The entire 48 hours prior to Norman's visit was straight out of Fawlty Towers
FOR THE LAST few months, I've been getting increasingly nervous about the judging outcome of the 2011 Hudson's Heritage Awards with Upton Cressett Hall being nominated for three categories in the Oscars of the UK heritage world. They were finally held at an awards lunch on December 1st at the Grosvenor Square Hotel with the awards being presented by chairman of the judges, Norman Hudson OBE. The other judges were Lady Lucinda Lambton and Jeremy Musson, former architectural editor of Country Life. The awards are to recognise 'The Nation's Finest Heritage'.
The awards were on a Thursday at lunch time. I was very nearly late as I thought the lunch would probably start at around 1pm. It was only when I drove out of my gates around 10am and anxiously recalled that the show up time for our very own Spear's Book Awards – this year a seated awards luncheon at the Corinthia Hotel off Whitehall – was actually noon, that I reached for my mobile and called the Grosvenor Square Hotel. I was efficiently informed by an events person that the Hudsons awards did, indeed, start at 12pm.
Thankfully, I was still driving the new super-charged Jaguar XKR – top speed over 150mph – that I had been loaned by Jaguar for a month. It was due back on December 2nd and so this was my last long-distance drive. My record-breaking journey – setting a new best time from Upton Cressett to Berkeley Square in under two hours, and smashing the old record by some margin – will be covered in another piece but let's just say the Jag's 5.2 stallion like engine warmed to the call of heritage and not being late for lunch. I was parked in Grosvenor Square shortly before noon.
A hint that it might be a good idea to show up on time had come just the weekend before when I got a call on Friday afternoon – just a week before the awards – from Norman Hudson's office saying they were making the final decisions and could he come for a 'quick visit' on Monday morning. So the weekend was spent dusting the furniture, repainting the front door, ordering in enough flowers for a wedding and polishing the 16th century oak staircases – preparing for an inspection from the Godfather of the UK heritage business.
For the first time all year, I ordered all the heating to be turned on with the house pipes groaning into life as the oil boiler was fired up for the first time in about eight months. All fires were laid – with vast quantities of logs ferried over in a wheelbarrow to the Gatehouse and Hall by the gardener Nathan – and ready to burn like it was Christmas at Balmoral.
Things went well until my gardener found an old tin of some old fashioned Farrow & Ball oil paint to paint the front door that takes two days to dry and so was still wet as Norman Hudson parked his BMW on the gravel by the gatehouse. I was anxious that Norman would try to push open the front door and would end up covered in gloss paint so I guarded the front door like a suited Cerberus waiting for him.
Just as Norman walked towards me along the topiary gravel path and I gently kicked open the door, disaster struck as a gravel stone got caught under the door. It would not move or open. Try as I might, I couldn't get the door to open without without a heavy shoulder shove which would have resulted in myself being covered in paint. In the split second I had to think, I decided to walk calmly towards him and said: 'I think we'll start with a tour of the Gatehouse'.
And I duly sent the Godfather of Britain's heritage off in that direction as the Gatehouse, separately, was up for Best Accommodation with previous guests including Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth Hurley. I then ran like Usain Bolt back around the entire house, through the kitchen door and then back through the Great Hall dining room and salon back to the front door where I managed to yank it open from the inside, which had not been painted.
In fact, the entire 48 hours prior to Norman's visit was straight out of the episode of Fawlty Towers when everything goes horribly wrong before a visit from the hotel inspector. But apart from the wet paint on the front door, and the fact that I had forgotten to remove a very amateurishly made, bedraggled and weather beaten (writing unreadable) home-made sign on the front railings saying 'No Wind Farms Here', everything went pretty smoothly on judgment day. It helped that Norman, it turned out, had been to Upton Cressett before – back in the 1960s – when the manor house and gatehouse were near derelict, unoccupied and overgrown, before my parents began renovation in the early 1970s.
When I showed Norman the restored 1580 Gatehouse – now also the home of the Upton Cressett writers' foundation – he could hardly believe his eyes. 'I remember poking my head up the oak staircase in the sixties when the gatehouse had trees growing in the place. The staircase was just full of old twigs and it was like a romantic ruin – just empty and anybody could just take a look. I suppose I must have been trespassing but nobody was living there – other than some pigs!'.
That was well over 40 years ago. Tempus fugit…
THE 2011 HUDSON'S Heritage Awards lunch were held, oddly enough, in the seventies-style function 'Mayfair Room suite in the basement of the Grosvenor Square Hotel – not a glamorous venue, at least by any of the standards of the statelys up for awards. In a slightly surreal way, it was often difficult to tell from the motley collection of nominees present – all of whom were either winners or 'Highly Commended' – whether they were the actual owners of such magnificent stately piles as Chatsworth, Port Eliot (which won for Best Event) or Burghley (winner of two awards), or some estate manager or secretary, or housekeeper.
As the awards were read out, it became increasingly evident that the majority who collected their framed award certificate – despite most being dressed as if going for a relaxed day's racing at Plumpton – were the actual owners. Any Americans looking on would have thought it incredulous that the national Oscar-like awards for the most prestigious and stately heritage venues in the entire country could be handed out in a windowless basement suite under the bowels of Grosvenor Square but the whole ceremony was a typically eccentric English affair.
Amusing speeches and comments flowed from the likes of Lucinda Lambton and also Loyd Grossman, chairman of the Heritage Alliance, the lobbying body of over 90 heritage organisations. For all the lack of glamour of the venue, the judging was were taken exceptionally seriously and nobody doubted the integrity and informed expertise of the judges. I only trust that next year's event will be held in a more architecturally splendid location – fitting for national awards which recognise 'The Nation's Finest Heritage Venues'.
First up was Best Renovation – which we were nominated for. I thought we had a fair chance in that category after a three year renovation that had cost me a divorce, a fortune and had nearly sent me mad, but not so much as an honourable mention. I was secretly relieved as it was not the award I wanted to win. Best Renovation may have been personally satisfying but winning what is effectively a best DIY award would never translate into commercial – tickets sold at the door – success.
Next category we were up for was Best Accommodation. I was worried that as we went about the tour, we might encounter an over-excited medieval bat roused by hibernation by the highly unusual event of the heating being turned on in the winter ('nice and warm house' said Hudson several times ) but the bats behaved themselves and stayed asleep.
Norman seemed to enjoy his tour of the Gatehouse – available for private let – and even commented that we spoilt guests by giving them Wiliam Yeoward glasses in the dining room. As he said this, I nodded and didn't admit that my housekeeper had spent all morning carrying plates of fine glasses from the Hall dining room to the Gatehouse to add some style to the dining room. In the event, we didn't win.
The good news is that Upton Cressett did win for 'Hidden Gem', the category I really wanted to win and which was the category that had the strongest competition of any other category – at least eight other nominees. After all the romantic heartache, hard-work and painful cheque writing of the last four years, being nominated for three categories was especially satisfying, not the least as other nominees in other categories included such stately blockbuster houses as Burghley, Chatsworth (which could only manage a Highly Commended) and Beaulieu.
I very much felt like the provincial English underdog who wins on Hollywood's big night but that was whole point of the Hidden Gem category – to award a historic house that is off the beaten track, which Upton Cressett most certainly is.
There is an even a much watched five minute video on You Tube which is called 'The Drive To Upton Cressett' where an amateur film-maker has made a short Bullet-style film of our unbelievably remote and winding lane which screams: nobody can possibly live here. As soon as Norman Hudson, in his judges remarks, said that the winner was 'an Elizabethan house located down an ancient three mile single lane road in the middle of glorious nowhere', I knew the framed certificate being held by Lady Lucinda Lambton would soon be hanging in the Upton Cressett downstairs cloakroom.
In his judging remarks, Norman Hudson also singled out the brilliant and original work of artist Adam Dant as being a deciding factor in the judges decision. We weren't able to give speeches but Adam Dant was there at the lunch as my guest and as we sat afterwards enjoying a post awards drink at Claridge's bar, I said to him that one of the world's worst cliches was that when people win awards they always say that the award is a 'team effort'. But in the case of Upton Cressett the true winner is Spear's own Adam Dant.