Canvas & Stone: We ask five entrepreneurs who inherited country estates how they managed to turn their crumbling piles into profitable businesses

 
Melissa York
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A dining space at Iscoyd Park

Inheriting a country estate sounds like one of the most ridiculous privileges that could be bestowed upon a 30-something in modern Britain. In reality, it’s a bit like being told to look after a dying relative in the middle of nowhere who keeps stealing from your wallet when you’re not looking.

When five friends suddenly found themselves reluctant custodians of country piles, they decided to band together under the name Canvas & Stone to share tips on how to turn them into viable venues. They left the city to take over the running of their estates full-time and together they’ve hosted over 1,500 events on their estates, from dance music festivals to major corporate conferences. Here’s the story of how each turned their ancestral homes into profitable businesses.

Elmore Court, Gloucestershire

Owner Anselm Guise moved into his family’s 13th century country estate in 2007. Before that he lived in London working as a DJ and record producer, and he co-founded Glade festival.

My dear uncle, Sir John Guise, who lived in the house was very unwell. My aunt asked me if I’d mind staying because it was all a bit difficult, he died two weeks later and I’ve never moved out. It was a strange time; on the one hand, I was incredibly sad about what was going on, but on the other, I had this feeling of nervous excitement about inheriting this mammoth house.

It dates back to 1580, but my family have lived on the site since the 13th century. I try not to think about it too much, but it’s one of the oldest homes in the country. In the 1500s, my family acquired other estates and Elmore Court was used – it sounds insane now – as a hunting lodge/party pad. It was built with entertaining in mind and it sings when it’s full of people.

I got involved with Channel 4’s Country House Rescue and it became very apparent there were serious problems. When I mooted the idea of doing events at this place, the local area was very concerned because Glade’s an electronic dance festival with the strapline, ‘louder, later, longer”; they were petrified I was going to start having raves.

Eventually I had this idea that was inspired by a stage at The Secret Garden Party festival in Cambridgeshire. They made a coliseum out of straw bales and I was inside, having it, then I walked outside and realised how quiet it was. So I thought of building somewhere soundproof made out of sustainable materials – that’s very important to me because the estate used to be self-sufficient with everything produced on site. The architects suggested I build it out of mud so we made The GillyFlower, a venue with 60cm thick mud walls that was totally soundproof. We opened for our launch party in October 2013; I put the whole estate at risk, but we did it and it’s been very successful.

It’s a bit of an odd one because you inherit these big houses and, in many ways, it’s a massive honour but it comes with hard work and the pressure involved in terms of heritage, and you can’t really complain about it – my father used to call it The Loneliness Command. Luckily, I know others in the same position.

Iscoyd Park, Shropshire

Owner Phil Godsal was a contemporary art dealer with an impressive collection of works. He took over the Georgian house, built in 1846 and set in 700 acres of 18th century parkland and he’s been renovating since 2009. He lives in the attic with his wife Susie and three children.

When my father inherited the house, it was left empty for three years and it was in very bad nick. Like all these places, a lot of it had been sold off due to its inability to keep itself going and we had to think of something new to do. Trying to turn it into a viable business seemed preferable to waiting for someone to come along and buy all the grounds.

In a weird way, it was quite liberating because it was an all-or-nothing situation. It’s quite high risk and we had to put a lot of money in.

It’s a Grade II* Listed building so our approach at the beginning was very important. Once we’d got our plan sorted, we worked with a conservation architect and it was a collaborative effort with them and all the other bodies we had to convince like Cadw Properties, which is like English Heritage for Wales.

Looking at all the archives, Iscoyd used to have such an important place in the community. During the war, it was a 1,500-bed German prisoner of war hospital. Then during the 80s, these houses were just so unfashionable and the only people that came into them were the family or our friends. Now it’s being regenerated and the life and energy is coming back into it.

We’ve now got 14 double bedrooms and, after we finish the last library, then it’s all done top to bottom. There was a section that hadn’t been used since 1926 and it was completely trashed; the library above was practically being propped up with a stick, it was in a terrible state. We started off with weddings because we had to get the business going. The lead time is roughly six to eight months so it meant that I could drag them here and convince them that this pile of bricks was going to be their dream wedding. Some people just laughed at me, but others got it and we managed to get 26 bookings before we’d finished the work.

The point is that it’s a blank canvas and we tailor-make every single bit so it makes people feel like it’s their home.

Pennard House, Somerset

Owner Harry Dearden grew up in this Grade II Listed 17th century country manor house. As well as a family home, it’s also a working farm and holds parties to coincide with the Glastonbury festival.

I knew Joshua and Anselm through my sister and, through a completely different source, I was put in touch with Phil when we considered doing weddings and Samantha was a friend of Josh’s. You see people of our generation in similar sorts of situations, inheriting these large places and trying to make them viable. And most of them aren’t unless you’ve got money to invest from working in the City, in which case you’re not around to run them.

When people come to view the property, they say that the other places they’ve seen are so restrictive and they’re told what the package is. We all cringe at the word package because we want people to come and do what they want to do.

We do a lot of yoga retreats and creative writing retreats where an author does a four day course. Twice a year, we do a songwriting course where Chris Difford from Squeeze comes to see us.

It’s supported by the Buddy Holly Foundation and we get amazing songwriters staying in the house, in cottages and teepees, and they do sessions all day. We have big meals on the terrace in the evening with musical performances. It’s really relaxed and everyone settles down like they’re at home here.

At first, it seems very easy to just go in and knock something down, but actually these houses have such character that you have to consider ways to preserve them. It’s been great to have the advice of friends and discuss ideas because these houses need the support to keep them going.

Dewsall Court, Hereford

Owner Samantha Vaughan taught English GCSE to expelled teenagers in Mosside before she inherited her family home, a Grade-II Listed country house set in 12 acres of land with the Black Mountains as a backdrop. She moved into a cottage in the grounds with her mother five years ago.

It was completely derelict when my parents bought it in the late 80s, so it really had to be loved back to life. We always had lots of parties, so we feel like what we’re doing now is allowing the legacy to live on. At one time, the house would have been a huge part of the community, but as people moved towards big cities, these estates became quite isolated places. This way, we’re opening them up to the community again.

It can be a lonely old business out in a house on your own so it’s great to be able to talk to the others at Canvas & Stone. In theory we’re in competition with each other, but actually I think it pushes us to be as good as each other. The idea of a country house as a venue has become quite staid, so we’re trying to reinvent that. We create our events from scratch and we’re as far away from that stuffy function suite as you can get.

The work we’ve just completed is the Wainhouse Barn. We used to put marquee sides around the open-sided barn, but now we’ve got a proven market, we’ve invested heavily in it. We’ve got retractable glass sides now, a professional kitchen so we can make all of our food in-house and a really good bar. We’re definitely known for our food and drink. We have supper clubs where we have chefs come down especially to cook for the guests and we create bespoke menus and culinary activities.

One of the biggest events we’ve ever done is for Hitachi Horizon about the future of engineering, and it had to be absolute perfection. We had to completely change spaces – our yoga studio became this very modern sitting room – but when they rebooked, we were very proud.

Sometimes I miss my pupils. I taught delinquents of the highest degree and they were all really naughty. I loved that work, but I came from a family of businessmen and I knew I had it in me.

Wasing Park, Berkshire

Owner Joshua Dugdale was a documentary film-maker before taking over the estate from his grandparents in 2008. The family-owned house sits on 4,000 acres of land, boasting 250 years of history, and it hosted the Glade festival.

I was making a film about an event the Dalai Llama was involved in and it made me want to put on events at this place. The purpose was always to bring people together in a really positive way. We started off having a music festival and it became quite a big success. But it got to a point where it wasn’t really compatible with everything else going on here. Loud dance music and marriage vows don’t go well together.

We’ve done loads of work on five event spaces that you can hire. We’ve got a whole catering operation and it’s been a huge investment. These estates, they don’t provide any income; on paper they may be very valuable, but the overdraft just gets bigger and bigger. Building a viable business that generates some cash is the focus. It’s quite difficult and stressful, so this is a way of making it work while doing something fun and interesting.

This year has been astonishing, we’ve had some great clients on the corporate side. We have a lot of contact with some interesting therapists who turn the place into a really calm, transformational, meditative space. We’ve had the Explorers Club of Great Britain, which was pretty amazing, with people like Ranulph Fiennes and Bear Grylls coming to stay.

The grounds draw people, too. We’ve got some of the best fishing in the country for carp. We’ve also got the biggest bed in Berkshire – it’s two King Sizes put together. We had it specially made for the bridal suite. When the girls come round, they love all the details, but the boys like to know they’re going to have a nice bed. So we’ve given them something they can walk away from and go, “I like that venue, it has a massive bed.”

The construction work on the house is just endless. We’re hoping to put in some more bedrooms and better food, develop our farm, so there’s still lots to do.

Visit canvasandstone.co.uk for bookings

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