On October 22nd, the Daily Mail ran a two page spread on how restoring Upton Cressett (which they dubbed 'Money Pit Manor') had 'saved my sanity' with the three year renovation of the house being as much to do with restoring my own well being (post divorce) as that of the romantic old moated manor I took over from my parents in 2007. Following a large number of emails I received from people who read the article, and had more questions, I am publishing below the unexpurgated version of the original copy (over 4000 words) I filed to the Daily Mail, after being commissioned to write the article. This commission was prompted by an item by Richard Kay in his column mentioning that Upton Cressett had been nominated for three awards at the 2011 Hudson's Heritage Awards - the Oscars of the heritage world, to be held at the Grosvenor Square Hotel on November 15th. The only other house in the country to have three nominations is the magnificent Burghley House in Lincolnshire; what follows is the story of how Upton Cressett got to be nominated as the provincial underdog on the big night.
BETTER THAN BLENHEIM!
How restoring Upton Cressett restored by sanity, by William Cash
Looking back, the very lowest point of the restoration of my family home, Upton Cressett, in Shropshire, came on a trip to Paris in June 2009. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to visit the Catacombs of Paris, an underground cemetery and set of tunnels under Paris that hold the bones, skulls and remains of about 6 million people.
Opened in the late 18th century, the underground tunnel network - with thousands and thousands of dusty old skulls piled on top of each other in pyramid forms has long been a somewhat macabre tourist attraction.
Once down in the deep tunnel, I began slowly walking past the skulls and epitaphs of the dead; within about twenty minutes, I started to feel a sense of claustrophobic panic that my life - aged 43 - was falling apart: already divorced once, my second marriage was also showing every sign of failing.
I blamed myself. Back home, in Shropshire, the moated and romantic historic Elizabethan manor and Gatehouse, with its extraordinary history that I had so much looked forward to living in, and bringing up a family, (and two Borzois) was still a building site after I had gutted most of the property once my parents - who moved into Upton Cressett in 1971 - had moved out.
As I stared around at the hundreds of thousands of skulls seemingly confronting me, I felt an overwhelming sense of personal despair. The building work at Upton Cressett had crawled to a halt. The builders had been laid off. Keeping my publishing business alive was costing over £30,000 a month as we expanded into countries like Russia. The skulls seemed to be telling me something: how did I get myself into this mess? Would I ever get to live at Upton Cressett?
On November 15th, I will be sitting nervously in my dinner jacket at the Grosvenor House hotel for the 2011 Hudson's Heritage Awards, which are the Oscars of the heritage business. Upton Cressett Hall, to my delight, has been nominated for three categories: Best Restoration; Best Accommodation and 'Hidden Gem'.
The only other historic house in the country to have been nominated for three categories is Burghley, one of Europe's most celebrated stately homes, so I am feeling in high spirits these days, with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that has replaced the despair.After a media tycoon made me an offer for my publishing business from the Swiss ski slopes that has allowed me to complete the two year restoration, all the hard work - and painful cheque writing - seems to have has paid off.
I am not sure that the moated and romantic manor of Upton Cressett - where Prince Rupert stayed in the Civil War and where King Edward V (one of the princes of the Tower) stayed on his way from Ludlow to his murder in the Tower in 1483 - can quite match the Elizabethan splendour of Burghley in Lincolnshire, home of William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.
The main part of Bughley has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. Upton Cressett cannot compete with such magnificence - although Sir Francis Cressett (whose portrait hangs in our Great Hall dining room by Wissing) was Treasurer to Charles I, and was one of those who attempted to rescue the king from Carisbroke Castle. If the black tie awards on November 15th are anything like the real Oscars, Upton Cressett is definitely the English indie film that has made it - through sheer perseverence - to Hollywood's big night. I was, delighted when we re-opened the house for the first time in over fifteen years over the August Bank Holiday Weekend and had over 600 visitors, with one woman writing in the visitor book 'Better than Blenheim!". That made my afternoon.
Other guests at Upton Cressett over the years have included Baroness Thatcher and more recently my old friend Elizabeth Hurley who stayed in the Library Bedroom in the Gatehouse and was guest of honour at a dinner at the house to celebrate the finishing of the restoration of the house (in May) and the opening of the Upton Cressett Foundation, a new literary retreat for established writers from around the world.
After her visit was splashed on the front page of the Shropshire Star, our local newspaper, honeymooners or people wanting a romantic mini-break call up and want to stay in the Elizabeth Hurley suite. I politely tell them its called the Library Bedroom - as the writers we have as guest fellows love writing in - and it will stay that way!'
Much of the reason for the nominations is because of the extraordinary mural work of Adam Dant, winner of the Jerwood Prize, who lives at the house for nearly a year painting on his back in freezing conditions and creating a new hand-painted Tudor-style ceiling for the Great Hall dining room, as well as a new painted staircase, similar to that at Knole, as well as wall hangings and a new Dutch garden that I have started based on the 16th century designs of Hans Vredeman de Vries.
Country Life recently called Dant's paintings at Upton Cressett 'daring' and 'remarkable'; if we do win any awards on November 15th, much of it will be down to Dant's extraordinary work, which is also collected by the Prince of Wales and is held in the V & A, and Tate Britain.
The work involved commissioning artist Adam Dant to undertake a unique 16th century inspired handpainted ceiling for the Great Dining Room, as well as mural and cartouche work for the main newel Great Staircase, paint Elizabethan hanging cloths in the Gatehouse, as well as painting the Jacobean posts and trellises of a new Elizabethan garden for the spectacular 1580 Gatehouse which has been turned into a flourishing writers' retreat - the first of its type in Britain.
During the very early building work, fragments of fine and colourful 16th century wall-paintings and friezes were uncovered around the house. I decided that the restoration project should include a commission from an experienced artist and painting specialist to restore parts of the house to their former late Tudor glory. The house was lived in for centuries by the Cressett family, influential and wealthy royalists (with a flair for ornate plasterwork and wall decoration).
All this heritage can now be experienced by the public as the The Gatehouse is available for private let with optional English butler service. To this end, I packed off my gardener Darren to the Greycoat Academy butler school after seeing an ad for such a school in the back of Country Life. The butler school itself was another comic misadventure - worthy of PG Wodehouse himself. I had booked the two day butler course (to learn how to clean a gun, lay the table for a five course dinner, open a dusty bottle of 50 year old port) at a time when the markets were in tailspin and all the hedgies and bankers who decided they wanted butlers suddently decided to cancel.
I was informed the day before my 'man' was due at a country house in Sussex that the course was being 'postponed'. To his disappointment, the course that subsequently took place was not in a stately home but a tiny terraced house in Battersea - ironically a former servant's cottage.
The two-year restoration has corrected some architectural and building errors made in the 1970s, and made substantial architectural, decorative and landscaping improvements including turning the old Great Hall dining room back from being the old family kitchen - with a nasty 1970s formica fitted kitchen won in a raffle - into a great Tudor dining hall again. The former 14th century hall is now my working library with ancient medieval bats that dive bomb me in great swoops any time I start writing at night.
In the Great Hall dining room, which has a fireplace that Simon Jenkins has described as being one of the largest in England outside of Hampton Court, ancient beams were uncovered, floorboards raised and Adam Dant spent two months on his back in freezing conditions handpainting the ceiling using paints that were identical to those used by Elizabethan's - including mixing sheep's urine with animal blood.
These include new entrance gates and brick piers (using 17th century reclaimed bricks), turning the 14th century Hall into a library, restoring rare 16th century ornate plasterwork, putting in new leaded light windows across the house, restoring the Great Hall dining room to its Tudor glory and reviving the tradition of the Great Painted Staircase basing the 16th century designs on work at Knole and the folio decorations from Shakespeare's plays.
Adam Dant took the famous Upton Cressett 'sea-dragon' motif that was discovered on some panelling in the Red Bedroom and we have repeated this famous motif around the house in their work. We know the house was filled with frieze work depicting the Cressett sea-dragon from pictures taken in the 1960s. I was also fortunate enough to buy the famous oak 'Cressett Cradle' at Christie's, along with a portrait of Sir Francis Cressett by Wissing. The 'cradle' sale was a fiasco in itself as I ended up bidding over three times the estimate. When I finally got the lot, I asked the underbidder why he was so keen to buy the oscure 15th century crade and he said he wanted it as a 'kennel' for his much prized cat.
Dant has also painted a unique series of Elizabethan 'hanging cloths' - painting on linen using 16th century painting techniques - that depicts the 'Seasons of Prince Rupert', celebrating his visit to Upton Cressett in the Civil War and his connections with the Cressett family.
The incentive for the restoration was to once again open up this 'secret jewel' of Shropshire's heritage to the public and put the Hall, Gatehouse and gardens very much on the map as a leading heritage attraction in the county. This is partly because there are so few historic houses open to the public in private ownership in the Shropshire area. Acclaimed historian and gardener Dr Katherine Swift has also been commissioned to re-design the 10 acre gardens, moat walk and woods, making the gardens very much part of the visitor experience.
The restoration was celebrated with a special performance of Much Ado About Nothing put on in the grounds over a Bank Holiday weekend. The performance - interrupted by rain and mooing by cows - year marks the 40th anniversary of our family living at Upton Cressett in Shropshire.
When I took over the property in 2007, the house needed completely re-modernising, from new electrics to lime-plastering to new mullion windows, as well as installing central heating for the first time in 500 years. In my parents' day, the main guest bathroom was almost fifty yards from some bedrooms.
On freezing winter mornings, I used to hear people literally running down the corridor in order to get to the bathroom; and then five minutes later they would run back (with a towel around their waist) as they discovered that the hot water - there was just enough for two baths a day for the entire household - had run out and they would either have to face a cold shower or use kettles. Ironically, the new plumbing I have installed - which involved drilling sometimes for hours to get through an ancient 15th century floor joist - has been a fiaso as Upton Cressett must be one of the only country houses in England that has unlimited hot water but never enough cold water.
At my first shooting party weekend, in January of this year, I was horrified to learnt hat the cold water tank fitted is of a size large enough to provide water for an average 'two bedroom' house. Another £5000 had to be spent to install a new cold water storage tank.
But Upton Cressett is used to change. The house has had many facelifts, modernisations and incarnations. Simon Jenkins, in his book 'The Thousand Best Houses of Britain', describes his frustration at trying to understand the architecture of the house, saying: 'It is not easy to read'. I like that aspect of living here. You never quite know what rooms were originally used for what, or when new floors were put in- such as the floor of the library whose upper beamed roof is the original roof of the 14th century Great Hall - and this adds a living sense of fluid and living time to the house. It is not a house that feels preserved in Tudor aspic, its musty atmosphere weighed down by too much dark oak furniture, as I feel whenever I visit other local houses such as Boscabel (where Charles II hid up an oak tree and where I proposed to my first wife) or old Moseley Hall.
Originally built of timber in the 14th century, it was upgraded to brick in 1580 - as was the fashion - by Richard Cressett who was Sheriff of Shropshire and has his initials carved in the panelling above the bed in the master bedroom. In the 16th century, Upton Cressett had one of the largest medieval deer parks in the Midlands.
The last of the Cressetts, Elizabeth, died in the eighteenth century, but the property remained in another branch of the family until 1919. I have a wonderful old photograph of the gatehouse as it was then with the turrets entwined in ivy and almost hidden by overgrown trees, making it look like the haunting and romantic setting for a Daphne du Maurier novel.
Even in the modern age, the house has an interesting and colourful footnote. According to the historian Andrew Roberts, who has stayed here, when Hitler's generals were eyeing up possible locations to act as a Midlands HQ for the Third Reich after invading Britain, Upton Cressett was circled as a possible base for Hitler and his entourage because of its remote and safe location - at the end of a long and steep three mile cul-de-sac lane that has no neighbours or other roads. Andrew wrote an article about this a few years ago and it now hangs on the wall of the downstairs cloakroom.
Throughout the restoration process, I had to get to familiarize myself with terms like 'double-beading' on the new oak doors I had made by a craftsman in Leominster for the new dining room. I had to decipher the difference between medieval and modern methods of lime plastering.
Instead of stocking up on wine, cheese or CDs, I used to be spend my time stockpiling tins of Lord Sheraton oak polish and also jars -bought by the car boot load - of special beeswax polish made at nearby Aldenham Park, home of Sir Harold Acton , where Evelyn Waugh used to stay.
Whilst the prospect of renovating and managing the building works for such a mammoth and money pit of a project - especially doing it all on one's own - may fill many people with panic, fear and horror, to my surprise, I found the two year experience to have been cathartic. In Candia McWilliam's moving and brilliant memoir of what it is like to find yourself going blind, 'What To Look For In Winter, A Memoir of Blindness', she writes that she has inherited from her father - an architectural historian who used to work preserving buildings for the National Trust in Scotland - the 'capacity to be completely changed by a building, to be inhabited by it imaginatively and emotionally. Three times in my life I have been rescued by architecture'.
Certainly, I have in some way been 'rescued' by Upton Cressett. I never thought it was possible to have as close and intense a relationship with a house, albeit one that was in desperately in need of 'work', and whose own refurbishment and re-birth become inexorably linked with my own regeneration, which is why the Hudson's Heritage Awards mean so much.
What the experience has confirmed is the quality of English builders and traditional crasftmen. After buying a pair of enormous Portland stone sphere finials from an estate in Scotland to place on the gatehouse entrance's new fifteen foot high brick piers, made from 17th century handmade bricks, a crane was required to hoist them into place after the engraved capitals were carved by local stone mason Dave, from Craven Arms.
The specialist brick-worker who cut the intricate brickwork into a diaper pattern which exactly copied the original diaper pattern on the gatehouse - almost identical to that at Sissinghurst - was called Gary from Craven Arms. When I showed him a dated and curling Edwardian illustration of the cut brick-work I wanted - a photograph taken of the entrance to West Stow Hall in Suffolk taken from Nathaniel Lloyd's History of English Brickwork - I was impressed that he went out the next day and bought himself his own copy of this classic (and very rare) architectural tome, first published in 1925, on Ebay.
How I ended up choosing my team of local craftsmen and builders was mostly luck. One potential builder I interviewed actually fled in his van half way along being shown around the property when it resembled a bombed Dresden in 1945. He didn't even turn to say goodbye, he just shouted up the stairs: 'This is way, way too big a project for me - it's a crazy amount of work'.
One reason that I chose the almost unflappable Dom - whom I found after I saw a sign outside his house in Much Wenlock selling a mountain of local quarry stone - is that when he first arrived for our interview, I noticed he had a current National Trust member's car badge stuck on the inside of his window screen. A small detail but one that I certainly noticed as it meant he cared about old buildings.
Likewise, Martin from Monkhopton is very much a Radio Four man. For over a year, he would show up at 8am and tune into Radio 4 all day as he went about his work; again a small detail, but I can't imagine what it would have been like, having to put up with Radio 1 or Wolverhampton's Beacon Radio, blasting around the house all day for months on end.
People deal with unexpected change in various ways, whether it is losing a job, wife, husband, business, relationship, money, or just having a simple old-fashioned break-down. Some throw themselves into work; some buy new pets or horses; others flee the country and try to find themselves by joining an Ashram retreat in California or trekking in Tibet; others try to find happiness in sexual adventurism, partying, compulsive decorating disorder, taking an extended sabbatical, gardening, or maybe just growing a beard; or else - like I did back in 2007, a week before my 41st birthday when I had a mid-life crisis following my first divorce - they do something completely out of character and take off to the 50,000 strong Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
When Graham Greene was once interviewed over lunch aged 71, he modestly said: 'I have accomplished a little but failed a good deal. Failed in human relations, which is more important than writing'. I have failed in marriage, and certainly failed in human relations.
In restoring Upton Cressett, I have put the drawbridge up on the world and created my own Arcadia, such as that depicted by Rubens in his great 1636 painting in the National Gallery (A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning) looking out over the autumnal countryside at Het Steen in Holland, from his manor and his studio, where he just got on with his work until he died - living with his second wife. But there is a darker side behind the nominations. Greene also used to say that 'No man is a success to himself' - and I know what he meant. Arcadia is almost always about loss - about a craving to construct something idealized out of the dark chaos and uncertainty within our fragile lives. Look at Poussin's famous painting 'The Arcadian Shepherds' in the Louvre with its inscription of 'Et In Arcadia Ego inscription (also used by Waugh in Brideshead Revisited) on the tomb as the shepherds mourn for the bliss of a life lived in the rural 'arcadia' of the countryside. The house was meant to have been where I lived with my two wives and our family. That never happened.
Things did not improve. Whenever I open the kitchen cupboard, I see a set of Delft blue mugs (from the V & A gift shop) given to me as a house present which remind me of a subsequent person whom I wanted - more than anything else in my life, more than even writing a good book - to live with me at Upton Cressett and have her three initials carved in the panelling above the master bed.
If I have achieved anything at all with my life, of any use or purpose, it is having returned an Elizabethan house to something of its former self. I could not have done it without the genius of the artist Adam Dant who has done such remarkable and innovative work in bringing the walls and ceilings of Upton Cressett back to life with his cartouches and hand-painted ceilings inspired by the staircase at Knole and the 16th century Dutch artist Hans Vredman de Vries. The other essential person was my brilliant interior decorator and friend Nikki Atkinson, always a warm, patient and upbeat form of moral support. She has worked with me for over ten years and I cannot imagine ever embarking on any project without her.
The last two years have not been the easiest for me on the personal front and I've found the house and garden a welcome means of both retreat and escape. Amidst personal chaos and uncertainty, I have found salvation in the calm sanctuary of restoring a small but beautiful corner of 16th century England.
I love the fact that the house will be open to the public from next year and having 600 people come and see the restoration work over a single weekend was a source of much pride. Heritage tourism is an important part of the economy and I am looking foirward to employing guides, expanding the Elizabethan and new Dutch garden, opening up a new farm shop and inviting schools and groups from aorund the country to enjoy Upton Cressett.
Restoring Upton Cressett has been a form of personal rehab; it's not just about restoring the house back to health, it has been about restoring myself. In an era when houses have become commodities; as much a means to making a quick financial profit as actually a place to live, the refurbishment project has reminded me of how houses are not just places to live and trade as investments or 'asset classes'. Their very living fabric- Tudor red brick, horsehair lime plaster and wattle and daub in Upton Cressett's case - can also be windows into ourselves. I will hopefully never move again.
I suppose if I were to call Dr Freud's nightline, the voice down the phone would say that in a time of personal uncertainty, I am seeking refuge in something that I have known all my life. The house - with its solid, 14th century aisled Great Hall (now the library in which I am writing this) and its towering oak 'spere-truss' beams - represents, after the chaotic roller coaster of my last twenty five years (with nine years spent in LA, the patron City of the rootless and superficial) the closest thing I have to something that I can always rely on to be there.
Which is one reason why I have been made so angry by a local farmer called Clive Millington who is trying to stick two Golaith-like wind turbines on top of the ancient Meadowley Bank on the heart of the Jack Mytton Way - Shropshire's most famous tourist trail and bridlepath which riders, walkers and cyclists can enjoy the 'secret treasures' of Shropshire's unspoilt countryside.
I am chairman of our local campaign (www.stopbridgnorthwindfarm.org) to fight off this monstrous wind farm proposal right across the famous Shrophsire bridlepath that sweeps through the 'Blue Remembered Hills' of AE Housman. Last weekend our campaign protested against this sacrilege of the countryside - PG Wodehouse called the lanes around our house the 'paradise of England'. The reason for my anger is that Millington wants to put the turbines up for his own commecial benefit when the landscape and skyline is a community asset.
The Bridgnorth Journal, to their great discredit, gave almost a page of photos to this PR stunt and made it look that our local MP Philip Dunne was one their side when he has actively come out against the proposal, as have the majority of the local community. That is another battle I am continuing to fight on a daily basis.
At its heart I like to think of Upton Cressett as a creative retreat from the world. At the heart of the restoration are are Adam Dant's extraordinary series of wall and ceiling paintings that capture the spirit of 16th artistic thought. When we started the renovation work, we discovered fragments of 16th century mural work buried under the Victorian paint and we decided to restore the main reception rooms of the house to their former Tudor glory. Adam always said that he didnt want to create a a replica. He wanted something bold and original and he has has certainly succeeded. The mural work is literary in conception, with creative and coded allusions to Shakespeare, Marvell, Ovid and various 16th century Dutch artists.
The elaborate scheme is in keeping with the original decoration but also innovative and parts of the mural narrative are also coded and 'personal' relating to my own life. Its a place where the drawbridge can go up on the distractions of modern life and creativity can flourish in a unique historical setting. The Upton Cressett literary foundation was set up because the setting is so magical and remote, in a beautiful setting where writers can come from all over the world.
Already we had four writers this year and they have loved it. The idea of the retreat is for novelists, academics, playwrights, biographers and historians to shut themselves away for up to six weeks, by invitation, to make creative progress with a project in a quiet and uniquely remote historic setting.
Writers who have previously stayed or visited Upton Cressett include novelist Sebastian Faulks and historian Andrew Roberts. The Gatehouse is often compared to the Tower at Sissinghurst, where Vita Sackville-West built her library and wrote her many books.
The historic Upton Cressett estate is set in the middle of the famous 'Blue Remembered Hills' that inspired AE Housman's poem, A Shropshire Lad, with the landscape also inspiring such artists as as well as composers like Vaughn Williams and Sir Edward Elgar. PG Wodehouse was brought up around Bridgnorth before the war and used to bicycle around the parsley filled lanes around Upton Cressett as a young boy. After he exiled himself to New Jersey after the war (and became a US citizen), PG Wodehouse never went back to Britain until his death in the 1970s. When asked what he missed about England, he always said the country around Bridgnorth- which he described as 'the paradise of England'.
Famous authors or politiicians who have stayed or visited Upton Cressett include Sebastian Faulks, Andrew Roberts, Margaret Thatcher (who has a bedroom in the Gatehouse named after her) and in the 17th century, Prince Rupert who hid there from Parliamentarian forces whilst commanding King Charles's army. The young Edward V, one of the famed 'Princes in the Tower' stayed at the manor in 1483 on his way from Ludlow Castle to his death in London - all this heritage can now be experienced by the public (I am off to America next week to drum up wealthy American business). The main Hall is open for group tours but remains private.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in 46-volume guide The Buildings Of England, described Upton Cressett Hall 'a remarkable Tudor house of brick', while Simon Jenkins, in England's Best Houses, wrote of Upton Cressett's gatehouse as 'an Elizabethan gem'. Country Life wrote of a 'splendid example of the English manor house at its most evocative'.
I enjoy givng group tours, although there have been a few awkward moments this season. On one Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting unshaven at my computer writing in track suit bottoms and completely forget the house was open to the public when I started to hear the front door knocker. Eventually I opened the door. I took the couple around but I think my appearance took them by surprise.
Next year Upton Cressett will be available for events, weddings, concerts and as a film and television location. The 16th century Gatehouse is for available to let for holidays and mini-breaks and is now regarded as one of the most romantic hidewayrs in the country which is why we have been nominated for Best Accomodation. The interior has been refurbished to a high standard with contemporary creature comforts such as Lefroy Brooks bathrooms, designer kitchen, satellite television and underfloor heating, that nevertheless do not impose themselves on the period charm of the carved oak spiral staircase, mullion windows, Tudor fireplaces, tapestries, panelled bedchambers and half-tester beds.
The magic of a hamlet like Upton Cressett is that it is like returning to the middle ages, only with four star plumbing, heating and water. A highlight of the summer was when one of the owners of the luxury Aman Resort hotel group came to stay for a house party and he walked into breakfast with a smile on his face and said, 'This is the first time I have ever stayed in an English country house where the hot water pressure is actually better then in one of my hotels.'. I was just thankful I hadnt put him in the main house where there is still not enough cold water for a house full of guests to enjoy a bath.
I am excited about the Heritage Awards on November 15th. If I don't win, then I will head off to the bar and order myself a glass of whisky and have a private toast: the award for the longest and most emotionally painful restoration project.