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Nicholas Ashley-Cooper 12th Earl of Shaftesbury + St Giles House Dorset

Changing the Dial

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper 12th Earl of Shaftesbury 2019 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Giles House has quite an evolving history,” says Lord Shaftesbury. “Country houses are always living organisms. The Victorian obsession was to make them bigger and better. Strange French château style pavilions were added to St Giles. They were poorly constructed and didn’t survive more than seven years. Whoever thought they were a good idea?” Nick is England’s coolest aristo. He also happens to own Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. His great grandfather who was Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast gifted the family’s Northern Irish seat, Belfast Castle, to the City Council in 1934. Today, Nick is dressed in a linen suit and trainers with his trademark sweptback hair touching his shirt collar. He also happens to be responsible for one of the most iconic – not a term to use lightly – country house rooms of the 21st century. More of the Great Dining Room later.

“Growing up nearby I used to cycle past St Giles and think what a strange place it was – from another era.” A series of very unexpected events resulted in Nick inheriting the derelict house and its 2,220 hectare estate just south of Cranborne Chase, Dorset, in 2005. The first phase of restoration of the house was to “create a cosy family space akin to our Earls Court flat life at that time”. Nick and his wife Dinah along with their three children moved into this “cocoon” occupying a few rooms. He remembers, “We needed to live and feel and breathe the building.”

Despite lying empty for 50 years, “It was an incredible house just full of stuff. Our challenge was navigating our way through what was worth salvaging and what wasn’t. We found some beautiful unique pieces we wanted to showcase. Otherwise, the interior is a combination of beautiful architectural decoration and relatively modern pieces. My wife loves to be bold and not use more mellow colours!” He adds, “At the time, a lot of people asked how do you go from being a DJ to running an estate? But running a venue was something I could do – I could bring people in.”

And so the second phase of restoration began. “I told the builders not to leave. The public rooms have been kept sparse to allow them to be used for events. The architecture is so beautiful and you are drawn to that. There are very few curtains on the ground floor – you don’t need them. The thing that makes it magical is you’re going into a space that has been used by generations of people. In some ways this is imprinted on the structure. Patination is an important part of the atmosphere.” A particularly innovative approach was taken for the Great Dining Room.

“This room was really badly hit by dry rot,” explains Nick. “My father was forced to rip out much of the panelling. And so it was a room in pieces really. But we had six family portraits, features in their own right, and a wonderful overmantel. During restoration you lose character if you put everything back. Here was a space that you couldn’t create – it was what it was. We wanted to allow people to interact with its current condition, a new dimension. There is no one time period that necessarily trumps another. Patina gives it that movement and feeling of character which is very hard to create.” The 12th Earl of Shaftesbury concludes, “It’s been a wonderful journey of exploration, a really big adventure. If we get this right, we will have turned around the estate for several generations. Sometimes I feel like the stars have aligned on this project!”

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