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
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’