Today began with breakfast in the State Dining Rooms inside Stowe House. We are spending our time here staying in the boarding house for Stowe school, which is attached to the manor house, and the students of the school are served breakfast lunch and dinner in the historic dining rooms. So we have been able to experience a bit of what it might have been like to live in a place like this. It’s quite bizarre having the estate to ourselves overnight and the ability to explore a nearly empty manor house after dark.
The House Custordian, Anna, took us for a tour of the house after breakfast and described how it was built in the 1680s as the ‘principal temple’ of the gardens (there’s about 40 other temples and follies around the gardens, each with their own metaphors and political undertones). The House was the home of the Temple-Grenville family who within a span of 200 years rose from being sheep farmers in Oxford to being the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos (although they had a few other titles along the way.
The family were very political and their strong political views were reflected in much of the ceiling decorations in the Ouse, as well as through the gardens. The North Hall is the only room with a political ceiling left, it depicts Lord Cobham being handed the Sword of Victory by the god Mars. This is to reflect that Cobham was a soldier who fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough, it’s also a very direct way to tell visitors (being one of the first rooms you enter) just how full of yourself you can be.
Interestingly we learned that the house and gardens were open to visitors from as early as the 1750s, when the Duke was still in residence and diary accounts reveal that the duke had formal guests at the same time as tourists were wandering through to see how the other half lived. Unfortunately the family went into decline and by the mid-19th century they were in huge debt, following a visit from Queen Victoria (because you have to spruce up the house when the Queen comes to visit). In 1848, three years after the queens visit they have one of two huge sales in which the family try to recoup some funds by selling off the contents of the house. Sadly after 40 days of selling things off they had only raised £40, 000, not nearly enough to cover the debts. In 1921 the last member of the family, Lady Kinloss, held the second of the big sales when she decided to sell the estate and its contents because the heir to the family title, and whatever fortune was left, had died during the First World War.
The person who bought the estate in 1921 proved unable to do anything with it, so in 1922 it was sold again and this time was turned into a school. Stowe School opened in 1923 with Mr Roxborough as the headmaster. The school managed the estate by themselves for 67years, then the National Trust took over the management of the gardens and much later the Stowe House Preservation Trust was started to improve visitor access to the house. They re-opened it to tourists in 2015 and manage the restoration and interpretation of the building.
We also had a chance to hear from Suzy, the visitor experience manager and Anna, the community and learning officer. Both ladies were lovely and gave us an outline of visitor numbers, types of tours on offer, constraints of offering tours during term time as the school uses much of the house for classes and alternative ways they are trying to entice people in. There are some special experiences that are run to attract more visitors including rooftop tours, behind the scenes tours and some volunteer guides will pick a specialist subject and run tours on that aspect of house history.
The main challenge that is presented with this site is the ongoing restoration work. The House Trust was established in 1997 and started the first phase of restoration in 2000. The balance of conservation and housekeeping is difficult as the building is used in so many different ways, and let’s be honest teenage boys are not often kind to their surroundings. Part of the conservation work involves also telling the history of the school, how the students have used (and mis-used) the house contribute to its history, and sometimes it’s damage.
Our task for the day was to develop a fundraising proposal for the restoration of the State Dining Rooms. We needed £950, 000 total for ceiling restoration (repairing and stabilising as well as restoration of paintings); original wooden flooring needed to be taken up, assessed, repaired where possible and relaid or replaced; joinery, dado rails, skirting boards and door frames all need work as well as replacing some non-original doors with jib doors; lighting; and finally attempting to re-instate replicas of three original tapestries which hung on the walls.
It’s a massive undertaking with many considerations including visitor access, relocating the school’s dining facilities, staging of the project and online engagement. We pitched a range of ideas designed to target different levels of fundraising. To start with the least sexy, the floors, we decided to approach fundraising bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and request the money on the grounds of public safety and access. Our big ticket items such as the ceiling restoration and tapestries would have a combined approach using low level encouragement such as donation boxes for regular visitors and an option in the house cafe and visitor shop to add £1 to their purchases to go towards the restoration. The second approach is to target higher level donors through strategies like a gala dinner in the State Dining Rooms before the work has started so that donors can see what needs doing, followed by a re-opening of the space with another gala dinner to see the completed works at the end. We had thought of charging about £200 pounds per head for the dinners, and by targeting the school alumni, Old Stoics, we could hopefully appeal to their sentimentality to preserve their old school for the future generations.
After each group presented our ideas to the Stowe House Preservation team we had two hours to beautify ourselves in time for our formal dinner in the Drawing Room of the house. This was a great way to mark the halfway point of the trip and have the unique experience of dining in a manor house with the staff. We had also noticed earlier that another feature of this posh boarding school is that they keep about 40 beagles on the grounds. So we got permission to go and say hi to the puppies and all traipsed down to the kennels before dinner. I’m pretty sure this was the highlight of the trip for most of us. Here are the photos to prove it.