TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne on his radical plan to build “a mini Covent Garden” at his West Horsley mansion
- Credit: © Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo
Having sold £6.2m of its treasures to help save West Horsley Place after unexpectedly inheriting the 50-room Surrey mansion, TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne has embarked on an even more radical plan – to build “a mini Covent Garden” in the grounds
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine <ay 2016
Fingers on buzzers, here’s your starter for ten – what would you do if you inherited a centuries-old, crumbling manor house from an elderly aunt? Most people, I wager, would rub their hands with glee and flog it, post-haste, before buying their dream car, a super yacht and a luxury hideaway in an exotic tax haven. But then, Bamber Gascoigne, the former donnish quizmaster of University Challenge, isn’t most people.
His solution was much more radical. When his great-aunt, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, unexpectedly left him West Horsley Place, situated in beautiful gardens between Guildford and Leatherhead, he decided to become its unexpected saviour.
Not only did he resolve to rescue the crumbling ruin from the ravages of centuries of decay, but he concocted an ambitious and inspiring plan to transform the house and gardens into a centre for artistic and crafts endeavour, with a magnificent purpose-built opera house as its centrepiece.
“It’s such an incredible place and I knew it well, so the idea of immediately selling it off seemed not only amazingly foolish but also missing the fun that was involved,” says Bamber, 81, speaking at the Richmond home he has shared with his wife, Christina, a potter and painter, since the late Sixties.
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“My aunt told her solicitor that she thought it should be sold after her death because it seemed such a hopeless case, but we both thought that as we’d inherited something so enormously beautiful, we should try to hold on to it. We haven’t got children and if we had to sell, we’d sell. But it was a pity not to have a go.”
The 50-room Tudor mansion, which dates back to the 11th century, is an extraordinary pile sitting in 300 acres of farmland. Henry VIII was reportedly entertained there with 30-course banquets and rumour has it that Sir Walter Raleigh’s embalmed head is buried somewhere on site. After passing through a dozen of England’s most aristocratic families since 1086, it was purchased by the Marquis of Crewe in 1931 and inherited by his daughter, the duchess – one of the great society beauties of her age – in 1973.
But in the decades that followed, the challenge of maintaining the sprawling house eventually overwhelmed her, and many of the rooms fell into neglect. By the time that she died in 2014, at the age of 99, she hadn’t lived in the property for seven years.
Faced with a monumental and costly restoration project, Bamber mounted three auctions last year of the duchess’s belongings – among them, a study for Flaming June, considered to be Sir Frederic Leighton’s magnum opus, the duchess’s Cartier diamond engagement ring and the gown she wore when she bore the train of Queen Elizabeth at the Coronation of George VI. After securing an impressive £6.2m, he then signed the whole house and auction proceeds over to the Mary Roxburghe Trust, a charity set up in his late great-aunt’s name.
“The auctions in London and Geneva raised far more than we anticipated – partly because it was a very romantic idea, this lady who had lived alone in a crumbling house,” says Bamber. “The Trust will start with a good pot of money, but the restoration of the house alone will need a minimum of £7.5m, and that’s just to get it back to a position where it won’t fall down. The wonderful outbuildings will require a further £3m.”
The most pressing problem, he explains, is the property’s crumbling Tudor timberwork, which has fallen prey to centuries of water exposure.
“Although the brick facade is 17th century, it’s screwed on to a much older Tudor building, so instead of doing any work it’s actually hanging like a picture on a wall. Kevin, our wonderful builder, has discovered at least four areas where the timberwork requires urgent attention. There is also an oak lintel across a broad doorway in one of the outbuildings that could give way at any moment, bringing the wall above crashing down.”
The restoration programme won’t start for some time, however, because the Trust needs listed building consent before commencing work on the Grade I-listed house. When we speak, Bamber is poised to set up a steering group comprising representatives from Historic England, Guildford Borough Council’s planning department and the Trust to formulate a plan.
In the interim, he has not been idle, however, and has teamed up with Grange Park Opera (GPO), headed by the formidable impresario Wasfi Kani OBE. She, in turn, has launched a £10m fund-raising appeal to build a 700-seat theatre within the grounds of West Horsley Place (subject to planning approval). In return for a 99-year lease, GPO will pay a “substantial” ground rent.
The right note
“It was obvious from the start that West Horsley Place would be perfect for an opera festival and it’s thrilling to have GPO with us because they’re a splendid company,” says Bamber. “GPO are planning to build the theatre tucked away romantically in a wood. A short path through the wood will bring opera-goers to our orchard, a magical place of amazingly old fruit trees, perfect for a picnic.
“A wrought-iron gate will also lead visitors into semi-formal gardens – areas of mown grass separated by ancient box hedges – which I can imagine already, full of the bright, tented pavilions for which the company is famous. Their being there will make us better known and make the place live again. We want to do more than just restore the house – we want to make it a place where a lot is happening.”
Thankfully, says Bamber, the scheme, which he has dubbed “a mini Covent Garden”, has the overwhelming support of the local community. “We held a public consultation exercise, inviting local people to look at the opera house plan, and expected 200 people – but 1,500 turned up. They nearly all gave their details, saying they were thrilled with the whole thing. I think they’d been terrified that an oligarch would buy the estate.
“Apart from Glyndebourne, which is sensational, all the other summer opera festivals in the UK are staged in rectangular or temporary buildings. This is going to be a stunning little traditional theatre.”
It is Bamber’s intention that the whole house will be opened up to festival-goers with a restaurant arranged over the rooms on the ground floor. Another project close to his heart is his plan to turn the house and neighbouring outbuildings into a centre for performing arts and the teaching of crafts.
“We’re keen to attract amateur or small, local professional performing arts companies, and there are many places where they could perform, including the original great hall of the Tudor mansion,” he says. “Likewise, we’re eager to offer workshops in a whole range of craft disciplines. The emphasis will be on having fun.”
That said, Bamber is well aware that he faces a tough battle ahead. “The money required is massive and the timescale will be long,” he continues. “If we had all the cash we needed in place, the restoration project would probably take only two years. But faced with the challenge of raising such a large sum, completion will be long after my completion.”
You sense that despite the challenges ahead, West Horsley Place couldn’t be in better hands.
• Bamber and his colleagues are building up a database of people who might like to be involved with the project, whether as supporters or volunteers, or in relation to the crafts programme. If you are interested, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here we catch up with the founder of Grange Park Opera, Wasfi Kani OBE, to find out more about what’s in store at the new venue Wasfi Kani OBE, who founded Grange Park Opera in 1998, is a woman who gets things done. When the company had to find a new home after 17 years at The Grange in Hampshire, she quickly saw the potential at West Horsley Place and made Bamber Gascoigne an offer he couldn’t refuse. Now, thanks to private donors, she has already raised nearly half of the projected £10m needed to fund a purpose-built theatre in the grounds of the sprawling mansion. Working to a brief by GPO’s architectural consultant David Lloyd Jones, Tim Ronalds Architects and Ramboll Environ have conceived a design based on one of the world’s most celebrated theatres, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. “We said very specifically that we wanted the new venue to be in the horseshoe shape of La Scala, which results in fantastic acoustics,” says Wasfi. “We’ve also tried to reflect the local vernacular and it will be very much on a scale with the feminine architecture of West Horsley Place. “The outside will be a decorated brick drum, beckoning the ancient world. Think of those wonderful round buildings like the Pantheon or Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Inside, it will feature four tiers of balconies above the stalls where four trumpeters will stand and summon the audience.” She is confident the “theatre in the woods” will be operational, if incomplete, by opening night on June 8, 2017, when the Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, will sing Cavaradossi in Tosca. “The opportunities offered by West Horsley Place are exceptional: its beauty and glamour, its location just 23 miles from London and then the generosity of Bamber and Christina Gascoigne, who have made an exceptional act of philanthropy,” she adds. Wasfi regards GPO as an anchor tenant, which, hopefully, will draw visitors and other arts groups, too. “Many arts organisations have said they’d like to use our theatre in its studio format and I have lots of ideas for public engagement – from string quartet masterclasses, dance and concert performances to fashion shows. This theatre will be built for many people from many walks of life. It isn’t just about an opera festival.” • GPO’s last season at The Grange in Northington, Hampshire, runs from Thursday June 2 to Saturday July 16. It features Oliver! by Lionel Bart, Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi, La Fanciulla del West by Giacomo Puccini, Tristan & Isolde (in concert) by Richard Wagner and tenor sensation Javier Camarena. Box office: 01962 737373. For full details, see grangeparkopera.co.uk