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How to Renovate a Stately Home

“Sometimes you just get pushed in a new direction. You have to go with it a bit, and then it starts to kind of all make sense.” So says Nick Ashley-Cooper, whose ‘new direction’ in life was certainly a little more extreme than most.

The Rebirth of an English Country House

The Rebirth of an English Country House: St Giles House by Tim Knox and The Earl of Shaftesbury (Rizzoli USA)

The former Etonian had forged a successful career as a techno DJ in New York when his father, the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, was murdered. Nick’s older brother, Anthony, became the 11th Earl of Shaftesbury but tragically died of a heart attack a year later, making Nick the automatic inheritor of a title and a decaying Grade I-listed country pile, St Giles House in Dorset.

He certainly has an auspicious lineage: the first Earl of Shaftesbury, for whom St Giles House was built in 1651, helped to found the Whig Party, while the second Earl of Shaftesbury is thought to have introduced the first cabbage into the UK from Holland. You feel Ashley-Cooper’s ancestors would have approved of his own legacy – stepping up to the plate to lovingly and painstakingly restore this beautiful Dorset estate, once featured on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register.

St Giles House has won a string of restoration awards, including the Historic Houses Association & Sotheby’s Restoration Award in 2015, and the project has now been chronicled in The Rebirth of an English Country House: St Giles House, with Ashley-Cooper as co-author.

Nick Dinah St Giles House

Nick and Dinah Ashley-Cooper. Banner and above image © Justin Barton

“It’s quite a unique set of circumstances,” says the 39-year-old, “but it would be a mistake to think everything happens instantaneously.”

Rebuilding a life

Ashley-Cooper had moved back to the UK from New York in 2006, but the renovation ball didn’t start properly rolling until 2010. “Either I had to sell the house to someone unconnected to the family, or I had to try to do something myself.

”That decision was made a lot easier after he fell in love with the place. And there was another romance, too – he had just married wife Dinah, a veterinary surgeon, and had a son on the way. “In my head, the house was turning from a problem into an opportunity,” he says. A new chapter, a new adventure. And, of course, a new family home. “You throw out logic; you’re kind of on a wave, thinking ‘we can do this.’”

St Giles House

St Giles House fell into disrepair following the Second World War and at one point appeared on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register. Image © Justin Barton

The penny really dropped when he started to think seriously about the business side of things. “I’ve done a lot of music promotions, but we decided St Giles wasn’t going to be just about music. It would be a venue for all sorts of events [such as festivals, weddings and corporate events]. As soon as I saw it in those terms, I had a really clear idea of how we were going to tackle it.”

‘Not a museum’

For the first five years, Ashley-Cooper was toing and froing between London and Dorset, as he wasn’t entirely sure whether he might be better off getting a career in the city. “But it became really apparent that I needed to base myself here if I was going to make headway.”

St Giles House Hallway

Nick Ashley-Cooper employed top artisans and craftspeople to restore St Giles House in the form of recreated wallpapers, customised paints, revived furniture, reworked tapestries, and restored plasterwork and textiles. Image © Justin Barton

Renting out their Earl’s Court flat (“so we didn’t have anything to go back to”), Nick and Dinah took the plunge. “Once we’d made the decision, it felt like a one-way ticket.”

By this time he’d spent years getting to know the house and its history, and tackled the project in “bite-sized chunks.”

“It was about creating a kind of flat within the house and planting our flag in it – claiming a bit of territory.” It’s important, he explains, to put your own stamp on a building. “While respecting and celebrating the history, we’re not completely beholden to it – it’s still our own home, with our own style and personality.” And it’s definitely not a museum, Ashley-Cooper says.

Making use of technology

It’s more sustainable these days, too. “One of the reasons these houses fell into disrepair after WW2 was the expense of running them. Technology has made it much easier; you don’t need 40 staff anymore.”

Of course, Ashley-Cooper is aware things can change: “We’ve borrowed a lot of money, so we have to manage that quite carefully. But, so far, everything’s been going really well.”

He’s just finished doing up the estate’s first letting accommodation, the eight-bedroom, 17th-century Riding House in St Giles Park. “We’ve taken everything we’ve learned at St Giles and applied it to a fun, new project. It’s a very different period of building, but with just as much character. Almost more character, because it was originally built for horses!”

StGilesHouse

In the dining room, some of the plaster has been removed to reveal the brickwork behind. Image © Justin Barton

Advice for aspiring renovators

Interested in bringing a stately English home back to life, whether as a business venture or to create a family home – or both? Nick Ashley-Cooper has some advice, based on his experience with St Giles House.

“To get the best outcome, you’ll need to be available, on-site and managing the project quite closely. If you’re there making decisions as and when they arise, it becomes a lot more efficient.”

“You may have to navigate between a few different people to get what you want. If it’s an old building, you’ll need someone who really understands historic buildings and how to restore them, as opposed to a groovy architect who’ll want to do things that don’t really work in practice. So that’s a relationship you’ll have to manage: what you want from a design perspective as opposed to what historic buildings will allow you to do. And if it’s a listed building, you’re going to need other permissions.”

“We decided St Giles would be a venue for all sorts of events. As soon as I saw it in those terms, I had a really clear idea of how we were going to tackle it.” 

“Have up front a detailed specification of what you want done, which you can cost, and a contractor who’ll stick to their price and that budget really closely and not let it spiral out of control. You can avoid a lot of horror stories and surprises this way. You’ll have a bit more control over what you’re getting, and, of course, any changes you come across.”

“If you want things to be done properly, use the right people. You’ll regret it if you take too many shortcuts. There are fantastic, talented people out there: it’s quite a vibrant scene of craftsmen, and you get a care and quality that’s worth it.”

“Finally, and really importantly, have meaningful deadlines. Having a real deadline requires quite a lot of input from you to make people realise how important it is. Otherwise, you’ll find projects drag on and on, and ultimately that will probably mean your costs go up as well.”

Lysanne Currie writes about business and luxury travel for magazines including Robb Report, Luxury Plus, Glass Magazine and Meet The Leader.

Did you know? Londoners remain far more likely than anywhere else in Britain to improve rather than move, something that remortgaging may facilitate. Read more here.