Loseley Park features in new book on the resurgence of the British country house
- Credit: Archant
Former Country Life editor Clive Aslet and photographer Dylan Thomas step behind the scenes at the popular Surrey visitor attraction
“It’s home.” That, says Alexander More-Molyneux, is the meaning of Loseley Park, known to many people as a brand of superior ice cream, but – as the picture on the label shows – also a 16th century country house near Guildford.
Alexander and his wife, Sophia, have had two years there: time during which they have had to adjust to “living above the shop,” as Alexander puts it, and their four children have overcome their anxiety sharing the property with strangers – between six and eight thousand members of the paying public each year.
“To begin with they were terrified,” says Sophia. “They couldn’t see them but they could hear them coming in and out. They don’t really understand why anyone wants to come and look at the house anyway.”
The number of days that Loseley opens has been scaled back as a result. The More-Molyneux are concentrating on other enterprises: gardens, weddings, wakes (they have a neighbour in Guildford Crematorium; my drive through the lanes to reach Loseley was preceded by a hearse). The ice cream business was sold in the 1980s. They want to do more with food, staring with the Farm Shop development which has just begun.
“We see one of the most important assets of the estate is the land itself,” says Alexander. “When you look out of the window – there’s a house called Loseley but also all this land.”
The land – 1,500 acres of it – would cause a speculative house builder to salivate: it forms a ‘green bubble’ in one of the most prosperous areas of Britain, between Guildford and Godalming. All of it Green Belt and protected but still, one could hope.
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The family, however, sees it in quite different terms, which has little to do with monetary values. The land has always been there, owned, by the family, for more than 500 years. It is part of their sense of home.
Historically, most of the estate has been tenanted but the More-Molyneuxs are now looking to increase the in-hand farming operation. They intend to take some of the estate back in hand, for the family to farm themselves.
They are building a herd of English Longhorn cattle; a bull calf was born that morning. “They’re so beautiful, roaming these lovely fields. We hope they will feed us with wonderful beef.”
From the kitchen, an epic room with six-metre-high ceilings, comes the noise of four very robust More-Molyneux children, Cressida, Rocco, Aubrey and ZsaZsa – ages from three to seven.
While not all of them will live at Loseley when they are grown up, the sense of there being a family connection which will endure long into the future is important here. ‘Longevity’ is a key word.
They want to improve soil fertility and, says Sophia, “boost our wildlife – we haven’t seen a hedgehog for years. The house, weddings and all that will continue as a business, but we think that really what’s important is the fruit and veg that are produced from our gardens. We live off it. Can we encourage other people to eat well? This isn’t a marketing tool. It’s the right thing to do for us and we feel very strongly about it.”
Recently they have obtained planning permission to convert a barn to a farm shop. It will sell beef that is only fed on grass.”‘That means it has really good levels of Omega 3,” says Alexander. “They will have lived ‘as natural a life as possible.”
Alexander’s parents, Michael and Sarah, had 25 years in the big house; Michael continues to represent Her Majesty the Queen as Lord Lieutenant of Surrey. However, they had no difficult in moving out.
This left Alexander and Sophia to move into a house that, like any that has been occupied for generations, was already full of furniture.
“We had a lot of stuff from our previous house but my parents had also left things that they thought might be useful. It very quickly got claustrophobic in this big house.”
One wing of Loseley is occupied by Alexander’s grandmother Susan – great-granny to the children. Otherwise they use the whole house, though not all of it is regularly heated in winter; the temperatures are not those that Sophia remembers from the BVI. “There are issues in keeping the house warm,” says Alexander with understatement.
Life at Loseley has been a learning curve. Sophia is becoming a gardener. “We’re about to plough a paddock for a flower garden,” she says. “The whole of our own garden is now full of bare roots, waiting to be planted. I’m looking on YouTube every day to see where they can go. We’ve got some bees coming to occupy hives in the walled garden. We can’t fit flowers for picking into the existing garden. The flowers will be good for the bees. The children are quite obsessed by insects.”
It helps that Alexander’s mother is a florist. “She does all the flowers in the house during the open season and for weddings. I did a lot of research before choosing the flowers to go in and looked at the flower arrangements that I liked. I then ran the list past my mother-in-law and the head gardener. So I’m giving it a go.”
Weddings are a big earner for Loseley but the number must be kept within bounds. “We’ve met a couple of people who’ve experienced such a demand for weddings that they’ve moved out of their houses. We don’t want that,” says Sophia. “They’re lovely but that doesn’t stop them from being a bit intrusive. I have to get children out of the house for an hour, or in front of a TV, while they’re taking place.”
Who will take on Loseley in the next generation? That question will not need to be faced for some time, but an answer is already at hand: “Whichever one wants it.” The eldest is a girl, followed by twin boys, then another girl. “It would be obvious for it to go to Cressida, as the eldest. If she really didn’t want it, then we’d have to think again. It’s important for everybody to know where they stand.”
Alexander and Sophia are themselves excited to be “starting a chapter in our lives in our family home; deciding what we want to achieve and how we can make it happen.”
Doubtless the house will be reinvigorated by their contribution to its history and set on a good course for the future; but its old stones will not change much during their era.
As Alexander remembers his grandfather saying, “Loseley shrugs its shoulders as each generation comes in because it knows it will outlast them.”
Extract from ‘Old Homes, New Life: the resurgence of the British country house’. Published by Triglyph Books (triglyphbooks.com) £50. Written by Clive Aslet. Photography by Dylan Thomas