Touring Castle Goring with Lady Colin Campbell
- Credit: Jim Holden
Earlier this year Castle Goring opened its doors for weddings. As owner Lady Colin Campbell launched a competition to win a dream wedding Duncan Hall is taken on a tour
Through her television appearances Lady Colin Campbell has built up a reputation as a woman with a temper who is unafraid to express her opinions. And as we set up a portrait shot at the back of her stately home Castle Goring in front of its rear Greco-Palladian facade it looked like trouble might flare up. Espying where the shot was being set up on a high balcony, she announced in true diva-style: “I don’t do heights.”
It turned out it was just to see the look on our faces. In reality writer and former model Lady C – the adopted brand-name foisted on her by I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! – is a welcoming host, with a waspish sense of humour. Her life as a former model and her love of her two dogs – the ageing black and white Springer Spaniel Tottie and his nine-month old King Charles Spaniel playmate, the bundle of energy Mickie – were plain to see as she posed outside the grand medieval-influenced frontage of the palatial mansion she bought in 2013. And her enthusiasm for her home as she took us on a tour was infectious. Built for Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1797 – who drowned before he could move in – Castle Goring is an awe-inspiring house of high-ceilinged ornate rooms, packed with a mix of vintage and contemporary furniture and paintings from Lady C’s own collection. A former painter and student of design in New York she mixed the colours on the walls herself.
Ensconced in her beautiful private drawing room in the flat at the top of the castle, tucking into tea and lemon cake, she confirms it was “whoring for Goring” which led to her celebrity career. “Without a doubt I wouldn’t have gone into the jungle otherwise,” she says. “I was going to lose weight, which I had been dying to lose for 20 years, but being with a lot of strangers was an anathema to me. I was happy to do it for Goring.”
The sudden fame took her by surprise. “My son said to me I was trending, and I said: ‘What’s trending?’ I have had considerable bursts of popularity in the last 40 years, but this was on a completely different level.” Lady C, who was 68 in August, adopted two Russian boys, Misha and Dima, as babies in the early 1990s. Now 24 they split their time between the castle and London, and help her to run the business.
Lady C has refused to watch the programme which led to her heightened fame. “I was told they were edited to my disadvantage, but Joe and Jane Public saw through the whole thing,” she says, proud that audience figures rose “by a considerable amount” while she was in the camp, and apparently fell by about the same amount after she left citing medical grounds. Critics of the 2016 edition were bemoaning the lack of a Lady C to stir things up a bit. “Thousands of people come up to me and say nice things about me, wanting to take a selfie,” she says. “I’m sure there are people that don’t care for me too. I was presented as this fearsome dragon-like dowager, but that is not the way the public perceived me. I’m not a performer – I was not being anything but myself.”
Having sold her chateau in France, Lady C spotted the castle, which was on English Heritage’s At Risk list, on the front of the Sunday Times Magazine. She took an architect friend with her to have a look around. He warned her off the purchase, explaining repairs could cost at least £3m “maybe even £5m”. The roof was so badly damaged it required 150 pails to catch the water after a rainstorm. The only space which was inhabitable was the flat at the top. It didn’t stop Lady C paying a figure larger than the publicised £700,000 for the castle though. “It’s nice that people care and want to give you their opinion, but equally you have to know when not to listen,” she says, adding she is not allowed to reveal the true cost she paid for the house. “One thing which really grabbed me was the most amazing light. I walked through and thought: ‘This feels like home’. It’s the only home I’ve had in my adult life that has felt like that. I saw it needed a lot of work, but I thought it’s not unmanageable. Had it been much bigger I wouldn’t have been able to touch it.”
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The idea of turning the castle into a wedding venue was with her from the start. “Houses like this are meant to be celebratory, you’re meant to open them up and have people in who are going to enjoy themselves,” she says.
She brought in Jamaican builders and battled with the authorities to get the roof fixed as soon as possible. The initial renovations were captured on the ITV documentary Lady C and the Castle, which had started life as a six-part series. “The director Norman Hull was of the opinion that a series of six would get him a Bafta.” Sadly a change at the top at ITV led to the six-parter becoming a series of one. The focus fell on Lady C’s battles with her builders and apparently obsessive attention to detail. She still feels it was a missed opportunity: “Norman had some wonderful material, it was entertaining as well as informative, edifying and educational,” she says. “The show was always going to be a little out of the ordinary – how many stately homes are done up by Jamaican builders? But it ended up being about the lady and the castle. There was no way Norman would get his Bafta.”
She only really got involved with the building work after the first year, to assist the project manager and keep everything on track. She enjoyed the camaraderie the builders had – many of whom also spent their nights sleeping at the castle, playing dominoes and chipping into a food kitty. “Every night these food smells would develop,” she recalls. “The builder who was doing the cooking was a very good cook, so I put my money in as well.”
Castle Goring hosted its first wedding in February 2017, with Lady C invited to join in the photos. “It was wonderful,” she says. “The bride was beautiful and the groom was handsome. They had been together since they were teenagers, and the family was just lovely. I couldn’t have chosen a better way to launch the business.”
The state rooms are among Lady C’s favourite spaces in the castle, although she also confesses to a love of the Aphrodite and Galba drawing rooms, Queen Victoria rooms, her private drawing room and the entresol underneath the dome. “I like houses that are inviting. I like beauty, balance, elegance, graciousness and homeliness. Everything in this castle is reflective of me and my family and my life. It’s a lifetime of stuff, everything has to somehow fit together and work. It’s not like some banker’s wife bringing in a decorator so everything matches perfectly. It has a sentimental value.”
Lady C has another Royal book project on the back burner, which is set to follow her controversial portrayals of Diana, Princess of Wales from 1992 and the Queen Mother from 2012. “I’m really behind,” she confesses. “But such is life. I can’t make time. Once I’m into something I can write anywhere – in airports, on planes – but that’s not the problem. The focus is shifting.” Although she has written about her own fascinating life in 1997’s A Life Worth Living, and put her mother under the spotlight in 2009’s Daughter of Narcissus she isn’t planning to write about her Castle Goring experiences as yet.
She is happy with what she has achieved. “A nice lady from Historic England said: ‘You can be pleased with yourself – you have saved Castle Goring for the nation.’ To me that’s really important.”
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