The owners of today’s large country houses may smile wryly at Hugh Bonneville’s character, the Earl of Grantham, in the much vaunted forthcoming series of Downton Abbey. They know what life will be like in the years to come, without servants but with soaring heating bills and leaky roofs, in an age when marrying an American heiress is no longer the answer. The two World Wars changed life both upstairs and below.
At Fermyn Woods Hall in Northamptonshire, David and Mary Laing don’t have Dame Maggie Smith’s formidable Dowager Countess breathing down their necks, but they still bear the weight of history and expectation. “Local people remember how it once was,” says David. “It isn’t a stately home but it is almost like a village in its own right. A huge wing was added in the late 1860s and there were 47 live-in staff but later, in the Sixties, the wing was pulled down.” The house shrank from 26 bedrooms to 13. “But locals still recall the ballroom in use and dancing classes in the library.”
Like many grand houses during the second half of the last century, Fermyn Woods Hall was badly in need of repair. When the Laings bought it in 2002, they devoted a year to restoration. “We had the full dry rot and it was very tired. But it breathed warmth and charm and it had always been a loved and loving house. There wasn’t a front drive. There was a gate post with a sign hanging off it, and you came round the back drive to the house. The stonework was patchy, chimneys were missing, creepers had overgrown the house and the garden had overgrown everything.”
The Laings are generous and pragmatic in the way they run the place. David was born into the Laing construction family, trained as an architect and makes home the centre of his life – he works from there as much as possible. Their daughter Vicky has a cottage in the grounds, keeping the horses, and between them they run a busy calendar – equestrian events, fund-raisers, Shakespeare evenings. Mary also runs the place as an upmarket Wolsey Lodge b & b. “It helps to paint a room and pay for her to have a holiday,” says David.
“We are at the stage where Downton will be in 20 years’ time, when staff are no longer there. I do car park duty, whatever is needed. Running the house is a full-time job. You can’t just lock it up and go away for the weekend.”