, Lady Bathurst is con­tent. It’s been a dif­fi­cult two years. In 2016, she nearly lost her hus­band to sep­sis when “he was bit­ten by a deer fly and was in a coma for eight days”. So she lives for each day, and hasn’t planned when she and her hus­band might move out and let Ben take over: “Right now, I would hate to move out, but in ten years time we might be say­ing to Ben, ‘Here are the keys – don’t call us, we’ll call you!’ I don’t like to plan that far ahead.”

‘I am house-proud, it’s just on a big­ger scale. In­stead of din­ner for six, it’s din­ner for 16’

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