Staunton Harold Hall - returning a hall to a home
- Credit: Archant
It’s over eleven years since John and Jacqueline Blunt moved into historic Staunton Harold Hall. Pat Ashworth returns to find out what has changed
A heap of small-sized wellies and a couple of miniature bicycles are among telltale signs around Staunton Harold that this even more of a family home than when John and Jackie Blunt bought and moved into it in 2003. Looking at it now, it’s hard to remember that this, the family seat of the Shirleys, Earls Ferrers, was ripe for demolition in 1954.
Dating from 1610, it was rescued by Leonard Cheshire VC for a Cheshire Home and subsequently became a Sue Ryder hospice. Any institutional feel or appearance has long vanished, and the advent of the Blunts’ daughter, Caroline Large; her husband, Andrew, and their three young children – Trixie, Freddy and Phoebe – to join John and Jackie at the Hall has brought new life into the household.
Children last lived here in 1937, when the young Ferrers, says John Blunt, were kept strictly on their own side of the green baize door by the stern housekeeper, Mrs Smith. It’s a very long time since there were servants here, but there’s a loyal staff who love the place as much as the Blunts do and who very much go the extra mile for it. ‘We couldn’t have done any of this without their help,’ the couple say with warmth and conviction of Dave Richardson, Sam Fletcher, Penny Swan, Anne Wood and Denise Kerr. ‘They are fantastic.’
John Blunt had been buying pieces of the estate since 1940 and his own father showed interest in the sale in 1954. He reflected in Derbyshire Life in 2003 that such a piecemeal approach was very much in the tradition of Staunton Harold, ‘a place created by individuals, a lot of them autocratic and a few of them eccentric.’
Eleven years on, here I am again, seated in front of a wood-burning stove in a Great Hall that for all its size and grandeur, still contrives to feel as much like home, the couple says, as did the cosy, 400-year-old farmhouse in Melbourne where they previously lived. ‘When we were thinking about buying it, we said if we lost a night’s sleep about it or were anxious about it, it was not for us,’ Jackie says. ‘And we haven’t, have we?’ she says, turning to John. ‘Not for a minute,’ he confirms.
The family are inveterate restorers, and John Blunt also had a sideline in furniture and statuary. ‘Maintaining old buildings, keeping roofs on houses, is what we do,’ John says. ‘It doesn’t feel at all like work.’ The house has 83 rooms – it takes 20 minutes each evening just to close the 32 sets of shutters on the ground floor alone – and when they bought it, they thought they might just live in part of it. But that wasn’t how it turned out, and John credits Jackie’s homemaking skills for the fact that they don’t ‘exist in one warm corner with the rest all cold and echoing.’
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The elegant, oak-floored Ballroom on the ground floor is much in demand for civil weddings – essential income, the couple say practically, for running a house of this size: ‘They make a very valuable contribution; they earn their keep.’ This, as with all the rooms, is testament to the couple’s love of collecting – they bought the lights in here in Florence (and had them posted back to the UK) while other fittings come from Devon. ‘We have had enormous fun at auctions and in antique shops,’ Jackie says with enthusiasm. ‘We came here from a house with oak beams and low ceilings and small rooms – and everything we brought with us looked so small!’ There have been no interior designers introduced here from London: ‘If I was going to make mistakes, I wanted them to be my own mistakes,’ she says with a smile.
In the long and beautiful Library – which many local people remember as the coffee shop in the Sue Ryder days – the shelves are piled with books and family games. ‘Very often on Sunday afternoon, we light the fire in here and I tell the children there’ll be tea and cake at four o’clock if they’re around,’ Jackie says. With six children and 16 grandchildren, the place can be a hive of activity. There are photographs of all 16 on the tall fridge in the family kitchen. The most distant members of the family are the Blunts’ daughter, Rebecca, and her husband and three children, who live in Dubai but come over for six weeks in the summer holidays; and Louise and her husband, who have restored a former monastery in Italy.
The move into the house in 2003 was greatly welcomed by a community who feel a great affection for Staunton Harold – ‘We had lovely letters from people saying how pleased they were that it was a local family,’ Jackie remembers.
Feet echoing on flagstones, we move through the Armoury Passage with its wall-mounted pikes and other ancient weapons, many of them originals from the house. Some were bought in a big furniture sale in 1949, while others have been given back to the house by members of the Ferrers family. In the great Staircase Hall with its sweeping flight of stone stairs, the scale of what it takes to decorate tall spaces like these becomes apparent. This task, like everything else, was done in-house, including the fabrication of new mouldings for missing roundels on the ceiling. Dave Richardson, who is in charge of house maintenance, made these: ‘He is so clever. If they’d had to go back to London for replacement, it would have cost a fortune,’ Jackie observes.
A nearby state bedroom is one of the most recent rooms to have been renovated. Intricate wooden carvings of trailing, twining branches and leaves, looking paper-thin, adorn the fireplace, the product of 400 hours of careful restoration work. The Blunts thought the carvings were plaster until layer upon layer of paint was painstakingly stripped away using a specially designed tool that would get into all the little crevices. ‘It was a mammoth task,’ said John.
If I lived here, I would spend all my time in the bath, I reflect, as we admire a raised bath in one of several bathrooms created in a house that was ‘long on bedrooms and short on bathrooms.’ When the shutters are opened in here, the occupant of the bath can lie back and take in a view of the gardens and estate that is pure beauty.
Eleven years ago, I remember the corridor I am now walking down in the family wing as cold, un-renovated space, minus architraves and stacked with drying timber. ‘We hated it. It’s in the main part of the house, it was cold and gloomy and we walked through it all the time,’ Jackie remembers. Now its polished wood floor gleams, light pours in through the two Georgian skylights and the bright patterned rugs radiate warmth and richness.
Much that was institutional has had to be stripped away, not least the added fireproofing on the doors of what were patients’ rooms and which are now beautifully restored and furnished guest bedrooms. Wallpaper, paint, soft furnishings that include beautiful quilting made by Jackie’s mother – ‘I’ve put quite a few away for my granddaughters later on’ – have worked magnificent transformation here. A rumpled rug and pulled curtain in one is another of the telltale signs of children living in this house – ‘They’ll have been playing hide-and-seek,’ says Jackie with a smile.
Discoveries continue to be made as they worked through the rooms. Downstairs, the small link room adjacent to the kitchen had been divided into two but is now restored to its original size. The Blunts knew from pictures in a Country Life magazine of 1913 that there had been a fireplace in here but it was not until the wall was knocked through that the original fireplace was discovered, its high grate perfectly preserved. The new stone for the surround came from the quarries of Middleton by Wirksworth, and the beautiful fretwork design was reproduced by a former gardener on the estate. The house and estate are very much a family enterprise. The couple’s son, Richard, manages the estate. Their son-in-law, Tony Cantrell, is proprietor of the stunning Lion Court business centre within the Hall, a managed office complex of meeting rooms and kitchen which won the national Business Centre of the Year award last year and has been nominated for a second time. The award is a particular source of pride to the manager of Lion Court, Amy Mahan.
So Christmas will be celebrated here with whoever of this large family is around. There’ll be a massive Christmas tree in the Staircase Hall, dug up from the estate’s own woods and ‘so tall you definitely have to make sure you put the star on first,’ Jackie says. ‘It takes about four people to bring it in and an especially big box to slot it into... And it needs huge lights and big decorations: you can’t have tiny baubles.’ But even more precious is the small family tree elsewhere, ‘Not a designer tree by any means, with all the decorations children have made over the years, some of them 40 or 50 years old. They love that.’ There’s holly-gathering and greenery too, for draping round the fireplaces, and of course, candles for festivity.
Outside, as our footsteps crunch on the gravel of the private gardens of the South Wing, we look up at the great Medici lion, in crouching stance on the roof. ‘I love my lion,’ Jackie says in contentment. ‘He is splendid. I tell the children that at midnight, he comes down to drink at the lake.’ And I can well believe it.