Hopton Hall - who lives in a house like this?
PUBLISHED: 15:42 11 July 2013 | UPDATED: 11:37 05 August 2013
As Hopton Hall opens its gardens for a summer rose spectacular, Mike Smith talks to owners Bill and Julie Thomas
Hopton Hall’s display of snowdrops is famed throughout Derbyshire and beyond. Every year, thousands of people make their way to its glorious grounds on the edge of Carsington Water to enjoy a spectacle that dazzles throughout February and into March. Some of those winter visitors may not realise that the summer gardens of this vast country estate are no less stunning, particularly from late June, when 2,000 roses are in full bloom in a one-acre walled garden. Anyone who has been astonished by the snowdrops, will be equally bowled over by the roses.
But what of the hall itself? This magnificent mansion, Elizabethan in origin but largely Georgian in appearance, is the ancestral home of the Gells, one of Derbyshire’s most colourful families, who have made their mark on British history through their many and various exploits. The Gells no longer live at the hall, but the present incumbents, Bill and Julie Thomas, are remarkable people in their own right. I travelled to Hopton to meet them.
Greeting me with her customary offer of a Kit Kat, Julie began the story of her journey from a childhood spent in a terraced house in Leeds to her present role as the lady of a country house. She said: ‘My father came to this country from Serbia after fighting against the Germans and spending time in a concentration camp. He met my mother in the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool – she was Scottish, loved dancing and had danced in her youth with Sean Connery. We lived in the Burley district of Leeds, close to the university, and I met Bill in the Original Oak pub in Headingley. He had been brought up in a two-up, two-down house in the Lancashire mill town of Colne and had come to Leeds to study Mathematics at the university. I was working in an unemployment benefits office.’
At this point, Bill joined us and picked up the tale. He said, ‘After graduating, I took a master’s degree in digital systems at Brunel University and, much later, an MBA at Cranfield University. I was lucky enough to gain qualifications in information technology at the time when it was growing massively in importance for industry and business. I worked for Electronic Data Systems for 25 years and ended my career as Senior Vice President of Hewlett Packard’s Enterprise Services with responsibility for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.’
While her husband pursued his career, Julie stayed at home and brought up their son and two daughters, all of whom have now flown the nest. Bill retired three years ago, at the age of 50, but continues to advise the Labour Party on defence and business matters. He also sits on advisory boards at two of his old universities and has various directorships. However, his retirement from full-time work could so easily have been the time for the couple to ease up and downsize from their home in Duffield. In fact, this driven and energetic duo decided to upsize, rather than downsize, by buying the seven-bay, three-storey mansion of Hopton Hall. Their ambitious plan was to modernise the Hall’s heating system, upgrade the holiday cottage complex and realise the full potential of the gardens.
The estate dates back to 1414 and, from 1553 to 1995, it was the seat of the remarkable Gell dynasty. John Gell was created a baronet in 1642 in recognition of his efforts on behalf of Cromwell, who is said to have ordered him to remove and take possession of the House of Commons mace, having declared it a ‘fool’s bauble’. Another John Gell was a long-serving admiral, celebrated for his capture in 1793 of a Spanish ship containing a cargo valued at £935,000. Sir William Gell was a classical archaeologist and a chamberlain to Princess Caroline (later the Queen Consort of George II). He testified in court on behalf of the princess when she was accused of having an affair during a visit to Italy, but hinted later that he might have lied to protect her. Philip Eyre Gell is best known for constructing a road to link his lead-mining interests at Wirksworth with a new smelter at Cromford. He christened the route Via Gellia on the grounds that his family was supposedly descended from the Romans.
Unfortunately, almost no mementoes of the Gells were to be found in the house when Bill and Chris took possession of Hopton Hall in December 2010, but Julie managed to acquire on eBay a print of the house dating back to the late 1700s and also a letter in which one of the Gells had rejected a plan to install electric lighting in the house on the grounds that ‘electricity would never catch on’. The present owners have been much more willing to accept modern technology, installing a £200,000 renewable heating system based on the use of wood pellets sourced from sawdust.
Current work focuses on the construction of a period car store, the renovation of the Card House (a separate cottage that burnt down about 100 years ago), and the installation of a renewable heating system. The grand old house has also required a great deal of maintenance, which has included making sure that the 45 chimney stacks are sound and waterproofed.
Although the kitchen, the living room, the entrance hall, some of the bedrooms and the magnificent dining room, where Princess Anne once popped in for tea, are in full functioning order, much work remains to be done.
Understandably, Bill and Julie have prioritised the conversion of the outbuildings into holiday cottages before tackling the rest of the house. The Granary, the Butler’s Quarters, the Gardener’s Cottage and the Dove Cote are already in operation as quality holiday-lets, which are supplemented with outdoor play areas, picnic tables, barbecue facilities and even the shared use of a heated indoor swimming pool. The Card Room, currently being re-built to the designs of Matthew Montague Architects (who featured in our April issue), will become yet another holiday cottage.
Hopton Hall itself was largely rebuilt in Georgian style in the eighteenth century. It is a truly remarkable assemblage in stone and mellow brick, with a huge segmental pediment flanked by an array of gables and a bewildering mixture of mullioned, sash, Venetian and half-moon windows on the garden façade, while two pyramidal towers are incongruous nineteenth-century additions to the other side of the house. The landscaped grounds, which stretch down to Carsington Water, have been lovingly planted and superbly restored under the direction of estate manager Spencer Tallis.
Julie took me on a tour of the estate, showing me restored woodland walks, which meander for two kilometres, ornamental ponds, wildlife lakes, an arboretum, a laburnum tunnel and a birch avenue. My biggest surprise came when we entered a one-acre walled garden, planted with 2,000 roses in 40 individual beds, all of which are surrounded by neatly-trimmed box plants. The rose garden is overlooked by a very tall summer house and flanked by a magnificent crinkle-crankle wall, whose serpentine contours were used as a model for the beech hedge at Chatsworth.
Julie and Bill love sharing their grounds with the general public during the snowdrop season and during the openings for the Summer Garden Spectacular. They also throw open the estate for the use of local people for various events, such as sports day for Temperance Gell School, where Julie is a governor. As we walked along an avenue overlooking the croquet lawn, Julie said, ‘When I lived in my terraced house in Leeds, I never thought I would own a country house with a croquet lawn. In fact, I didn’t even know the first thing about croquet.’
The gardens of Hopton Hall are open for the Summer Spectacular, 10.30am to 4pm, on every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 18th June to 29th August. Admission is £4 per person, but children and parking places are free. For information about the holiday cottages contact Emma Tallis on 01629 540458 firstname.lastname@example.org.