Country houses: Architectural markers of England’s heritage, emblems of a time when production was all across Britain and farming estates were hives of bustling activity.
In our post industrial, globalised life – where do these houses stand and what do they mean to modern day Britain? Wasing Park owner Josh Dugdale shares some of his own experience into how such houses have adapted to remain relevant today.
It’s a peculiar experience when you fully realise the impact of the inheritance of a landed estate. My journey was drip fed with comments from my family over the years, augmented by three trips per year to see my Grandparents. Bill and Nance Mount, generous hosts, were the incumbents of Wasing, the estate that was set to fall on my lap. My mother had moved to Birmingham with my father so visits weren’t regular, but over the years I came to realise that whilst I might have felt I had a choice, the reality was that the Wasing Estate was my destination. A mini-rebellion saw me dedicate thirteen years of my life to making documentaries, travelling all over the world, thus proving to myself the shackles were imaginary, but there was an inevitability that I would return.
They are seductive, these houses, with their family history, architectural splendour, and the rolling acres in which they are set. Yet, with the eyes of your family always upon you, the pressure of not being the one who messes it all up never really goes away. And the examples of heirs who have struggled under that gaze are legion.
Generally these houses have a significant position both historically and physically in the local community. And to those of us who want to meet that responsibility, there is a legacy that we feel very strongly about.
Historically the main house would have had a prime role in the local community. Much of the employment in local villages would have been provided by the farms and estates, and so the communal significance has always loomed large even if it originated as some kind of societal structure developed from a feudal culture.
In the twentieth century this was turned on its head due to taxes, wars, and changes in our societies. In some cases the roof was taken off in order to avoid crippling death duties. Often these houses, part of the fabric of our countryside and history, became museums admired by no one.
But my experience has been that filling them with people is how you bring the light in.
At times nothing can really beat the English landscape, rolling farmland interlaced by pockets of ancient oak trees, historic houses with traditions and histories of which we know just a fraction, and most importantly a sense of space. I cannot think of anyone who doesn’t pine for the countryside from time to time, even the most ardent town dweller. And whilst these houses may not be the homes that they might have been for our ancestors, we can still extract enormous satisfaction from putting on wonderful events; events that these houses were designed for. It runs in our blood.
Each of the Canvas and Stone houses have their own unique offerings for every occasion. At Wasing for example, we have put on festivals, conferences, retreats, anniversaries, and many weddings – in fact over 800 weddings. Our parish church, originally home to three local worshippers and a dog, has now become a thriving, busy, noisy, glorious throng of worship every Sunday morning due to the couples and their families who are connected by marriage. The church coffers are brimming; the vicar is being heard; connections being made; love being consummated; and hearts full to the brim. And the number of people who have met at Wasing is staggering – if anything displays the success of an events venue it is the fact that people meet their partner here, and there are over 40 couples I know personally who met at Wasing and who are now married! One couple even met at Wasing, split up and then re-met at Wasing before getting married. There is something about the place!
Every one of the team will confess that each event is addictive, we’re always seeking to outdo the last one. With new people and experiences come new ideas. What’s the best way to create the perfect brainstorming environment? How can we maximise the relaxation felt by all our guests? How can we design a culinary experience like no other? How can we create an atmosphere for networking that will blow people’s minds?
At Wasing, we have had some of Britain’s greatest explorers discussing their next expeditions, a stomping festival for thousands, the grand summer party with inspiring speakers from all over the world, an annual outdoor festival focussing on transformation – hearing from religious leaders, taste makers, creative destroyers.
And no one event is ever the same…so the reality is whatever you do, however beautiful, calming, peaceful and meditative your world is, you need places for people to make the connections, to create ideas, to network and brainstorm the future. Yes, you can do that in a city, where you will always be tempted by the hundreds of attractions just round the corner, but it will never be as good. And let’s face it where can you gather round a four hundred year old oak tree, with nothing in the distance save a herd of cattle, the cry of a circling buzzard, and the knock of an early woodpecker as our ancestors whisper on the breeze. We all aspire for the perfect environment to have the perfect event but these exclusive-use country houses are difficult to beat. And if it’s good for our guests, it’s just as healthy for the houses. Where else can you get that exclusive peace with the vibrant humdrum that the best event aspires to achieve?
I am sure my grandparents would be comfortable with the new direction. We employ 35 people, have excellent relations with the local communities, look after the roadsides, the hedges, and care deeply about the place where we live. The place is certainly in no worse shape as when I found it, but who knows what the next generation will want to do. I think we can be proud of how we use this land, and these buildings. Whether it’s the pulse of festival music, the on-going sound of vows from our parish church, the wise advice from a Sufi sage or the deep relaxing massage from one of our transformational masseurs, the relevance of our houses has never been so much as now.