Historic Surrey Homes: Albury Park Mansion
- Credit: Colin Smith / Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)
It's an expensive business maintaining a stately home, but with a little help from Channel 4's Country House Rescue, one Surrey couple are hoping to secure the future of Albury Park, near Guildford, with a radical plan.
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008
It's a hive of activity when I arrive at the magnificent Jacobean mansion Albury Park, just a short drive away from Guildford. Inside the house, cameras are being set up, wood is being polished and a film crew has taken up residence in the lounge.
Tucked away among the beautiful countryside and long winding lanes, this is a stately home that's moving with the times. It's an expensive business maintaining an old property of this size, but owners Nigel and Jennifer Whalley are determined to secure the building's future by turning it from a retirement home into luxury apartments - with a little advice from Channel 4's Country House Rescue along the way.
When I walk through the door, on the first day of filming, the couple are in the process of being questioned by the national media and I'm asked to wait in the impressive library - which, as it turns out, has been known as 'the Great Room' since George III held his Coronation Ball there in 1762. Once the haven of kings, now the waiting room for a humble reporter... "It never stops!" exclaims Nigel, as he emerges from his grilling only to be greeted by Surrey Life eagerly perched on the edge of the sofa. "To be honest, this does take up a lot of our time but we enjoy being able to show off such a wonderful house to the cameras and journalists!"
A former retirement home The couple became the proud owners of Albury Park four years ago when they decided to extend their successful family business and acquire a second retirement home. "I had always wanted to buy Albury Park," says Nigel. "I was born and raised just down the road in Bramley, in my family's retirement home, Birtley House. My grandfather started nursing homes in the 1920s after he got cancer from the early X-ray machines during the war and could no longer work as a surgeon. He began to take injured soldiers coming back from the war into his home to look after and it grew from there. "Originally, we bought Albury as an extension to what we've got at Birtley, but it didn't really work out that way. The model we had here had become outdated and we decided that the only way for the house to survive was to turn it into really nice apartments. The hardest thing has definitely been to lose the reputation as a retirement home and that's somewhat the idea behind appearing on the programme."
It was six months ago that the couple first met with the show's straight-talking presenter Ruth Watson - an award-winning hotelier in her own right - in order to come up with a game plan to save the property. The overall gas bill for a country house such as this is around £6,000 a month and it's a great challenge for owners to keep up with the costs of running and maintaining such an enormous property. So gone is the retirement home structure that was originally introduced by the Country House Association in the Seventies and in come luxury apartments and the idea of Albury as a major modern property concern housed in a beautiful historic building. Eager for me to see the results of their hard work, Nigel takes me to their latest show apartment that is all set to woo potential clients the day after I visit. "It was one of the things that Ruth wanted us to do," he explains, showing me into their new show room, which is just undergoing the final few touches.
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"We'd have put one together anyway but the show has got to take the credit, hasn't it?" he says with a wink. "This room would once have been the bedroom/sitting room for the previous resident. He'd probably have a fit if he came here now; he wouldn't recognise it in the slightest as it's actually a merger of three previous apartments."
A history of change When the couple first took over Albury Park, it was divided into 45 apartments. Nigel is looking to knock this number down to 22 bigger ones. This is by no means the first time this house has seen massive change either - in 1819, 'God's architect' Augustus Pugin was tasked with completely altering the character of the ramshackle house. Through his work, Albury became a Jacobian fortified mansion of sorts, with classical pillars removed and an extra floor added along with the wonderful 63 individually decorated chimneys that are such a feature today. A house stacked with history, it is a fine balance creating spaces for modern living.
"Whenever you do work on a place like this, you have to be so careful with everything and it can get quite complicated. There are things you can and can't do. You obviously need permission and are never quite sure what you might find... I'm sure there are probably a few dead bodies down in the cellars!" jokes Nigel. The beauty of Albury Park is that they are able to make so many varied apartments and, much like the chimneys on the roof, everyone is likely to be different. For the penthouse, which will take up a whole chunk of the top floor, a buyer will be looking at just over £1 million, but Nigel tells me that a small triangular gatehouse building that we can see from the windows of the penthouse recently went for £130,000. When everything is finished, the penthouse will be neither the biggest nor the most expensive of the apartments.
Life on a film set... As the day moves on, everything is surprisingly relaxed. I know this isn't a Hollywood blockbuster but it still comes as something of a shock that such a small group of people (just five!) are involved in the filming of this particular television series. When I settle down for lunch with the production team, talk turns to the series in general and some of the other projects they have been involved with.
There is the 36-year-old dance DJ who is planning to turn his family home of 700 years into a cookery school or the Scottish couple who are looking to turn their estate into a micro-brewery and base for a theatre company. So Albury's plans are slightly more orthodox, but with Surrey's current housing demands perhaps that is no bad thing. I don't think I'm alone in thinking it wouldn't be a bad life to be able to take lunch on the lawns here every day.
After their photoshoot, I attempt to track down Jennifer and Nigel again. It proves pretty tricky attempting to track anyone down in such a big mansion, with its myriad of passages, but finally, we sit down again in the drawing-room, with its spectacular windows leading straight out into the once again peaceful gardens.
"We feel quite the centre of attention at the moment - I've even had to have my own business cards printed up, which is a first," says Jennifer. "We have had filming here before (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Midsomer Murders, The Destiny of Britain and Fear, Stress and Anger among others) but usually it is just of the building rather than of us. It really does take up your time but it is a lot of fun, too." As if on cue, one of the production team comes over to inform them they'll have to get miked up soon and Ruth will be arriving imminently.
I wonder how they've found the show's host... "Well, I've taken to booby-trapping the cattle grid to stop her getting in," laughs Nigel, perhaps only half-joking. "Don't get me wrong, she's great, but her role is to come down hard and 'rescue us' and, of course, you don't always agree with everything that is said. Fortunately, we get on very well with everybody but you do sometimes have to take some stick, even if you think it's a little harsh. "Along with the idea of the showroom, she also wanted us to tighten up our plan for the future - Ruth felt that it was a little up in the air, although I think we perhaps didn't explain our vision well enough originally, rather than there being an absence of a plan.
The credit crunch has made things a bit tighter but we are looking long-term so it shouldn't really matter too much. In hindsight, though, we have enjoyed the experience and would do the show again, although of course, we won't have to." Assuming, that is, they remember to remove those booby traps before the new residents arrive...
The Mansion, Albury Park, New Road, Albury, Guildford, Surrey, GU5 9BB. If you happened to own your own stately home, what would you do to preserve its future and take it into the 21st century? Send us your ideas to email@example.com
The future's stately
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