Pride without prejudice


The beautiful Georgian house, Goodnestone Park, which may have inspired Jane Austen's most famous novel and is still owned by the original family, has been remodelled with superb contemporary chic and reborn with a new purpose

Unlike our closest European neighbours, we've never really been much good at chopping heads off our aristocrats. We had a brief shot at it in the mid-1600s and even bagged a king, but our heart simply wasn't in it. We only lasted a decade or so without a monarch before inviting his son back from exile. Monarchy and its supporting aristocracy were here to stay.

The real threat to our titled class would not come until three hundred years later and not from the axeman but the taxman. Before the 19th century, the British aristocracy enjoyed a life relatively free from taxation. Staff were plentiful and cheap and estates provided a good income. But during the 19th century this began to change, the sums no longer added up and throughout the country once great houses began to be demolished by their increasingly impoverished owners.

The pace of destruction increased rapidly after the war and by 1955 Britain was losing a major country house every five days. It wasn't until 1968 that legislation requiring local authority permission to tear down a historic building put a break on the carnage.

But perhaps the most important factor in saving the British country house was a change in public opinion- the nation finally woke up to the fact that these structures were not merely the playthings of the rich and privileged but an irreplaceable part of a shared national heritage.

This awareness increased as more and more owners opened their homes to the public - and make no mistake, these were their homes and this was a key element of their attraction for visitors. These buildings were not museums. The walls on which the portraits hung were not those of galleries. The grounds were not municipal parks. These were not museums, galleries or parks. They were stately homes.

Strangely enough the idea of opening their homes to total strangers has also proved attractive to many owners. Those I have spoken to over the years have all enjoyed inviting the public in. They are understandably proud of these beautiful buildings and also, of their ancestry and ancestors.

And so it is with Julian, the 22nd Lord FitzWalter, who succeeded in 2004 to one of the most ancient of England's baronies. The 1st Baron FitzWalter was the leader of the baronial opposition to King John, one of the twenty-five sureties of Magna Carta in 1215, and finally slipped into legend as the father of Maid Marian.

The stunning gardens of Julian's much-loved family seat, Goodnestone Park, have long been open to the public but now the main house, too, will welcome visitors - and not merely the kind who will wander about, appreciate and leave. Julian's visitors will be able to rent the entire house and stay as long as they wish.

"My mother was the last of the family to live here and she really only used three or four rooms. In winter it was a pretty chilly business running down unheated passages between them," he says. "When she died, the house was in need of extensive renovation and it was also clear that, in today's world, it was going to have to pay its own way."

Built in 1704 by Julian's ancestor, Sir Brook Bridges, Goodnestone is a truly lovely Palladian country house enjoying that uniquely Georgian combination of welcome, warmth and elegance.

Jane Austen was a regular visitor and wrote of the 'great pleasure' the house and grounds gave her. Her brother, Edward, married Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Brook's grandson, in the local parish church in1791 and there seems little doubt that Jane gathered considerable material during her many visits for Pride and Prejudice, which she began in 1796.

Julian's plans were to renovate and update the house to a standard where he would be able to offer it as a venue both for corporate events and five-star private country house lets. However, this was not going to be an overnight transformation. This was a project that was going to take a great deal of time, considerable thought, an equal amount of creativity and not a little love.

"We didn't want merely to recreate a Georgian interior," says Justin. "We wanted a contemporary interior which would showcase sympathetically the family's art and heirlooms. We were looking for a welcoming, informal elegance."

Above all, the designers would have one guiding principle: at the end of what was going to be a very long day, Goodnestone must still be a stately home - the FitzWalter family home.

The designers Julian chose were Francesca Rowan-Plowden and Marcus Crane. Asked to pitch separately, they decided to join forces and submit a single presentation.

"Had I been given the project, I would have involved Marcus and vice versa so we decided to pitch together," says Francesca. "We knew we would bring complementary talents to the project. Marcus's strengths are in sourcing interesting pieces, mine are in fabrics/textiles.

"Right from the start Lord FitzWalter was very specific about what he wanted. He wanted it to be a home that would represent and reflect the family, five-star standard, but never to feel commercial" says Francesca

"Right from the start Julian was very specific about what he wanted," she says. "He wanted it to be a home that would represent and reflect the family. He wanted it to be five-star standard but never to feel commercial. He had a very clear vision and it was great to be able to work toward such a clearly defined goal."

Also invaluable would be the continuing support and input from Julian and his wife, Sally. "We would meet regularly to talk through ideas, go through fabrics and wallpapers and look at colours. We'd also go together to Ardingly, often not looking for a specific piece but finding something and thinking 'that's perfect for the library' or 'that would go well under that picture in the Lady FitzWalter suite.' It wasn't a project where you could just decide what you needed, order it and move on. It was a project that grew organically."

The project, start to finish, would take two-and-a-half years.

Taking an early 18th century house and positioning it firmly in the 21st century was never going to be simple but, surprisingly, it involved very little in the way of the knocking down of walls and where it has had to be done it has had the full blessing of English Heritage.

The only major remodelling downstairs was the knocking through of the kitchen into an adjoining extension that had served as an office. This has provided a spacious, elegant and state-of-the-art kitchen capable of serving the 24 guests the house is now designed to accommodate. The shaker-style units and island were custom-built.

The breakfast room is a couple of steps up and through bronze and glass doors designed by Marcus. The panes match exactly the panes in the Georgian sash windows. This is a glorious, bright room, the light pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows - the perfect place to start any day. The oval table was made to order by the project's main contractors, BW May, and the chimney piece was found in the cellar and given a new FitzWalter coat of arms.

On the walls is a wonderful collection of leaf pressings that Marcus found long-forgotten in the attic, framed and gave the pride of place they deserved. They are complemented by the contemporary abstract by Luke Hannam which hangs over the fireplace - a juxtaposition of old and new which continues throughout the house, never inappropriate and always gently contributing to the air of elegant informality.

Even the rooms such as the 'formal' dining room are anything but. Here the superb dining table was commissioned by Julian and Sally and made by Alastair Murray. The star of this show must, however, be the stunning, bespoke hand-painted de Gournay wallpaper. Hanging there in all its delicate serenity, one wouldn't know that it was the one item in the whole project that was a major drama.

When the old wallpaper was stripped from the walls, the man from de Gournay, he say no. "He said there was no way that they could hang £30,000-worth of de Gournay paper on walls in that condition," says Francesca. "This gave us a serious problem because the new plaster would take months to dry. Luckily, we discovered Stevensons of Norwich and they provided a special fast-drying treatment that solved our problems."

Between the dining room and the drawing room is the Oval Hall, the lovely main entrance hall until the Victorians decided to switch the building around by building a classical portico at the back and making that the main entrance. The Oval Hall still has its original painted panels - one showing honourable WWII battle scars, from the time the building was requisitioned and Canadian officers used the room for darts.

In the drawing room is more de Gournay, this time grey silk to complement the ornate grey marble chimney-piece. This room is an excellent example of how Julian, Sally and their designers have so successfully brought together family heirlooms, Ardingly finds and new pieces.

On the walls is a pleasing selection of friendly ancestors including, over the fireplace, Jane Austen's favourite niece Fanny Bridges, said to be the inspiration for Mansfield Park's Fanny Price.

Family treasures include two lovely bow-fronted walnut chests of drawers, a delicate travelling chest and a beautiful tall yew cabinet. Two of Julian's mother's chairs sit comfortably telling tales of yesteryear to two new recruits from sofa.com.

No stately home would be without a library and Goodnestone is, of course, no exception. Leather armchairs, shelves groaning with worthy leather-bound tomes - including rare Jane Austen early editions - and on the walls, more ancestors.

No stately home would be without a library and Goodnestone is, of course, no exception. Leather armchairs, shelves groaning with worthy leather-bound tomes - including rare Jane Austen early editions - and on the walls, more ancestors.

But what's this the sofa's have gathered around with such interest? Certainly not something you'd find in an 18th century library. At first it looks like a giant poof - and so indeed it is but it's made from an old leather gym vaulting horse. And above the fireplace, mixing it with the forebears, a big contemporary abstract by Paula MacArthur from a collection at McCully & Crane Art in Rye.

Above the original Georgian chimneypiece in the Jane Austen Drawing Room, on the first floor, is a portrait of Margaretta, wife of the builder of Goodnestone

And so on via Julian's mother's piano up the glorious main staircase and past perhaps the most impressive ancestral portraits to the first floor and the remaining reception room - the Jane Austen Drawing Room. Above the original Georgian chimneypiece is Margaretta, wife of the builder of Goodnestone and here too is a picture of Julian's father. On another wall there is a 1715 painting of the house's original vast formal gardens.

Before the refurbishment, the house had 15 bedrooms but only three bathrooms which must have made for something of a traffic jam in the mornings. After a little clever wall finessing, it now has 12 double bedrooms, all but one of them with their own elegant bathrooms.

The largest and most beautiful is the FitzWalter Suite, which was Julian's mother's bedroom, now with a canopied bed and delicate new Colefax & Fowler white rose paper. Light pours in from three full-height windows with glorious views over the grounds.

The principal bedrooms are named and themed after the five brothers of the family and favourite retainers

There are simply too many superb bedrooms to do justice to here but suffice to say that the principal ones are named and subtly themed after the five brothers of the family and favourite retainers. Julian's Room displays his favourite plum and mushroom tones. George's Room reflects his passion for horticulture and his standing as CEO of the National Gardens Scheme.

Henry's has an equestrian theme reflecting his role as a luminary in the world of horse racing and breeding. William is a potter and his room sports blue and white Japanese porcelain. Francis' love of the country translates into plaids and tweeds.

All of which is a further reflection of Julian's determination, from the very beginning, that the reborn Goodnestone should be a celebration of his family both past and present. So has he achieved his goal? Is he happy with the result of two-and-a-half years of careful thought, detailed planning and sheer hard work that Sally, Francesca, Marcus and he have put into this challenging project?

Well, were he the kind of man who would jump onto a table, punch the air and whoop at the top of his voice, he might well do just this. But over the centuries his family have found that aristocrats who indulge in this sort of behaviour tend to have their heads separate from their shoulders. So instead he just smiles quietly and professes himself 'delighted'.

In my book 'delighted' is just fine. 'Delighted' will do very nicely.

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