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Arbury Hall near Nuneaton is one of Warwickshire's finest houses. This month it opens to the public and, in a rare interview, James Fitzroy Newdegate, 4th Viscount of Daventry, invites Tessa Jenkins into his home.
Ensconced in a comfy armchair in front of a roaring log fire, surrounded by family photos and mementos, and with Marmite the black lab curled up at my feet, I cant help but remark on the relaxed and homely atmosphere of Arbury.
Thats because it is exactly what it is. Weve been here a long time, we must be one of the oldest Warwickshire families along with the Dugdales [of Merevale] and the Leighs [of Stoneleigh], replies my host Lord Daventry.
He adds that its more than 400 years since his ancestor John Newdegate moved the family from Harefield in Middlesex to the Arbury Estate.
The reason was quite simple, they could see London from their bedroom window and thought help were being encroached, lets move to somewhere a little more rural, and its extraordinary really because exactly the same thing has happened here.
Originally an Augustinian monastery, which suffered dissolution under Henry VIII, in the late 16th century, Arbury Hall was reborn as an Elizabethan manor. Two centuries later it underwent a second renaissance when Sir Roger Newdigate (the spelling of the family name has varied over the centuries) transformed it into a neo-gothic marvel that is a worthy Warwickshire rival to Horace Walpoles much lauded Strawberry Hill.
Sir Rogers endeavours resulted in a strikingly Gothic exterior faade, whilst inside he created a series of stunning rooms characterised by stunningly crafted plasterwork on ceilings, walls and fireplaces.
A very brave 40 year project, says Lord Daventry.
For avid readers of George Eliot a tour of the house will feel rather familiar. As the daughter of the estate manager, Mary Ann Evans was born at the estates South Farm in 1819 and grew up in nearby Griff. Open access to the Arbury library contributed greatly to her education, and Sir Rogers achievements provided inspiration for Eliots first published work. In Scenes of Clerical Life Sir Roger is portrayed as Sir Christopher Cheverel, and Arbury Hall as Cheverel Manor.
She talks about how the family lived in a house that was under construction and how they put up with all the builders and all the ins and outs. Its fascinating . . . you read extracts from that book and then walk into the corresponding rooms, such as the saloon and it hasnt changed, its extraordinary. Shed probably come into this library and feel instantly at home, reflects Lord Daventry Lady Daventry, patron of the George Eliot Fellowship, adds: Shed recognise the house and gardens because nothing has changed, and shed recognise the park because the park is listed but outside the original park shed believe shed landed on Mars it would terrify her. I mean its terrifying for us its changed so much in this decade.
Even since I was a child, the countryside has become unrecognisable, you used to drive up from what is the M6 through the Griff area and now its dual carriageway where it used to be green fields, continues her husband.
For the past 10 years Arbury Hall has been primarily a private home for Lord and Lady Daventry and their three children, Humphrey (14), Hester (12) and Sophia (9).
Along with the house and estate Lord Daventry inherited a strong sense of duty to continue his fathers work in restoring the fortunes of Arbury which had suffered a decline during the Second World War.
He grew up here in this house as a child, then went away to school and straight from there to the Second World War. After the war he went away and did some ADCing work overseas for three years, then he came back here in the 1950s.
Arbury Park had been used as a prisoner of war camp, there were 40,000 prisoners here during the war so the place was an absolute shambles, none of the land had been farmed and the park was covered in Nissen Huts. The house had been used by the officers, everything was leaking, and there was no heating.
He spent his lifetime restoring the estate to how it is today, planted new woodlands, got the farm back up and running, and restored a lot of the properties. He did a remarkable job in his life not spending a penny on himself but restoring the estate.
He died 10 years ago and I feel I ought to be making an effort and looking after what he spent his life restoring. Were trying to restore and keep going the wonderful heritage weve got here and its quite a battle. Financially, its a battle. Youve got to go out and graft and earn the money to put in some new windows or replace whatever it might be. Its quite difficult but its got its advantages too because here we are, look at this . . ..
The realities of 21st century life mean that Lord Daventry combines running the 5,000 acre estate with working full-time for the RK Harrison Group, a Lloyds Insurance Broker.
I do that as my day job, the reason being it pays me reasonably well so that I can afford to do the projects Ive been doing. The estate washes its face really, but thats through a lot of hard work, fine tuning of figures, and me going out to work elsewhere to get some income to help pay for the running of the estate.
A huge amount of credit goes to my wife because basically she runs the house and gardens and she also works, as a brand advisor for Laura Ashley, so its not as if were just sitting here with our feet up doing nothing.
Over the past 10 years the house has been rewired and re-plumbed, bathrooms added and the kitchen modernised to create a comfortable family home. The Orangery and Rose Garden have been restored to their former glory, and the massive undertaking of restoring the exterior stonework on the main house is underway.
Ive done a lot of stonework restoration since weve been living here. Two elevations have been completed from a big four-year plan so were halfway through that but Ive pulled the plug at the moment simply because of the cost and the current economic climate, and because I got fed up with having builders all over the house every day of the week, it was a nightmare actually!
The tradition of allowing the public a glimpse of Arburys wonders has also continued.
The reason my father opened the house to the public was because in the 1950s we took a grant to do some work to the roof. In those days if you took a grant you were obliged to open your house to the public.
When we moved in during the millennium I paid back the grant so we now have no obligation to open but Im quite keen because Im hugely privileged to be living in such a wonderful house, and it is part of Nuneaton so I feel that if the local people want to enjoy it then I should let them come. I dont want to become a sort of hermit and never let anyone here again.
Alongside traditional estate activities such as farming and forestry, commercial activities have been expanded to include hosting corporate events, and making the house and estate available as a location for films and television productions including last years BBC drama Land Girls.
Combining business with maintaining private family life inevitably involves a degree of compromise.
Getting the balance is what it is, and at the end of the day we have to do these things to get a bit of income to pay the bills, heating the house,
the insurance and everything else.
Lord and Lady Daventrys success in achieving this equilibrium lies at the heart of Arburys appeal to the 2,000 visitors who cross the threshold every year. Contemporary photos of the family intermingle effortlessly with antiques and portraits of the Newdegate dynasty, and the overriding impression is not of a mothballed shrine to the past but rather of a lived in and much loved family home.
For Lord Daventry this is an achievement to be proud of. People say how much they like that fact that its a real home. Before we lived here it was empty for 18 years, my grandparents lived here, but when they died my mother and father felt they were a bit too old to move in. We had a caretaker and it was a bit like a museum, there were dust sheets everywhere and it was soulless whereas now the tellys on and someones watching footie and we play music and run around and it is a home and so it should be, I am absolutely convinced that all the ancestors looking down from the walls are thrilled to bits, I can sense it.
Lord Daventrys Warwickshire Life
Favourite Warwickshire place?
Nuneaton, because of its friendly people and wonderful market.
Favourite Warwickshire view?
Returning from work and seeing Arbury across the park.
AYCE at Bermuda Park [an all you can eat Chinese buffet restaurant in Nuneaton] its my childrens favourite.
Best things about Warwickshire?
History and location.
And the worst . . . ?
The proposed high speed rail link.
Who, from Warwickshires past, would you like to have dinner with?
George Eliot, William Shakespeare and Sir Roger Newdigate can you imagine the gossip!
Which period of Warwickshires history would you go back to?
The 18th century to watch Arbury being transformed.
What would you take with you if you had to leave Warwickshire?
My longbow from the Forest of Arden.
The county in six words:
Wouldnt want to live anywhere else.