There’s a lot to think about when running a historic house, keeping abreast of maintenance is just the start! What about trying to be efficient or reducing the environmental impact whilst also keeping the historical integrity of the house? Anselm Guise of Elmore Court, shares the story of how Team Elmore is working to futureproof this historical home for the next generation to enjoy.
It’s always struck me that it’s only been in the latter half of the 20th century that we have really started to harm our planet. Events such as the industrial revolution and invention of the combustion engine were the seed of that, but in terms of a tipping point of people versus planet, the environmental impact of our actions is happening and is evident now.
There’s also been an immensely healthy social revolution happening alongside this, particularly in the west.
Country houses and estates in many ways are reflective of both these industrial and social changes. Prior to the Second World War there was something entirely wrong with the social dynamic you’d find in managed country houses and the ‘upstairs downstairs-ness’ is now thankfully outdated.
At the same time, if you put aside the fact that there was a culture of folk ‘serving’ the aristocrats in the big house, there was a beauty to the way things worked. What you had was essentially a community of people who worked together, self sufficiently, on an area of land to provide for their collective needs: heating, food, drink, shelter and, going further back, clothing. At the time this wasn’t unique and could be found in villages and small communities everywhere. It is hard to find that now and I believe country estates have the opportunity to bring that back.
I have 2 young children and partly what’s been done at Elmore Court has been so that they can enjoy it when they’re older and their children can too, and so on hopefully for many more generations. With 750 years of family history to uphold, the decisions are far from being short term…and only a fool believes that the future is not without it’s problems, particularly with regard to the environment.
From the offset I was determined to send the mechanics and operations of the land and property at Elmore back to being more sustainable and more pertinently, self-sufficient.
In this day and age it is probably not sensible or even possible to be entirely that way and anyway we at Elmore do not have the resources. But we can be an example of trying our best in what we wanted to do.
In order for us to do events at Elmore, I realised we needed to build a sound proofed structure in which we could play music nice and loudly. I also wanted to try to be as low impact as possible. I wanted to, as far as one could, use materials found on the estate for any repairs and improvements. The solution to was to build a ‘ballroom’ made out of our own earth and timber.
We’ve successfully managed to build that. The building is called ‘The Gillyflower’ and it’s rammed earth walls are made from mud dug from the adjacent field and the timber milled from our own trees. Those materials can be found not just in the new buildings but in the rooms of the historic main house too.
(Image right: Rammed earth walls of The Gillyflower, sourced from local earth)
How to heat a historic home!
The first thing we did was build a structure, again using our own milled timber and reclaimed materials such as tiles, for a biomass boiler, to provide all the hot water and heating to the main house, the Gillyflower and office buildings.
A biomass boiler needs a lot of wood so we looked closely at the land and existing woodlands and developed a management plan so that with a combination of felling, coppicing and new tree planting we are able to self supply all the timber for it. We invested in a wood chipper, a tractor, a log trailer, winches and other forestry equipment and also work with local contractors so that the system is always well supplied with dry, seasoned wood chip.
There is something rather wonderful knowing that the heat coming off a radiator is energy that relatively recently came from the sun, from trees close by, and that our hard work made it happen. It didn’t come from prehistoric oil extracted in the Middle East…
What other plans for the future?
Elmore Court sits in a bend of the River Severn and I’ve had a very good look at seeing if it is possible to take power from that; it would be great to generate at least some of our electricity ourselves. There’s a law in the UK that means the Crown owns the right to all tidal shoreline, which means doing something like this is much more complicated. The Severn here is tidal but in an addendum to that law, we found that the Crown no longer did have that right if you could prove direct ownership to before the Magna Carta (dated on 15 June 1215) which we can!!! Unfortunately there isn’t technology available yet to do this project but my interest remains and the time will hopefully come.
We also very much want to use solar power. As the house is listed, we are only able to install ground level solar panels, but the ideal land is a flood risk so unfortunately this has been put on hold too. I think there is a need to use land to produce food, more than solar energy which is which is why we are focusing on that.
From field to fork
Our next area of focus is food production. We will provide as much high quality produce as we can for our kitchens. Elmore Court already does a great deal of it’s catering in-house and shortly we are applying for another wave of planning permission so that we’re able to build a large kitchen facility so everything can be done on site.
With this in place, our chefs will have far more control over what we offer and be able to work with our gardeners and local farmers to grow and rear produce about as locally as you can get; which means fresh food and less impact on the environment. This direct connection between the chefs and the growers is the beginnings of a local community working sustainably. A true ‘field to fork’ ethos.
I think all of us, no matter who we are, should try to think more consciously about how we eat and behave. The shift is already happening. It’s really not that hard to do, it makes you feel better, it engages all ages and it’s healthy. Being sustainable is particularly relevant to country houses and is possible to do. It takes time and of course needs to be properly thought through, as there are many elements including economic factors that need to be considered.
What does the future look like?
In the not too distant future our customers, guests and team will be kept warm and fed from the land. This can only be a good thing. It creates jobs, a sense of doing something positive and has amazing financial benefits as well; the annual cost of heating Elmore Court if we had stuck with oil would be approaching £20,000. Without the RHI payments, we would already be saving money and when you put that into the mix we’re actually making a profit.
So where we’re heading is to a place that takes the best of the old, whilst fully embracing new technology and attitudes. We’re making decisions that are financially smart and sustainable so that our operation will not impact negatively on the environment – if anything it will enhance it. And that’s a pretty exciting prospect.
You can follow Elmore Court’s progress via it’s website, newsletter and social media platforms. Please visit www.elmorecourt.com