Huntsham Court

Liz Gill enjoys the home from home atmosphere on this charming Devon estate

It might seem quite a leap from looking for a three bedroom holiday cottage to actually buying a 27 bedroom mansion. But for Damian Llambias and Christopher Badham the decision was more the result of slowly realising that taking on somewhere like Huntsham Court could be the perfect blend of a business opportunity and a lovely lifestyle.

The lifestyle would be the swopping of demanding careers in London for gentler paced rural surroundings which would still offer the challenge of a major restoration project; the business opportunity would be to fill a gap in the venue market.

They had spotted this when searching for somewhere to celebrate their own civil partnership in 2011. Nowhere seemed to offer the right combination of size, flexibility and ambience.

“Places that were grand were rather uncomfortable,” says Chris. “They were stately homes full of stately stuff. One had a Rembrandt on the dining room wall but you then couldn’t go in after midnight as the alarm would have been set. Another allowed only ‘blonde’ drinks on the ground floor. And places which were more relaxed tended to be shabby. And nowhere was the whole house yours. You were always reminded you were part of a system.”

The niche therefore would be for somewhere imposing but easygoing, luxurious but laidback, somewhere which would be their own home during the week but which they would move out of when it was let to guests.

Their search led them to Huntsham Court which ticked all the boxes. It looked fabulous: it had been constructed in 1869 for the Ackland Troyte family by the renowned architect William Burges to be one of the finest examples of  the Gothic Revival style in the country. It had an interesting history being built as a wedding gift: it had to be splendid to match the bride’s status as a baron’s daughter. It was large: as well as all those bedrooms there were five fine reception rooms including a grand hall with Jacobean panelling plus what is thought to be the only vaulted octagonal kitchen in the country. It was set in five and a half acres and bordered by beautiful Devon countryside. And it was just a 12 minute drive to Tiverton and from there less than two hours by fast train to Paddington.

There was a big downside, of course. The original family had sold the house and its contents back in 1978 (though they had held on to their 5,000 acre estate) and since then it had been a hotel and a rental property. But by the time Chris and Damien bought it it had become shabby and neglected. The decor, they describe, as part 1970s working men’s club and part Miss Haversham.

The house cost them £1.83m (they got a lot for their money because most buyers of a property that size want hundreds of acres with it) and so far they’ve spent £400,000 on refurbishment, modernising the amenities, installing new bathrooms, sprucing up the main rooms and hanging literally thousands of metres of new curtains.

The result, as we found on our weekend there, is a wonderful mix of the posh and the playful. We whizzed down on a Friday evening from London to Tiverton: an advance single with First Great Western starts from £12.50 for standard class but if you want to upgrade  to first for around an extra £20 you can start as you mean to go on with tea and cakes in their lounge at Paddington and refreshments en route. 

It was a snowy weekend which made everything look even more magical as we drove up to the house, crunched across the gravel and stepped in through the huge oak door to a  the Great Hall with big squashy sofas, roaring log fire and huge stag’s head hunting trophy.  It felt like a more down-to-earth Downton

You can’t go to Huntsham Court as a couple or a single person or with a few friends. Chris and Damien did not want to run a b and b: they want the house either full or for themselves and though they will do weekday day hire for, say, corporate events or a film shoot, the main aim is to have large groups at weekends who want to mark a special occasion: landmark birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, retirements, christenings or baby naming ceremonies, bar mitzvahs and, of course, weddings: the house is licensed for civil ceremonies or there is small church beside the driveway to the house.

The place is a massive 33,000 sq ft and the bedrooms which are named after family, friends and pets, are similarly generously proportioned. Most are en suite, some have four posters and all are wonderfully and often idiosyncratically furnished and decorated. There’s also a lot of flexibility: some can be interlinked, one is suitable for anyone with disabilities, another can be turned into a dorm for teenagers or a group of bridesmaids.

Although Huntsham Court costs thousands to hire it can sleep over 70 so the cost per person works out at no more than that of an ordinary hotel. And this is no ordinary place – essentially, say Chris and Damien, the house is a blank canvas for guests to use as they please. They have lots of suggestions and advice though and can point visitors towards the right people for cookery workshops, murder mystery weekends, dance classes, spa and beauty treatments, tennis, shooting and archery.

We tried clay pigeon shooting something I’d never done before but which turned out to be rather good fun. I’m too much of a townie to want to aim at anything living but there is something very satisfying about blasting away at those four inch diameter discs whirling through the air, especially if you hit one head on and it shatters into a dozen pieces.

Even in a couple of hours we managed with the expert and encouraging tuition of our instructor Matt to be having a go at two at once with what I now know to be a Lincoln 20 bore ( lighter and smaller than the 12 bore used by the men and so less likely to give you a bruising kick back). One young member of our group who’d never picked up a gun before turned out to be a crack shot, the result she reckoned of hours doing it virtually on Wii. As a contrast on Sunday morning we indulged in some pampering from a visiting beauty therapist. I had a massage, others had facials, pedicures and manicures.

In between we walked in the grounds, read, snoozed  chatted, looked at the eclectic mix of traditional and modern art on the walls, played table tennis and in true country house tradition enlivened Saturday evening with charades. And in keeping with another grand country tradition we did a lot of eating and drinking.

Guests can either cook for themselves or use recommended local caterers to be as formal or informal as they want. We had a mixture of both. On Friday evening we helped ourselves to curry in the kitchen and then balanced the plates on our knees as we chatted round the fire. On Saturday lunchtime we tucked into pumpkin soup, a range of quiches and salads and followed that a few hours later by afternoon tea. On Saturday evening we had canapés and bubbly in the library followed by four courses at the long elegant table in the dining room.

Earlier Master of Wine Alastair Peebles had tutored us the wines which would accompany our meal. One of the attractions of hiring the house is that you can bring your own wine without incurring what Chris and Damien dub the ‘annoying and irritating’ charges of corkage and handling.

The people who supplied our breakfasts were also local bringing bacon and sausages from pigs raised on their farm as well as the Devon breakfast tradition of fried liver and onions.

For Chris, a barrister who was poised for a second career in diplomacy and Damien who combined working in the arts with renovating London properties, the house represents not just a significant change of direction but an ongoing commitment. Fully restoring it to its former grandeur could take ten years and they also have big plans for the grounds including the planting of 800 beech trees, 320 yews and 4,000 bulbs. They feel, they say, ‘enormously privileged’ to live in such a house from Monday to Friday but at the same time appear completely relaxed about moving into an adjoining cottage at weekends so that guests can make themselves at home in their home.

“I think the more responsibility you give guests the more responsibly they’ll behave,” says Chris. “Even at the most fun parties we haven’t had anyone jumping up and down on the furniture.”

Fact Box

Two night hire: weekends 19 bedrooms from £8,200 to £10,200, 27 bedrooms from £9,900 to £11,900; weekdays 19 bedrooms from £6,200 to £8,800, 27 bedrooms from £7,900 to £10,200; mid week day only from £3,800 to £5,100 pigeon shooting

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