Making a Splash
It was 35 years ago and there was no escaping Stapleford Park in the print media. American entrepreneur Bob Payton knew how to make a splash. Instead of hiring only interior designers to decorate the bedrooms of his newly converted country house hotel, he threw a shirtmaker, a porcelain company and a perfumier amongst many others into the mix. It caught the press and public’s attention. Eight years later, another media savvy entrepreneur, this time Englishman Peter de Savary, took over Stapleford Park and opened it as one of his Carnegie Club outpost adding not least the Knot Garden in front of the main entrance door. Cue double page spreads in the supplements once more. Skibo Castle in Dornoch, the home of the Victorian philanthropic industrialist Andrew Carnegie, continues to be a Carnegie Club. His portrait hangs in the gents’ bathroom at Stapleford Park. Just when we thought life couldn’t get any more glamorous, we find ourselves pottering about the Wedgwood Room of the hotel, weighing up a walk in the Capability Brown designed parkland of heaven verging fields versus tea on the terrace. Happy camping. We do both.
Bob Payton bought the house and its 200 hectare estate from Lord Gretton for £600,000 and spent a further £4 million rejuvenating and opening it as a hotel and leisure resort. We’re privileged to exclusively share his last recorded interview before he died in a car crash in 1994: “I first saw Stapleford Park from the back of a horse riding nearby in rolling countryside. Stapleford has been for many centuries a sporting lodge with riding, shooting and lavish entertainment all part of its heritage. It is our endeavour to keep that same style for many years to come. So interesting is the history of Stapleford Park and fascinating its architecture that the house was open to the public for several decades. Walking through the house and around the grounds is like going on a magical mystery tour. Through each and every doorway, there is another adventure. Set in 500 acres of woodland and parkland, the house provides breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside from every room.”
“Our approach to life in the country is that of a relaxed, comfortable, casual existence. We’ve replaced the servants and butlers if the old days with a team of people who are dedicated to making sure you enjoy our home and all it has to offer. We hope you like our approach to hospitality. To complement the eclectic architectural style of this most unusual house I invited several famous names to design bedrooms based on their own image of life at Stapleford Park. Signature bedrooms have been created by Tiffany, Wedgwood, Lindka Cierach, Lady Jane Churchill, Crabtree and Evelyn, Nina Campbell, Liberty, Max Pike and many others. We’re thrilled that these folks found Stapleford Park such an exciting challenge.”
“The dining room is decorated with ornate and intricate woodwork accredited to the most famous of all English carvers, Grinling Gibbons. In these luxurious surroundings, we serve traditional English cuisine with the occasional flair of old fashioned American cooking. You can enjoy the food that Stapleford’s guests have enjoyed over the centuries and much much more. As for sport, the surrounding Leicestershire countryside is most famous for its equestrian links. We offer most kinds of equestrian pursuits including carriage driving and riding instruction. There is clay shooting on the property and game shooting can be arranged. You can fish on the lake in front of the house or at nearby Rutland Water. If that’s not enough, there’s tennis, croquet and basketball, as well as walks through and around the property in this most lovely of settings.”
“Come and discover a truly great undiscovered part of England. Stapleford Park is in reality most people’s fantasy of the quintessential English countryside. Let me tell you about Edward Prince of Wales. His mother wouldn’t let him buy Stapleford Park because she felt that his morals might be corrupted by the Leicestershire hunting society. Well that was 100 years ago. Fortunately the Royal Family settled at Sandringham so that all of us may now enjoy the pleasures of this most idyllic estate.” The Royal Family are still happily ensconced at Sandringham and we are even more happily enjoying life at Stapleford Park.
The house glows a golden hue in afternoon sunshine and shimmers a mysterious grey in morning mist. Poet Mary Oliver writes in her essay Wordsworth’s Mountain (Upstream Collected Essays, 2016), “This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular. But dawn – dawn is a gift.” Every elevation and wing is a piece of architecture in itself and together they form a visual whole in material only. Crunchie the ginger cat (technically the neighbour’s but wise enough to hang out on the estate) matches the ashlar stone. One minute Stapleford Park is a Jacobean manor house; turn a corner, the next minute it’s a Queen Anne stately home; turn another corner, a Jacobethan hunting lodge; one more, a Loire château. As for the entrance front facing the quiet waters of the lake, the nine bay string coursed perfection is as symmetrical as a supermodel’s face. No big name architects are recorded (unlike the landscape and panelling!) but two owners have added their name for posterity in stone carvings on the exterior of a wing: “William Lord Sherard Baron of Letrym Repayred This Building Anno Domini 1633”. Underneath there’s a postscript: “And Bob Payton Esq. Did His Bit Anno Domini 1988”.
Indoors the eclecticism continues thanks partly to the layering of six or so centuries and partly to the aforementioned cohorts of dreamers and designers let loose on the fabric and fabrics. The main block is laid out around two vast double height top lit spaces: the Staircase Hall and adjacent Saloon. Public and private lounging and dining ebbs and flows throughout the ground floor. The Morning Room (with its mullioned bay window). The Harborough Room (crimson Gainsborough silk wallpaper). Billiard Room (converted games table). The Orangery (windows galore). The Grinling Gibbons Dining Room (festooned panelling by his namesake). The Old Kitchen (stone vaulted ceiling). Formal dinner is served in the Grinling Gibbons Dining Room: Baron De Beaupre Champagne; pea, goat’s curd, mint pistou tartlet and crispy onions; butter roasted cod, fennel and leak cream, new potatoes, sea herbs. Stapleford Park is a bread roll’s throw from Melton Mowbray and its Stilton Creamery so a generous cheese board offering is called for: Beacon Fell, Bingham Blue, Pitchfork Cheddar, Ribblesdale Goat’s, Tuxford and Tebbut Stilton. Five tall sash windows frame the descent of darkness. Mary Oliver again, “Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world.”
The first floor is filled to the ceiling roses with the Grand Rooms: Savoir Beds, Crabtree and Evelyn, Wedgwood, Lady Jane Churchill, Baker, Turnbull and Asser, Flemish Tapestries, Amanda by Today Interiors, Campion Bell, Sanderson, Eleanor, Lyttle, Lady Gretton, Zoffany, Warner. We’re in the Wedgwood Room, one of the very grandest, with views across the green pastures. Below a Waterford Crystal chandelier and over a Wilton carpet everything is iconic Wedgwood blue and white from the wallpaper to soap dish. Life and Works of Wedgwood, a book by Eliza Meteyard (1865) in the library, praises the entrepreneurial potter, “His name lives in the industrial history of the country he loved so well, and so enriched by the bounties of his art and the example of his worthy life.” Ah, on the table that’s just what we like: a handwritten welcome note. And sash windows that open fully.
The second floor is filled to the rafters with the Slightly Less Grand Rooms: Panache, Wishing Well, Haddon, Treetops, Bloomsbury, Savonerie, Sanderson, Molly, Peacock, Lake View, Game Larder, Burley, Early, Green Gables, Melody, Max. A row of servants’ bells in the corridor reveals the more prosaic original room names, “First Floor: No.1 Bedroom, No.1 Dressing Room, No.2 Bedroom, No.2 Dressing Room, Bathroom, No.3 Bedroom, No. 4 Bedroom, No.5 Bedroom, Bathroom, No.6 Bedroom, No.6 Dressing Room, No.7 Bedroom, No.8 Bedroom. Second Floor: No.1 Bedroom, No.2 Bedroom, Bathroom, No.3 Bedroom, No.4 Bedroom, No. 5 Bedroom, No.6 Bedroom, Dark Room, No.7 Bedroom, No.8 Bedroom, Front Door, Luggage Room, Tradesmen.” Windows are open to the sights and sounds of birdlife: cooing pigeons, flying geese, scarpering pheasants.
Beyond the exquisitely manicured formal and semiformal and informal suite of gardens, the former stable block turned spa matches the house in both material (ironstone rubble with ashlar dressings) and style (baroque revival). There’s a named architect and exact construction date: Peter Dollar, 1899. The Oxfordshire born London based architect Peter Dollar is best known for his Majestic Picturedrome on London’s Tottenham Court Road. In contrast to the historicist appearance of Stapleford stable block, the cinema was an Edwardian looking brick and rendered four storey with attics building. Opened in 1912, it was demolished just 65 years later. His fine stable block has fared rather better. The stalls are occupied by beauty treatment salons and are labelled after racehorses: Apple-Jack, Black Beauty, Red Rum and so on. There’s also a thatched roof theme running through the estate secondary buildings from the gatelodge to cottages and contemporary houses for hire.
The parish and estate church, St Mary Magdalene, is an architectural and acoustic marvel. Again there’s a named architect and exact construction date: George Richardson, 1763. Ashlar with ashlar dressings retains the material theme but the style is high Gothick. The architect trained as a draughtsman under James Adam. Across the west end of the nave is the galleried family pew. A chimneypiece kept the chills at bay in winter.
Lord Nelson’s Prayer at Trafalgar dated 21 October 1805 is framed and nailed to a post in the nave: “May the Great God whom I serve grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just case which is entrusted me to defend.” At the afar end of the nave, on the pulpit lectern the Bible lies open at Psalm 23.
It’s a family church. Literally. Or rather families church. Heraldic shields are displayed on the elevations between the windows and buttresses. On the long south facing nave elevation: Cave, Hill, Noel, Verney, Pedley, Faireax, Denton, Calverly, Christopher, Bennet, Bury, Brow, Folville. On the gabled east facing chancel elevation: Branchester, Bruley, Danvers, Bisett, Mosley. On the long north facing nave elevation: Brabazon, Woodfort, Burges, Fitz-Maxilion, Consull, St Hillary, Clare, Lacy, Verdon, Hauberk, Eyton, Melville, Woodville. And on the west facing towered entrance front: Roberts, Hearst, Sherard, Reeve. It is Sherard that takes pride of place: this family owned the estate for half a millennium.
But it is a servant’s gravestone which is positioned closest to the entrance pathway: “Sacred To the Memory of Mary Carnaby who departed this life the 13th Day of January 1799; aged 59 Years. The daughter of Mrs Drake of Woolsthorpe, and Granddaughter of John and Ann Peele of Cockermouth in the County of Cumberland. She was Housekeeper to the Earl of Harborough for 17 years, which employment She discharged with uprightness and fidelity, becoming the imitation of posterity. Earthly Cavern to thy keeping, We commit our Sister’s dust. Keep it safely, softly sleeping, Till our Lord demand thy trust. Erected by her Aunt Tarn of Cockermouth.” Bless Aunt Tarn.
The sense of family intensifies even more in the chancel. Facing each other are impressive monuments. In the northern recess is a memorial to the 1st Earl and Countess of Harborough (in 1719 they were upgraded from 3rd Lord and Lady Sherard by George I) and their young son (all wearing Roman clothing) in white marble by the Flemish born sculptor Michael Rysback in 1732. A Sherard family memorial predating this church occupies the southern recess: effigies of Sir William and Lady Abigail and their 11 children. An even older memorial salvaged from the demolished church on this site is a brass engraving dedicated to Geoffrey and Joan Sherard and their 14 children dated 1490 and set in the nave floor. All three memorials highlight the commonplace nature of the once infant mortality.
The inscription on the plinth of the Harborough memorial reads: “To the Memory of Bennet 1st Earl of Harborough, only surviving son and heir of Bennet Lord Sherard of Stapleford, Baron of Letrim in the Kingdom of Ireland. By Elizabeth daughter and coheir of Sir Robert Christopher of Alford in the County of Lincoln Knight. He married Mary Daughter and Coheir of Sir Henry Calverley of Ariholme in the Bishoprick of Durham Knight. By whom he had issue one son, who died an infant. He was many years to the time of his death Lord Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of the County of Rutland, Lord Warden of Justice in Eyre North of Trent. He died the 16th day of October in the year of our Lord 1732, aged 55.”
A plaque on the wall over the Sherard memorial reads: “William Lord Sherard, third Sonne of Francis Sherard Esquire, Had Issue seaven Sonnes, Bennet, Philip, George, Francis, William, Henry, John, foure Daughters, Emelin, Abigail, Anne, Elizabeth, By his Wife Abigail eldest Daughter of Cicil Cave Esquire, third Sonne of Roger Cave of Stanford, in the County of Northampton Esquire. And this hee most affectionately dedicated to his Memory for him, herselfe, and their Children.” Doesn’t “seaven” look better spelt to emphasise it rhymes with “heaven”? Another inscription is set into the plinth below: “Here lies interred the Body of Sir William Sherard, Lord Sherard Baron of Letrime in Ireland, His most singular. Piety, Bounty, Courtesy, Humanity, Hospitality, Charity, Crown’d his mortall life, which (after he had enjoyed LII years) he changed for that which is immortall, the first day of April in the yeare of our Lord God MDCXL. Whose coming he here expectes.” During our stay we come across several spellings of the Irish county of “Leitrim”.
Australian entrepreneur David Fam, CEO of Dreamr Hotels, has owned Stapleford Park since 2022 and is instilling his expertise in “wellness, healing and ancient wisdom” into the hotel. “One can roam all day, constantly finding new works of art and hidden rooms in this labyrinth of style,” wrote Luc Quisenaerts in his guide Hotel Gems in Great Britain and Ireland, 1997. We do, we do. Mary Oliver one final time, “How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways.” We could dwell in this house forever.