‘This house was scruffy. Faded grandeur, big time’
GREAT ESTATES Inheriting a slightly tatty home and 2,000acre estate called to mind the family motto: ‘It will be better’ . By Eleanor Doughty
At first glance, Carlton Towers looks more like a Cambridge college than a family home. The imposing Victorian stately pile, with its clock tower and a series of grand rooms – the Venetian drawing room, card room, and picture gallery – stands apart from the other properties in nearby Selby, North Yorkshire.
Its owners, on the other hand, couldn’t be more down to earth. Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan-howard – Gerald and Emma to their friends – have lived at Carlton for 26 years. Inside, dogs run about: there are three, Frank and the Fonz, both black labradors, and Sprout, a Jack Russell. Family pictures, jumpers and newspapers litter the entrance hall and kitchen.
Lord Gerald, 56, is the younger son of the 17th Duke of Norfolk (and brother of the present duke, who lives at Arundel Castle in Sussex). He and Emma married in 1990 and they brought up their three children, Arthur, 26, Florence, 25, and Grace, 23, at Carlton.
The house isn’t generally open to the public, except on special occasions, but instead is available to be hired for all sorts of functions: weddings (up to 70 a year, and there are 18 bedrooms to go around), private dining experiences, team building weekends and partridge shooting. But it is still a home, and Gerald has recently started a vineyard in the old Victorian walled garden. “I was out at six this morning, pruning,” he says excitedly, wielding some secateurs.
This isn’t just a passion project: with pinot noir on one side, and chardonnay on the other, which will be made into sparkling wine eventually, it’s a tidy little business venture. “We’ve got a captive market here,” says Emma, referring to the wedding business. “If they like it we can sell it to the brides. They can get the bottles customised if they want.” It’s slightly surreal: the vineyard is in the middle of a 2,000acre estate that is just four miles from Drax power station, which has the highest generating capacity of any in the UK, and produces about six per cent of the country’s electricity supply.
The Stapleton family, from whom Gerald is descended, has owned the Carlton estate since 1301, and there has been a house on the site ever since. In 1777 the grand wing and clock tower says Gerald. “Now it’s split off from the house, we’ll never get it back. My brother has got three sons, so only if there’s no male heir two generations down and the eldest daughter becomes Lady Beaumont will it split out again.” It would take a deed of parliament to transfer it over. “It’s a great shame – it’s a Beaumont house, and it’s sad that the title has split. It would be quite cool to be Baron Beaumont.”
While today’s Carlton is as cosy as it comes, Emma admits that the couple’s early years in Yorkshire were bleak. The house they inherited was very old-fashioned. “The rooms were very scruffy, nothing was en suite,” she says, gesturing around their sitting room, the floor strewn with dogs. “This room had naked light bulbs and floorboards, and ragged rugs. It was faded grandeur, big time.”
Carlton, Gerald says, was never a particularly rich house. “There weren’t endless servants in the old days, but they had a cook, who managed to poison the bull by giving it the scraps, and two gardeners, rather than five, and just one butler.” The family still kept up appearances, however. “Back in the day they grew peaches in the walled garden,” Emma says. “Gerald’s grandfather would get them shipped to London in the Rolls-royce. They weren’t wealthy, per se, but they somehow had the lifestyle that aristocrats were supposed to have, with a Rolls-royce and a five-storey house in Knightsbridge.” The reason for the car, Gerald chuckles, is “because it saved on train fares – they had eight children to get up and down to London”. The future of Carlton is secure. Gerald and Emma’s eldest son Arthur, who runs Fitz and Fro, a men’s shirt company, will “probably take it on. Because there’s no title it doesn’t matter, it’s for whoever wants it,” says Gerald. His parents are putting no pressure on him. “If you do, that’s screwing up his life a bit,” says Emma. Not that the couple have plans to vacate just yet. “If there was a lovely dower house on the estate then we might move into that, but there isn’t,” Gerald smiles. “We’ll be here until we die, probably.”
‘They had a RollsRoyce because it saved on train fares for the eight children’