The remarkable scenes you currently find at Iscoyd Park, of beautifully designed rooms, bursting with natural light, comfy seating, ample space and a welcoming, serene atmosphere is not the result of a casual renovation project. The Godsal family have committed heart and soul to the transformation of Iscoyd over the past six years, whilst living amongst the chaos. It’s no mean feat. With their most recent restoration of six top floor bedrooms, we grab five minutes with Phil Godsal to hear about Iscoyd’s journey from run down home to award winning event venue.
Iscoyd is a wonderfully styled house now. What sort of condition was it in when you took it over?
To go back a little bit in it’s history and to give you some context to its fairly recent demise. The house, as it seen today dates back to 1737 and has been in our family since 1843. It largely enjoyed good fortune until the second world war when the land was used as a 1500 bed hospital for United States forces. In 1957 the Park was given back to the family who closed up the front of the house and retreated into a little self contained flat at the back. Things quickly started falling into disrepair and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
My father took on the house with my step mother and lived at Iscoyd for 25 years and did a magnificent job keeping the place standing and running it as a lovely family home. With the help of some vital grants, they somehow managed to re-roof the main house, rid it from death-watch beetle and save all the outbuildings which were largely without roofs and on the verge of collapse. It was in that condition, and against all the odds that we, Susie and I, decided to take it on.
Once you had decided to go ahead – what was the most important decision in this restoration?
Appointing the right architect was one of the most important decisions we made. With that in mind we enlisted a fantastic architect Clare Craven. Iscoyd was Clare’s second major project, her first being the complete rebuild of her and her husband’s family home in North Wales. She had done such a fantastic job and completely understood the balance between being true to history of the house but also putting a contemporary twist in that made it relevant and exciting to the present day. Together we looked at how we could use the house as a venue and this was not immediately obvious.
Have you changed much of the layout of the house?
We didn’t have a room that would seat more than about 60 people and yet to make the business viable we needed to be able to hold weddings of 150 people. We somehow had to produce areas for a ceremony, drinks reception, seated dinner or Wedding Breakfast (as it’s known in the trade) and a place for a really good party. We also needed somewhere to house at least some of the bridal party. Additionally, though at this point of secondary importance, we needed to carve out a separate area that we as a family could call home!
What was the biggest job to take on?
The area of the house that required the most urgent and fundamental restoration was the ground floor of the Library wing.
In the Victorian era this area had been deliberately isolated from the main section of the house, in order to house the servant quarters and the kitchens. In the modern day this area was completely unusable. Having not been used since the servants left in 1926 it was falling onto a terrible state of repair, to the point that it was putting the whole house at risk. Water damage was becoming serious, the library floor above was being propped up with a very weedy stick, ivy was growing inside and out. This had to be the area in which to focus the restoration.
Did you uncover any hidden secrets of Iscoyd?
In the process of creating a case for ourselves to make major and controversial changes to a Grade II* listed building and to get through planning we needed a strong historical and architectural argument in order to justify our designs. So we searched for hints of the past and we uncovered a 1772 floor plan which showed the house before the Victorian interventions. Very helpfully for us it showed the ground floor of the library wing as a clear uncluttered layout and revealed a large single room with similar dimensions to the library above. It also showed the central passage which would reconnect the main house to the library wing at ground floor level.
By going back and exploring the architectural history of the house and taking advantage of the various architectural features we managed to create a beautiful almost church-like ceremony room in which we could seat up to 150 people. The room is flooded with light and has a connection with the garden that this elevation never had before. By changing the room’s lighting and opening up a series of blinds which reveal a hidden bar we can convert the ceremony room into a fantastic place for a party.
The garden compliments the house beautifully. Was that part of the plan too?
Yes, definitely. The garden was a hugely important part of the restoration and needed a lot of work. We engaged garden designer Michael Balston to design the structural plan. The rigorous structure he applied to the design gives it a formality and clear relationship with the house.
After we had implemented the structure we engaged Xa Tollemache to design the planting plan. This is absolutely beautiful and romantic and works really well with Michael’s formal structures.
We are thrilled with both plans and the garden is something that gives us great pleasure as it develops.
Building work is notorious for delays. Did you finish on schedule?
Nearly! However due to the banking crisis we suffered a delay in receiving the required funding, and as well as a couple of other issues, we lost two months of building time on what was already an extremely tight deadline.
Getting the work finished on time for our first wedding was an incredible feat. It was an unbelievably close shave. We had 20 or so builders working away on the morning of our first wedding – as Hannah and Doug, our first couple arrived through the front door we were literally pushing the builders out of the back! Susie and I had not slept properly for days but somehow with lots of amazing help from everyone involved in the project we managed to get the place ready enough to hold a wedding. It suddenly dawned on Susie and me as we stood welcoming the first bride and groom with a grimace rather than a smile, that we had really no idea what we were doing, we had never run a wedding, never worked behind a bar, had not had time to test or try out any of the new equipment, had not trained ourselves let alone any staff and the list goes on!
Somehow everything went brilliantly, though there were lots of panics and plenty of near disasters on our side to the bride and groom and their party everything was perfect. When they left, the sense of achievement was fantastic. The reaction to the restoration had been wonderful, even better than we had hoped. It was great to see all the guests loving the house and gardens and having the time of their lives. It felt like new life had been breathed into the house. I should add that since then, we have had six years of sound experience and have a wonderful house and events team to help in the management of all our events!
With some serious love and dedication, the fate of Iscoyd Park has taken a turn for the better. Two generations of commitment to saving the heritage of this fine house has allowed it to become not only an award winning venue of style and modern comfort, but also a functioning place to call home.