When my ancestor, John Somers Cocks (Baron Somers), wanted to build a spectacular mansion in the style of a castle, he already knew of the young Robert Smirke, who had just finished building Lowther Castle, near the Scottish border, for the Earl of Lonsdale, and who had worked in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. He had also just completed the new opera house in Covent Garden, to critical acclaim. Smirke also had a reputation for efficiency and keeping with in budget, so there were several reasons why he was a good choice. In a reference letter to Lord Somers, Lord Lonsdale wrote that his architect was entitled to every commendation” and “entirely free from the faults that are generally imputed to architects”. (I imagine they are the same faults today).

Smirke then produced a few watercolours giving an artist’s impression of how the finished castle might look in the dramatic landscape of the Malvern Hills. In the one shown here, an impressive bridge over an artificial channel looked very fine, but even Lord Somers, who was keen to impress, felt it was excessive and eliminated it from the final design. Smirke was allowed to add a conservatory at Lowther, but here his design for a similar addition was omitted.

Our archives contain good records of the work and building accounts. The first stone of the foundation was laid on 24th April 1812, six days before Louisiana joined the USA and just over two weeks before the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. The first cut stone was laid on 23rd June 1812, after which Lord Somers gave a dinner for the workmen, which cost him £43. There is no record of how much of this was spent on drink, but it sounds quite a generous affair.

Work went until 1824, when it was decided to stop, plans for new stables, an even grander staircase as well as the conservatory had been dropped for financial reasons. Some of the larger interior rooms were not completed until later, the Gothic Drawing Room in 1849, for example. In 1821, Lord Somers’ political as well, perhaps, as his construction work had been recognised with the grant of an Earldom, so he may have felt he had done enough.

The full story of the design and building of the castle will be told in a special exhibition in the tea room yard this season. It is being prepared by our archivist, Hazel Lein, and a local historian, David Whitehead.

JH-B
26th January 2012

Land Rover is celebrating 50 years of using the Eastnor Castle estate in Herefordshire as its centre for off road testing and development. Tucked away in rural Herefordshire, this historic piece of English countryside is still an important tool in the research and development of new Land Rovers as well as offering a completely unique Land Rover driving experience to members of the public.

In 1961, Land Rover first chose the 5000 acre Eastnor Castle estate located near Ledbury, Herefordshire to assess the off-road credentials of their vehicles. Half a century on, the tradition continues, with Eastnor playing a pivotal role in the research and development of Land Rover’s outstanding all-round capability and class-leading off road performance.

As well as the cars themselves, Eastnor has been instrumental in developing an impressive collection of Land Rover technologies; such as Anti-lock Brakes, Adjustable Air Suspension, Electronic Traction Control, Hill Descent Control and Terrain Response® – many of which were world firsts in the 4×4 sector.

The tradition of testing all Land Rover models at Eastnor continues to this day.  The Range Rover Evoque was the most recent model to complete its off-road apprenticeship and a large part of the Evoque’s technology, including MagneRide™, was proven on the estate, where ride dampers were tested extensively.

Terrain Response® offers drivers optimal vehicle set-up (electronic and mechanical), and performance, under a variety of off-road conditions.

Whether driving in mud, ruts, rocks, sand, grass, gravel or snow, Terrain Response® has the appropriate setting, and will optimise ride height, engine torque Response®, Hill Decent Control, Electronic Traction Control and transmission settings, ensuring a safe and controlled passage across any terrain. The Eastnor estate provides the ultimate test for all these conditions and is instrumental in the continuing development of this technology.

Eastnor has been used as not only an ideal off-road engineering ground, but since 1989, as an off-road learning centre for the emergency services, explorers, humanitarian societies such as the British Red Cross and, more recently, the general public.

Customers and fans of the brand can now book drive experience days to hone their on and off-road driving skills with tuition from a team of highly qualified Land Rover Experience instructors. Eastnor is one of over 30 centres around the world, and hosts over five and a half thousand visitors every year participating in half or full days, beginner and intermediate training as well as exciting night drives. Over a third of these visitors have travelled from overseas, keen to experience Land Rover in its heartland.

The imminent arrival of autumn is marked first by the migration of the house martins back to Africa. They have been here since the early summer, re-using their mud nests under the projecting crenelations at the tops of the towers and over the octagon bay.  They are most welcome visitors as they seem to keep the fly population under control, and when they go, the flies come into some of our rooms in force, but quickly get hoovered up.

We start to light fires in the Great Hall in October. Their effect is largely cosmetic, given the space they are required to heat if the central heating is not on, but the effect on visitors is very beneficial, and they certainly seem to feel warmer, particularly after braving the chill of the Entrance Hall.

We turn on our central heating very selectively. There are about 12 separate zones and five boilers, so we can avoid unnecessary heating in areas not being used. We use oil at the moment, so the cost has increased very rapidly in the last two years. We are careful, but have to make sure our customers are warm at all times.

One of the clearest harbingers of the winter months is the arrival of our cat in my basement office, having spent the warmer months mostly outside. Normally, she settles in a redundant antique wicker filing tray on a table next to the radiator, but when the radiator is turned down as I try to save fuel, she seeks another warm place. My laptop is her preferred choice at the moment. Whilst I can use a separate keyboard and screen, I am nervous that she will press the Send button with a paw and a message will be sent before I have checked it. I tolerate a certain amount of this foul weather friendship, but eventually lose patience and move her on. She is quite forgiving, luckily.

JH-B    20th November 2011.

After a long gestation period of nearly ten years, a new carpet has been delivered for the Pugin Drawing Room at Eastnor Castle.  It replaces one that was worn out over 50 years ago and will enhance the enjoyment of the room by the many visitors and wedding guests that pass through it every year.

The carpet was designed by Hazel Fox (pictured above) and Lucy Hervey-Bathurst. It was hand made in Turkey by Asad Carpets, owned by Adam Munthe, a local Herefordshire man, whose family owned Hellens in Much Marcle. The patterns are based on fragments of the originals and on designs incorporated in other decorations in the room, once described as Pugin’s finest surviving domestic interior.  Pugin is best known for his interior designs for the Houses of Parliament.

We are delighted with the result. The design fits very well in the room, and the quality of manufacture is superb. The colours go perfectly with the decoration of the room. I  expect people will think it has always been there.

We have waited a long time to complete this project, but it has been worth it.  Our Pugin Drawing Room is used by private parties and is also licensed for weddings, so the new carpet will be enjoyed by a large number of people, including 30,000 members of the visiting public.

JH-B  28th Oct

Mud Runner Classic, the 10km off road run at Eastnor Castle, took place on Sunday 16th October and even in the current dry conditions the muddy swamps were numerous and very thick!

There was also a Junior race of 5 km for children aged 5-15 years which was a tough but fun course filled with challenging mud troughs and obstacles.  200 children took part this year and appeared to love every minute of it!

The main race had a record number of entries and the atmosphere was fantastic with a large number of spectators to cheer the runners around the course.  What inspired many of the runners was the amazing achievement of the first wheelchair competitor for Mud Runner.   Rick Rodger’s, from South East London, is a disabled athlete who showed how a team of determined people and an off road wheelchair (The Mountain Trike) can overcome just about any obstacle!

Rick described the day as a blur of adrenalin fuelled madness!  Accompanied by the wheelchair designer Ed Elias and a team of his friends they put the Mountain Trike through its toughest test to date and it survived!  Rick said that the highlight of the day was coming down the river bed with everyone cheering on the banks as the finish line came into view (finish time was 3:39:46). Ed is also looking for more people willing to compete in future Mud Runner events on the Mountain Trike.

Men’s Results     Female Results
James Bingham – 55:46   Roz Viner        – 1:06:59
John Pullen    –  55:49   Niki Morgan   –  1:08:20
Colin Brearly   –  57:54   Holly Blount    –  1:09:17

Junior Boys Results    Junior Girls Results
James Southall      – 19:43   Sophie Beckingham  – 23:12
Joshua Matthews –  20:07   Hattie Barnett          –  24:44
Jacob Payne         –  21:44   Briony Bishop           –  25:38

For further information: www.mudrunner.co.uk

Unlike the castle, which is only visible from certain vantage points and is otherwise romantically concealed by trees and natural landscape features, our obelisk can be seen for miles around. It stands on a hill lying just west of the main Malvern Hills range and it was put up when building work started on the castle in 1812. It is listed Grade II*

The obelisk is a monument to various distinguished members of the Somers Cocks family, my maternal ancestors, the greatest of whom was John Somers, Lord Chancellor in 1700 and adviser to William III, William of Orange who arrived from the Netherlands with the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Another is Philip James Cocks, an intelligence officer on Wellington’s staff, who died at the siege of Burgos in the Peninsular War on 8th October 1812, six months after work had started on the castle. His father, later 1st Earl Somers, commissioned Robert Smirke, the architect of the castle, to build the obelisk at the same time and also found a space to add his own name to it.

After the last two hard winters and some repairs in the 1970s, when some defective material were used, the facing stone in areas of the obelisk started to fall off. We fenced it off to keep visitors at a safe distance, and earlier this year were lucky enough to be awarded grants from English Heritage and the Country Houses Foundation to help cover the costs of repair. The contract was awarded to Nimbus Conservation of Frome, aptly named for a project that will take the stonemasons close to the clouds. Next year, we hope to finish the project with restoration of the lettering, without which the monument loses most of its point.

James Hervey-Bathurst   21st Sept 2011

The ragwort flowering season is now almost over, and we have been removing as much as we can before the seeds set and spread across the farmland and woods. Although our sheep are hardly threatened by eating ragwort in bales of hay or straw, it is deadly when ingested as it causes liver failure, it is such a prolific weed that it will eventually colonise almost any non-cultivated area if left alone. Rather than have it do this and make everything look yellow, we are trying to eliminate it and leave more traditional native weeds in place and dominant.

I am a zealous ragwort puller myself. I find it satisfying physical work and have noticed that fewer plants grow each year in the areas I have worked on. But we have paid students also to pull it, and they seem to like the work too. We plan where they are to go in advance based on reported sightings, provide them with gloves and let them loose. I just hope they do not love the job so much that they leave a few plants to seed so they can look forward to more work next year.

From time to time I have mentioned my concern about ragwort to officials from Natural England. They are less concerned as they say it is valued as a habitat for a number of invertebrates, including the caterpillar of the Cinnabar moth. But ragwort is listed in the Weeds Act 1959 for good reasons, and so I shall continue to attack it here. But, just when I thought we were getting on top of the problem, I found some growing on the roof, so I may be busy for some time yet!

See also: www.defra.gov.uk/publications/2011/03/15/pb11050-ragwort-disposal-guidance/

JH-B  September 2011

The Big Chill is opening its gates to early bird ticket holders today, and the festival starts in earnest on Thursday evening. Over the last two weeks, a team of festival workers has been setting up the site. The image with this blog shows the main stage nearly complete, but without wiring for sound and lighting. The duck that can be observed in front of the stage will move on to a more welcoming environment before the first chord is struck. Elsewhere on site, other stages are appearing, the fences are mostly up and a few festival goers are appearing in the area and buying last minute tickets.

This year, there is a great line up, headlined by Kanye West, the Chemical Brothers and rodrigo y gabriela. The famous DJ, Mr Scruff, is back, and there is an Art Trail presented by Saatchi Online. There is storytelling for the younger element and, importantly, cocktail bars, real ale and gourmet food for everyone else.

For those who want every day items, an hourly bus service is being run into Ledbury, two miles away. This should boost business and provide a safer transit than the verges of the local roads. Big Chill radio is about to go live, and we have had the great benefit of having a mobile phone signal here for the past week as the temporary transmitters in the Park have been turned on. The weather has been kind during the last two weeks, and we hope it lasts over the festival period. Glastonbury is for mud, and we do not want to compete.

JH-B
3rd August 2011

 

Big Chill Set Up

The Big Chill has rolled into town, or rather into the Deer Park at Eastnor. Yellow signs warning of possible delays and denying access to area not normally associated with the event, except by the seriously, lost, have appeared like pilot fish in advance of the progress of a whale. Aggreko generators have sprung up amongst the oaks and whispered to life as well, providing power to the Production and Licensing Offices and other facilities for the team on site.

Before the stages are constructed, up to 15 miles of fencing is put up to make the site secure. The articulated lorries delivering these weighty loads arrived in good weather with firm ground conditions, which was a great help. Trackway goes down to make a temporary, all-weather road across areas where we cannot put new tracks, and bridges are thrown across streams and ditches to allow access from camping areas to the main site. Lighting in the form of strings of light bulbs stretches across the fields to guide the Chillers to and from the main arenas. Day by day, more elements of the festival appear, with the first arrivals due in a week.

It is a great activity to observe. All has to be in place before the authorities will allow the festival to start, so there is a great sense of urgency. Strange items are delivered to the Castle by mistake, so they are quickly transferred to the Park. As the start approaches, access to the Park gets harder, and 24 hour a day buzz increases. It will all look and sound wonderful when the time comes, and we hope thousands will have a memorable visit to Herefordshire and Eastnor for this great event. They always have so far.

JH-B
28th July 2011

ITV approached us to ask if we could host an episode of Ant & Dec’s Red or Black programme. Luckily, there was space in the diary, so we quickly said we would be delighted to have them. They have written about it on their blog though we are not quite in the Cotswolds but can see them on a clear day in the distance.

We love having TV and filming at Eastnor. They are challenging and different, but a great way to use the house and to get ourselves known to a wider audience. In an earlier TV film of a ghost story, my brother, George, was used as an extra and had to stick his big toe out from behind a cupboard door, which was the limit of his exposure, but apparently he enjoyed it and did not need an Equity card for the work, which I suspect was unpaid.

We have had a good run with TV programmes this year, after a visit from John Craven on Countryfile,  Ruth Watson on Country House Rescue and Dan Cruickshank on the Country House Revealed. We have only had brief appearances, and so we have not enjoyed the surge in visitor numbers enjoyed by Highclere Castle as a result of Downton Abbey, but one day perhaps…             JH-B   25th June 2011

Although Eastnor looks like a castle from a distance and turns out only to be a castellated mansion house on closer inspection, our lake looks like a lake from far away and is not a mirage when you get to it. It really is a lake and it was created in about 1820 by the damming of two streams that flanked the old house, Castleditch, which was demolished when the castle was deemed fit for family occupation in 1818.

As there is a reasonable flow of water through it, even in a dry spring, Robert Smirke, architect of the house and then the lake, closed the dam off with a weir, which forms a point of interest for those walking around the lake. It also has the capacity to allow flood waters to roar over after heavy rain as a better alternative to bursting the bund. The pool below the weir is crossed by an elegant, if now somewhat rusty, cast-iron bridge. A sluice can be opened to by pass the weir and lower the level of the lake below its crest at times, for example when we want to net fish or repair the bund.

We are required to have the lake inspected under the terms of the Reservoirs Act 1975, as now updated by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. However, we have not needed an engineer to tell us we have a problem, though the threat of trouble from the authorities has galvanised us into getting plans drawn up to have the dam properly repaired. The problems are more or less obvious from the image: damage to the stonework of the weir walls and face, water leaking round the side and rust on the hand rail of the bridge. The structure of the weir consists of a lime concrete base, a material pioneered by Smirke and one which fortunately can be repaired.

We expect to start at the end of the summer English Heritage has offered a useful grant, for which we are very grateful, but we hope our visitors keep coming this summer to help provide the rest of the money needed.          JH-B  5/6/11

Lillias Guyon wrote to us last November proposing her services as a restorer of gilding.  There is not too much gilding here, except on the picture frames.  Most of our paintings have been moved about, on and off display, sometimes going to exhibitions (from where they usually return in better condition), re-hung, sent away for cleaning etc, and as a result, many frames have been chipped and damaged.

I used to think the odd chip did not matter.  However, as the number expanded, the overall effect was to make the collection look scruffy.  There was a time when we wanted people to think we had only old paintings from the family collection, and so an element of what the auction houses call “Country House Condition” was fine.  But now our visitors pay more and like to see the place looking well cared for.  So Lillias’s services come at a good time.

Like most people, I receive a lot of unsolicited offers through the post.  I called Lillias because she wrote by hand (legibly), she lived not too far away and, as others often say they do, she said she often passed through Ledbury.  She sent a good, not too glossy brochure, and when we met, she seemed happy to start work without producing a condition report as it was obvious to both of us, on inspection, what the condition of the paintings was.  I just hope the condition of the frames does not then make the paintings themselves look scruffy.

JH-B    April 2011

The daffodils are coming out, bringing some welcome colour to the banks around the house after a hard winter.  Some I planted in our own garden has been dug up or eaten, I assume, as they have not yet appeared, but there are plenty of others to enjoy.

I always hope the daffodils will be out when the visitors arrive at Easter. The combination of global warming, not perceptible at Eastnor this winter, and the vagaries of the church calendar and its fixing of the date of Easter often means the visitors miss out on the bright colours and have to be content with dead heads and senescent leaves instead An early Easter is often rather cold, so there will be some compensations and distractions when we hold our annual Easter treasure hunt:

Elsewhere in the Grounds, we have opened up the views to the north of the house overlooking the lake, deer park and, in the distance, the Malvern Hills The north end of the lake is gradually closing up as the bulrushes advance, but we hope to dredge it in the autumn next year. Two swans paid us a visit this week, but clearly decided we were not good enough and moved on. Perhaps they’ll come again and stay when the dredging is done.

 

 JH-B       16th March 2011

Just as we thought it was safe to look away and concentrate on other projects, a section of plaster fell down into the road through the Portcullis arch. Luckily, no-one was hurt.  We had looked at repairing it when we re-roofed the portcullis in 2008, with the generous assistance of the Country Houses Foundation but had decided it could wait as it was still secure.  We were right, up to a point.

We decided to knock all the plaster down after inspecting the supporting timbers, which, after years of what architects call ingress i.e. leaks to ordinary people, were rotten.  But at least they were dry following the replacement of the lead valley gutter above.

Our Works Department swung into action and erected scaffolding, from which they could safely measure up for the replacement timbers, which we then cut out in out workshop. They were fitted in a day and netting added to keep away nesting doves, who would certainly have moved in, uninvited, before the plaster was replaced.  With the approach of spring cleaning and the house closing, the scaffolding will be re-erected and the job finished.  The men said the enjoyed the job as it was out of the ordinary.

Ironically, one event we held while the ceiling was down was for our architect, who had supervised the original repair, but we did not draw the job to the attention of his guests.  It would not have been fair to imply any failure on his part.  He said it would need doing sometime, and he was right. It is always nice to be able to blame someone, but there was no chance this time.              JH-B        25th February 2011

We have been lucky to have a number of famous visitors to Eastnor, often here for filming, TV, the Big Chill or to drive Land Rovers.  But the one most remembered is Fred Dibnah, the world-famous steeplejack who came here after we met and became friends at the Welland Steam rally, where I was showing my Fowler B6 Heavy Road Locomotive, “Atlas”.  Fred came over to admire the engine as it had been well known in Lancashire where he lived, and I invited him to drive it back to Eastnor with me.

Fred was passionate about engines and, as I then discovered, old buildings, especially those of the 19th century, where elements of Victorian engineering and craftsmanship survived. Eastnor filled the bill nicely. Late, after he had repaired “Atlas” in his Bolton workshop, he returned the engine here as part of one of his TV series, and then came back to film under the roof where we examined a huge cast iron beam, used over the Great Hall in the construction of the house to support the Keep. Fred was a natural broadcaster, enthusiastic, articulate and professional, he kept his cap on throughout.

Fred then generously came back to attend our steam rallies and sign books, videos and photographs for visitors. He certainly drew the crowds and had time for a chat with everyone who was prepared to wait. He sat in the shadow of “Atlas”, drinking beer steadily throughout the day. Being a celebrity did not change him: he was always himself, and he was loved for what he was.

We display photographs of Fred dangling from one of our towers in his bosun’s chair, scraping the remains of the Virginia creeper off the walls and swinging about with a long hoe trying to finish the job. If I ever meet strangers who say they recognise me, it is always because they remember my appearing on Fred’s programmes. He was a great man, and we miss him.                                               JH-B    7th January 2011

It is hard to imagine the effort that must have gone into keeping Eastnor warm in winter before the days of central heating.  Every room had a fireplace, so footmen must have been very busy carrying supplies of coal and wood all over the house.  There is an old coal lift in the cellars and a large firewood store to receive timber from the estate.  But I am sure the family kept away from Eastnor in the winter and wore much thicker clothes when they did venture down from London.

My grandfather put the first wave of central heating in during the 1930s, writing to his sister to say she would no longer freeze in her bedroom when she came to stay.  But when my brother and I were brought up here in the 1950s, the heating was only put on for special occasions, and we otherwise relied on wood-burning stoves, then imported specially from Denmark, and open fires.  The kitchen was kept warm by an Aga, burning solid fuel.  We became adept at splitting logs and working a special lift to take logs up from the cellars.

Now we have a business here as a wedding venue and corporate events venue, the house has to be kept at a good temperature all the time.  The flagstones of the Great Hall heat up and provide a good reservoir of heat, as long as the massive radiators are working. We have replaced the old boilers with some that are more fuel-efficient, insulated the roofs and fitted numerous different circuits so we need only heat the areas in use.  One day, we will consider a wood chip or ground-source system, but for the time being we save fuel by turning the heating off when we do not have a booking.        JH-B   17th December 2010

As the image shows, we are one of the few historic houses to welcome visits from dogs. They enter free of charge as long as they bring an owner on a lead. This year, our records show we have had 380 dog visitors.

My mother started it. She loved dogs and thought it was perfectly reasonable for them to come in. Although the temperature in those days at Easter opening was a lot cooler as the heating was not on and the Hall fire not lit, few dogs mistook the interior of the house for the outside, and accidents were rare, if they happened at all.

Today, some dogs are even an added attraction for other visitors, being easier to relate to and appreciate than some of the obscurer but still, I think, very interesting objects we have on display. On hot days, they welcome the cooler areas, and of course we would lose business if the owner had to stay outside with a dog that could not be left in a car.

So it is good for us and the dogs, and we have earned our place on the Dog Friendly Britain website.

 JH-B  17th November 2010

Mud Bath

D3 Active organised a second Mud Runner event around Eastnor last weekend.  It is firmly placed on the running calendar, though there was no participation from my family members!  The sun was shining but it didn’t affect the seriously muddy conditions on the tracks.  The 10km off road run across the estate uses many of the driving tracks that Land Rover use to test their vehicles on, all of which provide a tough and challenging run as well as a generous amount of thick deep mud and large troughs of muddy water!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiEmUVx9U54&feature=player_embedded

The atmosphere of the race was, as always, high spirited, sociable and fun. There was double the number of entries this year, with over 1000 runners, as the event grows in popularity due to its distinctly challenging and challenging terrain!  The organisers this year also built a giant steam bath (full of bubbles!) for the racers to de-mud themselves and warm up.  It was greatly appreciated by many and adding the camaraderie and uniqueness of the event.

All the feedback so far has been very positive with runners finding it very demanding, gruelling, tough on the legs but immense fun.

Second place Matt James said “The organisation of Mud Runner is what sets it apart and the atmosphere is brilliant.  It feels like you’re getting a three course meal not the normal two courses!”

Second female runner, Elsa Knoertzer said “Concentrating on which part of the mud pit to step into and how not to swallow too much mud in the process made me forget the pain, as did the sense of comradeship amongst competitors.”

The next two Mud Runner events at Eastnor in the series are:
Icebreaker – Winter Duathlon – February 6th 2011
Mud Runner Oblivion – May 8th 2011

See you then.    JH-B    22nd October 2010

We often entertain customers of Land Rover in the castle as well as on the woodland tracks and steep slopes on the estate.  This time, our guests were the families who had bought the limited edition Range Rover Autobiography Black and had a night at Eastnor as a reward from Land Rover.

This is the sight that greeted them on arrival.  Some makes of 4 x 4 are accused only of going off-road on the pavements of Kensington & Chelsea, so the 14 steps of our Entrance Hall presented a sterner challenge, but not for long.  The Range Rover reached the required level quite easily, and the doors were then closed. All went well, and there was no trace of vehicular ingress when the car left to return to its natural habitat at the end of the visit.

Meanwhile, the guests, who were probably longing to get driving to learn the capabilities of this superb, 313 hp, V8 powered car, had to change for dinner, meet me and then have a brief guided tour before sitting down to four courses in our State Dining Room. The food and wine helped them forget the alternative entertainment for the evening, but they had a very good day’s off-road driving the next day, provided by Land Rover Experience.  I enjoyed my evening with them very much as they were great enthusiasts and definitely having a good time. I hope sales keep up…

JH-B    9th October 2010

My grandfather left the army in 1919 after serving in France with the Life Guards.  He inherited Eastnor from his cousin, Lady Henry Somerset, in 1920, but the house came without a butler.  He contacted his old regiment to ask if there were any men about to leave who might want the job, and Alistair Birtwhistle’s father, Passmore, applied and got the job.

Passmore (“Birt” or “Mr Birt” to me as he stayed on, in a different role, until the 1970s) married a girl who also worked at Eastnor and lived in the village.  Alistair, one of his two sons, was brought up here and has now retired to Cheltenham.  He is a talented wood turner and is occasionally tempted back here to do some work for us.

His memories of Eastnor as a boy are clear, and the picture shows him emerging from a cupboard on the guest bedroom landing, where, in 1937, he had been told to hide with his brother so that they could catch a discreet glimpse of Queen Mary as she passed by. Inevitably, they were spotted but not ticked off, at least as far as Alistair could remember.

I look forward to hearing more stories on his next visit. 
JH-B   24th September 2010

The cottages at Eastnor are, with one or two exceptions, let to people who live and work locally and some for the estate. It is better to have cottages lived in all the time rather than just at weekends, and many families looking to buy in the area like to rent for a time while they look for a suitable property.

However, we decided to change our policy for Peacock Villa and Golden Gates Lodge. The first was formerly a gamekeeper’s cottage and is in the top end of the deer park on the edge of a wood, just off the Worcestershire Way. When last occupied, it had well water and electricity supplied by a diesel generator. There was no central heating. Access was ideally by a 4×4 so although habitable, it was not particularly comfortable by modern standards. When the last tenants left, we decided to defer re-letting until we could budget for a full make-over.

The process has been completed, electricity installed, water supply upgraded and a full refurbishment has taken place and now transformed in to holiday lets through Stately Holiday Homes.

The second, Golden Gates Lodge, is in the middle of the Park, straddling the limestone ridge that runs from the foot of the British Camp to the main entrance of the Castle. It is now available for let and we hope they will prove a useful add-on to our business and add to the tourism offer of Herefordshire.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned that our Brussels tapestry showing the Battle of Gaugamela (formerly known as Battle of Arbela), which took place in 331BC between Alexander the Great and Darius III, had been sent off for repair. It was due to take about a year, but in the end it stayed away nearly 18 months. But the result was worth waiting for.

Alison Lister of Textile Conservation Limited and her team had a big job to do. First it had its lining and wall fittings removed and was sent for washing a the Royal Manufacturers De Wit at Mechelen in Belgium, that was wet cleaning, carried out on a large suction table using special detergent and soft water. We do not have any similar process available in the UK.

The tapestry was then relined and repaired, where there had been earlier patching. Many broken warps were reinforced by inserting new, colour-matched woollen threads, and new Velcro tape attached for attaching to the wall. It was still a perfect fit, despite the washing and repairs (I may think of sending my jerseys for the same treatment, although the delay and cost would be inconvenient), and it looks much cleaner and stronger.

The replica we had printed has been sold back to the supplier, who hopes to find a home for it elsewhere. No-one complained while the genuine article was away. Some may grumble now, however, as we have been advised to keep light levels as low as possible, so it may not always be easy to admire the excellent quality of the work of restoration.

JH-B 12th September 2010

We were asked to talk to Countryfile about the Big Chill and the effects on the natural environment in the Park as a result of the festival and camping. It was part of a John Craven investigation for the programme, and with over twenty years’ experience of looking at country issues for the BBC, John was likely to be a wise and perceptive interviewer.

The Park at Eastnor is in the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and parts of it are within a Site of Special Scientific Interest, although the sensitive flora and fauna are not in the part used by the Big Chill. There is also a herd of red deer, which have traditionally grazed the grassland and sheltered amongst the oaks, but for health and safety reasons they are confined to an area outside the event and public camping sites. So Countryfile would have some pertinent questions to ask about the impact of the Chill, and how the park could recover after the event.

The Big Chill agreed to let the cameras in, and the festival director, Melvin Benn, gave the lead interview. He explained how the Chill was motivated to work as far as possible on green principles, maximising recycling and minimising its carbon footprint. He emphasised the effort made after the Festival to clear all litter and the Chill’s Leave no trace policy.

John then came to see me at the Castle, where we could see the site from a distance in the setting of the Malvern Hills. He arrived in an authentic VW Camperbus, a reminder that he had attended an early, if not the first, Glastonbury festival. We discussed how the ground recovered and also the positive economic impact of the Chill on Ledbury and Herefordshire in general. Luckily, Melvin and I seemed to say much the same, and the litter pickers have been covering the ground since the festival closed with Lily Allen’s closing performance on 8th August.

We look forward to the Big Chill’s return in 2011.

To see the Countryfile progrramme click on to BBCi player – https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tl5fv/Countryfile_22_08_2010/

The Big Chill returned to our Park at the beginning of August, under new management but with the same guiding spirit. For nearly three weeks before the event and for about two weeks after it, the Park is transformed from a relatively peaceful area of woodland pasture into a festival site, with temporary trackway, security fencing, lighting, Aggreko generating sets, Portacabins, tents and, of course, stages for the performers. It is an amazing process to watch, but with experience from Glastonbury, Leeds, Reading and Latitude festivals, the organisers had everything ready for the three-day programme.

The weather, the key factor in determining how the ground fares and the comfort of the festival goers, was good, if not hot. A little rain in the build up period helped to make the grass green, so the Park looked fine. All grazing stock had to be removed four weeks before the start, so we had to mow the grass, in long straight lines, before the set up started, but the trees helped to create a good rural atmosphere, and no-one felt they were on a golf course.

The Big Chill employed a number of local teenagers, but also including the son of Belgian friends of ours, who finished the fortnight speaking much better English, although with a slight Yorkshire accent. A number of businesses in the area also benefited by supplying good and services to the festival, balancing the inconvenience that some will have suffered when the traffic to and from the site was heavy. There were about 30,000 festival goers and workers in the Park altogether, and most of them seemed to be in front of the main stage for Lily Allen’s closing act on the Sunday night. There was a great atmosphere.

We are lucky to have the Big Chill in Herefordshire and look forward to their return in 2011.     JH-B  20th August 2010

We hosted the very successful Original Source Mountain Mayhem event again this year, and over 2650 competitors and even more supporters and spectators arrived in the Park for the weekend of 18/20th June. The event is now well established here, and if we can find enough routes to offer annual changes for the course, we hope it will stay. At other times, the Park is not open to mountain bikers, which helps to make Mountain Mayhem special.

The races are divided into a number of categories so almost everyone has a chance to compete. One year, I saw a man on a monocycle but never discovered if he was in a class of his own, though in one sense, of course, he was. The course snakes around the Park and nearby land, with a good mixture of hill work and some water crossings. The races are endurance tests and last 24 hours. This year it all went very well and was a credit to the organisers, and, to some extent, the dry weather, which made the going easier.

As boys, my brother and I used to ride our bikes in the Park too, but with unsprung Raleighs and Sturmey Archer Three Speed gears. Going to watch Mountain Mayhem and seeing all the trade stands reminds us how much off-road biking has developed. I still ride my 40 year old Raleigh, although I stick to the roads as much as possible, with only the occasional downhill run on the grass ……and no Lycra! JH-B

Last month, we hosted Land Rover employees who had been involved in the design, development and manufacture of Range Rovers at Eastnor to celebrate the birth of the car, 40 years ago. Much has changed in the design and specification over the period, but the unique off-road qualities of the Range Rover have remained ahead of the field.

We were lucky to have had much of the original testing take place on our land, often under the watchful eye of Spen King, its famous designer.The coil-sprung suspension was tried out over ruts and ant hills, the gear boxes tested to destruction on a special steep track in one of the woods, subsequently known as Gear Box Hill, and paint work was brushed up against thorn trees to see how badly it would scratch.

At other times, traction and braking were proved on wet grass and ignition systems exposed to deep water wading trials. Some early prototypes were more like Land Rovers in disguise, with V8 engines to take the unsuspecting by surprise when pulling away from traffic lights.

It was an exciting time, and the finished product justified all the effort involved. Range Rovers are still the best 4 x 4s in the world, we think, now with very sophisticated control and management systems and very smart interiors. The days of engaging the red or yellow knob for four-wheel drive are definitely over, although the Land Rover heritage fleet is never far away if you want to be reminded of the old days.

We had a happy day. The Land Rover team enjoyed themselves, drove off road, experienced first-hand the sort of driving conditions their vehicles are designed to tackle and had a good lunch. Anyone else wanting to try should apply through Land Rover Experience.

Note: Spen King sadly died on 26th June, three days before the event: see Telegraph article.

JH-B 30th June 2010

My mother used to allow a local supplier to photograph his outdoor products on the lawns in the castle grounds, our first business of this kind. Then we progressed to fashion shoots for Kutchinsky, with Norman Parkinson taking the photographs, and Tatler magazine, where one of the models was Sienna Miller.

Now, we have just had a fashion shoot for ladies’ underwear, which was booked at short notice at a time when we are not yet open most of the week for visitors, although some might perhaps have enjoyed watching. We cannot give a preview of the products, which have yet to be launched, so the photograph just shows the design and photography team, with one of the models (for the avoidance of doubt, in the middle of the group!).

The crew have enjoyed working here as they are generally free to use our furniture if they want, and to move it about as necessary. It is an advantage not being a museum and having more flexible guidelines as to what we do with the contents. The models seemed to be happy too, and one said she would like to come back and be married here. The house was warm, which seemed to help in the circumstances. We also enjoyed having the shoot here and hope they will return. JH-B 11th June 2010.

Our Works Department has been restoring Golden Gates Lodge, a listed building in the middle of our deer park on the Ridgeway drive that used to bring carriages down from the British Camp on the Malvern Hills to the Castle gates in the village. Lucy, my wife, has been in charge of the decorations and furnishings. The Lodge has long been by-passed with the inevitable cattle grid speeding vehicular traffic on its way to the woods for off-road Land Rover driving or to a nearby farm, but the Lodge has been let and kept in good order.

Recently, with the Big Chill and other busy Park events, it has not been as peaceful a place to rent as it should be, so we decided to make it our second furnished holiday cottage. It joins another Park property, Peacock Villa which we have been letting successfully from this spring and has one double bedroom, sitting room, kitchen and bathroom on the larger, west side, and a double bedroom and bathroom on the east side. We have rebuilt the supporting wall for the lower garden, which has a wonderful view over the Park, and made a patio there for warm weather use.

The Lodge lies close to the footpath which crosses the Park and takes walkers up onto the ridge of the Malvern Hills and the Worcestershire Way. (See the cottage gallery for views of the surrounding area) The Ridgeway Wood, just behind the Lodge, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and visitors can follow the drive up to the gates at the top of the Ridgeway or join another footpath that crosses it and leads up to Clutters Cave, also on the Hills. It will be a great place to stay. JH-B 3rd June 2010

Last weekend we held our first BIG Challenge weekend, a family event organised jointly by D3, who are based nearby, and our office. The aim was to attract family teams to participate and compete in various activities around the castle grounds. Luckily, the weather was quite good, if a bit cool, and we had almost 3,000 visitors over two days.

Teams had the chance to face an orienteering challenge, try a mountain bike course, climb high ladders, participate in archery and riding and descend the 250 metre zip wire from the top of one of the towers across the lake. The last activity, on a wire rope with a 20 ton breaking strain (we are told) was quickly sold out as it is great fun and only requires the participant to climb up a ladder to reach the top of the tower, with a narrow hatch acting as a tactful selector for those the right size to go on the wire.

My 4 year-old daughter loved the riding and the climbing ladder, which was a home-made affair made out of tree trunks and branches roped onto them to form the rungs. They looked like medieval assault ladders, to lead an attack from the Lower to Upper Terrace, and worked well, even if climbers had to wear hard hats and be attached to safety ropes. But that may be why there were no injuries during the event, and everyone seemed to have a good time. I hope we can do it again next year. JH-B 3/06/10

We were asked if we would host this event at the end of April, a regular now in the Herefordshire calendar and we were delighted to do so. My grandmother had been involved with the Red Cross most of her adult life, starting when her family home at Marsh Court, Stockbridge, was turned in to a nursing home during the First World War, so there was a strong family connection.

The event was spread around the grounds, but visitors also had free access to the castle once they had paid for their entry ticket. The stalls mostly sold plants and gardening-related produce. About 2,500 attended, in coolish weather after a hot spell, but it was dry and bright. There were certainly more women than men, although those men that did come were given plenty of plants to carry back to their cars so they had a useful role.

After a successful day, the Red Cross had raised about £32,000 and the organisers, who had worked very hard to ensure all went well, were very pleased. It was good for us to be associated with such a successful event and to have the chance to welcome so many local people for a good cause. We hope they will come again. We host four or five charity events a year, and this has been one of the best.

JH-B
28th May 2010

When we asked Donald Smith, the restorer we use for painted ceilings, to touch up the Library ceiling this year, he reported a sagging area. On closer inspection, one of the ribs which form the frame of the 44 painted panels, executed when the Library was redecorated by George Fox in the 1860s, had cracked and dropped. Something serious was obviously happening.

We first had a Health & Safety moment and checked to see if the damaged section was about to drop. It appeared secure, so we did not have to support it from below, which would have been quite tricky given the height of the room. We then cleared the furniture from the Queen’s Bedroom above the crack and lifted the floorboards. But before we could see what the problem was, we had to hack away the lathe and plaster layer of sound proofing, which insulates the sound of footsteps, in the days before fitted carpets, in the bedroom from the company in the room below.

Then, we found the cause of the problem straight away. The ceiling was suspended from beams by nails driven in from below. The nails were hand cut (nothing but the best for my forebears) and tapered. A combination of the weight of the plaster and drying out of the wood had caused a few nails to start to pull out of the wood. Their shape did not help.

We could not lift the ceiling back, so after consultation with architect, engineer and our Clerk of Works, Alan Smith, we decided to secure it all with angled brackets. We used Graham Walker and his team from Ledbury to do the work. One of them was thin enough to fit under the floor in the gap above the ceiling to reach the areas inaccessible from above. We hope it will now be secure for the indefinite future but have taken the chance also to photograph all 44 painted panels just in case.

JH-B 11th May 2010