He inherited a problem along with this crumbling stately: raising funds for the renovation.
In July 2014, after his great-aunt, the Duchess of Roxburghe, had passed away, Bamber Gascoigne was summoned to a meeting by his aunt’s solicitor. The former University Challenge quizmaster assumed they would be discussing his role as executor of the will, but he was told the duchess had chosen him, one of her 25 great-nephews and nieces, as the heir to her 350-acre summer residence in Surrey.
“I was just astonished,” the broadcaster and author recalls. “You try to keep a normal demeanour. It wasn’t that I didn’t take it in, but it didn’t seem an appropriate place to respond in any dramatic manner. I just sort of accepted it, and we went on to talk about the business of being executor.”
It’s fitting that the nation’s favourite polymath should inherit his own slice of history: West Horsley Place, a crumbling stately home, once played host to Henry VIII. But Gascoigne, 82, was also bequeathed a conundrum that might tax the finest brain: how to raise £10m and drag the estate into the 21st century.
The 15th-century property is surrounded by formal gardens, green fields, woodland, an orchard and a crinkle-crankle wall. Yet behind the charming red-brick exterior lurks a host of defects. The 1630s Renaissance brickwork on the south front is crumbling away from the Tudor timbers to which it is affixed. The eagle-eyed will see that the gutters are cracked and the lintels are sagging.
When Gascoigne and his wife, Christina, 78, crossed the threshold of the Tudor mansion as owners, rather than guests, they had only ever set foot in three of the 50 rooms. He had visited West Horsley Place as a teenager, and the pair had enjoyed family lunches hosted by his great-aunt in recent years, but they had never been upstairs. “I hadn’t seen any of that when I already owned it,” he says.
Today, we’re free to explore the labyrinth of rooms. Gascoigne, white hair askew and without his trademark horn-rims, leads me around the two floors and up to the attic rooms, where wallpaper is peeling off the walls and buckets are strategically placed to deal with the leaks. Our tour takes in the pale lemon morning room, the library, which smells of mothballs, and the duchess’s red-hued drawing room.
In the stone-flagged great hall, a fire burns, but there’s a chill in the air. Knowing how impossible the draughty house was, Mary Roxburghe, who became chatelaine of West Horsley Place after her divorce from the Duke of Roxburghe, assumed the property would be sold on her death. But Gascoigne — who when we meet is kitted out against the interior cold in blue mittens, a scarf and a green woolly jumper under a check blazer — felt it would be “a bit feeble” to sell up. “We haven’t got children, we haven’t got anyone to leave it to, so to speak, but we thought, ‘Let’s have a go.’”
The couple, who met at Cambridge in 1960, on the steps of the university library, established pretty quickly that the house “wasn’t part of the modern world”, and though they knew they would never live in it, they bedded down there one winter’s night with a group of friends. “We did very bravely spend a New Year’s Eve here, and it was unbelievably cold,” Gascoigne says. “We had a go, but never again.”
In May 2015, he auctioned off most of the house’s contents to raise funds for the repairs. The paintings, furniture and jewels made more than £5m, with one particular item, the duchess’s Cartier diamond engagement ring, selling for £130,000, despite a guide price of between £8,000 and £12,000.
The survey had highlighted a host of problems, and more money was needed for the restoration. At this point, doubt began to creep in. “I had never done a renovation before,” says Gascoigne, who has overseen a small extension to his 19th-century townhouse on the river near Richmond, southwest London. “We began to feel we couldn’t cope with it — it was absolutely impossible.”
Just as the couple were beginning to flounder, inspiration struck. “Suddenly I had the idea of making it into a charity, which removed huge burdens from our shoulders,” he says. He signed the house and the auction proceeds over to the Mary Roxburghe Trust, set up in late 2015. “Since then, it’s been much easier. I’ve got some brilliant trustees and a wonderful director.” He now feels like he’s “sitting in the back seat of a rather smooth limousine”.
The charity ensures that the house contributes towards its upkeep. West Horsley Place has served as a backdrop for film and TV shoots, including the upcoming movie My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz, and Peter Morgan’s Netflix series The Crown. Last November, the handbag brand Mulberry shot an ad in the house, and the trustees are encouraging “performing arts” on site.
The recent arrival of Grange Park Opera (GPO) has provided a classy addition on that front. In the grounds, past the box hedges and the flowerbeds where Christina is digging in the soil, and beyond the orchard, is the partially completed “theatre in the woods”: the GPO’s new 700-seater home. In November, the actress Joanna Lumley was among the guests at a ceremony to celebrate the roof being put on the new venue. Today, the builders are beetling about the four-tiered structure — the pressure is on to finish it in time for the inaugural performance on June 8, which Gascoigne will attend.
While most of his fellow octogenarians are kicking back and enjoying their retirement, he’s so busy that he didn’t even catch the recent final of University Challenge. Monkmania, sparked by the losing team’s captain, Eric Monkman, passed him by. “I’ve never been so rushed off my feet,” he says. “For all my working life, there were times when there was a terrible crisis of getting ready for a television documentary or something, but never constant, endless letters of all sorts coming through — people offering help, asking for a job. Nobody, to my distress, has written to say, ‘Do you need a butler?”
Despite his ingenuity, Gascoigne isn’t convinced his great-aunt would have approved of the money-raising ventures. “I think that the great-grandparents of the people running brilliantly successful country houses now would be horrified with all the commercial aspects of it — people paying to do this, paying to do that. My aunt was appalled at the thought of anything commercial.
“The only exception was that she was once persuaded to let somebody photograph a Rolls-Royce at the front door for an advertisement. Then she saw it in a magazine. She said, ‘God, that’s appalling. That’s the last time I’m doing anything of that sort.’”
Who knows what the duchess would have made of her final resting place? When Puccini’s Tosca kicks off the summer proceedings, she won’t be far from the action. Gascoigne, who was a director at the Royal Opera House for seven years, has placed the casket containing her ashes in the foundations of the new theatre, where the first violins will play. “For ever after, as the orchestra strikes up, the duchess will be part of it,” he says.