With its Elizabethan façade, North Cadbury Court makes the perfect location for a Wolf Hall-style Tudor drama.
But enter the Grade I-listed mansion near Yeovil, Somerset, and in a few paces you have travelled through 200 years from the 16th to the 18th century, as the rear of the house is a graceful Georgian extension overlooking parkland, a lake and a herd of cows.
Buried inside these walls, and with traces still visible, are parts of the original house, a medieval hall dating from the 14th century. The Elizabethan remodelling was carried out by Sir Francis Hastings, brother of the Earl of Huntingdon, in around 1581. The ballroom and south façade were then added in around 1800.
In 1910 the estate was purchased by Sir Archibald Langman, a Londoner and goldsmith who dreamed of green fields and a rural life. With his wife, Eleanor, the couple began farming.
Their grandson, Jamie Montgomery, owns the estate today with his brother, Archie, and continues to make the cheddar cheese for which the estate has become famous.
They grew up at “the Court” with their sister, Catherine, but they later all moved out (not very far in the case of the brothers, who became farmers) and started families. After the death of their father, John, in 1991, the pile, with its 20-plus bedrooms, was left in the hands of their mother, Elizabeth, and aunt, Mary Langman, a founder member of the Soil Association. They died within a few years of each other, leaving the estate to the children.
“Mother was forever asking us what we would do with the house after she was gone,” says Archie, who is the driving force behind the latest incarnation of North Cadbury Court as an event venue. But before they could plan any real future for the house, they had to address the rather pressing problems facing its very structure.
The lack of any real maintenance had taken its toll and become an issue. “It was pretty parky here when we were growing up,” says Jamie, with farmer-like understatement as we enter the dining room, which was one of only two rooms that were heated in his childhood.
Plaster was coming off the walls, and mould and mushrooms sprouted in dark corners. When it rained, buckets had to be fetched. “An expert in old building conservation came round and found rot in the first five minutes and asbestos in the next five,” adds Archie. “He wasn’t impressed by the sag in the ceiling, either.”
But in spite of this, the brothers’ memories are overwhelmingly happy, so deciding the future of the estate was bound up with the importance of keeping it as a family home.
Strutt & Parker provided a feasibility study outlining options of what the family might do with the house. “The options for the court were living in it, selling or renting it, turning it into a wedding venue or developing it into a hotel or flats,” says Archie. Planners were not keen on the latter option, even though it made the most financial sense.
In the end, North Cadbury Court has found its future as a form of private stately home that you can hire as a venue for pretty much anything: birthdays, bar mitzvahs, corporate away-days and, of course, weddings.
Restoring the estate and bringing all the rooms up to standard ran to more than £1.5 million, of which plumbing alone accounted for £600,000. It could have cost much more were it not for the practical skills of the brothers. A crafty fix using winches to mend the sag in the roof saved them £50,000.
They also made savings by doing a deal with design firm Lewis & Wood by offering to use their wallpapers and fabrics exclusively in return for a discount. And forget prized antiques: “We had to buy quite a lot of furniture,” says Archie. “I’d go to the local clearance sales and put the lowest possible bid on things I wanted and wait.”
This explains, in part, why the family are relaxed about allowing their guests to have the run of the place: there are no Ming vases or Old Masters to damage. The best painting in the house – a portrait of Eleanor Langman by John Singer Sargent – was sold for £1 million to an American collector.
The result is an eclectic, tasteful blend of Georgian and Victorian furniture, old oriental rugs and paintings, gilded mirrors and hanging on the stairs a unique collection of photos from the Boer War shot on a box Brownie by Sir Archibald, after he was briefly taken prisoner. There are pretty counterpanes and handmade mattresses on the many antique beds, and masses of hardbacks (paperbacks are banned at the court). There is only one TV screen in the entire place, partially masked by its gilded frame.
Inside, the rooms are named after potatoes: Lady Rosetta, Charlotte, King Edward. All the bedrooms have en suite baths or showers, many with quirky features such as a sunken cast iron bath that was uncovered when a floor was taken up. There are a couple of bedrooms in the attic where you can see the 13th century curved and signed roof trusses.
Parties that come for one night rarely have time to relax and enjoy all the facilities, including a casino and disco, both created in the cellars, the indoor pool, gym, spa, billiards room and tennis courts in the grounds. Even the roof space is available to the free-range guests. Here, there is a tee from where you can hit a golf ball at the soon-to-be-created yacht club on the lake. From here, there are views over the Somerset hills with Glastonbury Tor in the distance.
North Cadbury Court is available only midweek to the end of 2018 and costs from £7,500 for a two-night stay. The house has only two full-time members of staff: the so-called “gatekeeper” of the events business and a gardener. Archie reckons the estate now brings upwards of £1 million into the local economy annually. No doubt the court once sustained a medieval community and this happily continues, with a host of caterers, cleaners, taxi drivers and florists on hand to serve its rather lucky guests. “A house has a soul,” he adds. “Our guiding principle was not to destroy it.”