Great Estates – North Cadbury Court
by Andrea Marechal Watson
With its Elizabethan facade, North Cadbury Court makes the perfect location for a Wolf Hall-style Tudor drama. But enter the Grade I mansion near Yeovil, Somerset, and in a few paces you have travelled through 200 years from the 16th to the 18th century, for the rear of the house is a graceful Georgian extension overlooking parkland, a lake and a herd of cows.
Buried behind these two facades, and with some traces still visible, is the original house, a small medieval hall dating from the 14th century. The Elizabethan remodelling was done by Sir Francis Hastings, brother of the Earl of Huntingdon, in 1580s while a family by the name of Bennett added the ballroom and south facade in the 1760s.
In 1910 the house and estate were purchased by London silversmith, Sir Archibald Langman who was following a rural dream. With his wife Lady Eleanor, they settled at North Cadbury Court and began farming.
Grandson Jamie Montgomery, who owns the estate today with brother Archie, continues to make the cheddar cheese for which the estate became famous.
“Grandmother looked at hundreds of properties on the market,” says Archie. “She was said to be psychic and chose the Court because it had no ‘bad spirits’. We have to fabricate ghost stories for our American visitors.”
Outwardly Archie and Jamie, both farmers, appear very similar. They wear uniform checked shirts, have devoted dogs and drive cars that even by my low standards are incredibly dirty. But apparently the similarities end there.
The brothers, and their sister Katherine, grew up at North Cadbury Court but later all moved away and started families. After the death of their father John in 1991, the 20-plus bedroom pile was left in the hands of their mother Elizabeth and aunt, Mary Langman until the pair both died within a few years of each other.
“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.
Gradually the lack of 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 – one of only two rooms that were heated in his childhood.
If it rained, buckets had to be bought in; plaster was constantly falling off the walls, and mould and mushrooms appearing. But in spite of this, their memories are overwhelmingly happy ones, so when they inherited the estate, deciding its future was bound up with the importance of its place as a family home.
“A curator from Harpenden Museum in Sussex who is expert in old building conservation came round and found rot in the first five minutes and asbestos in the next five,” says Archie. “He wasn’t impressed by the sag in the ceiling either”.
Strutt & Parker provided a feasibility study outlining a variety of short and long term objectives the family might pursue. “The various options for the Court were living in it, selling or renting it, turning it into a wedding venue and developing it into a hotel or flats,” says Archie.
The latter was by far the most lucrative option (venues were seen as high risk) and drawings of how the building could be split up were produced. “The conservation officer did not like that at all even though it was the best option financially,” says Archie, whose top tip if you happen to inherit a 20 bedroom mansion is to “get the local conservation officer to bat on your side.”
So North Cadbury Court hasfound its future as form of private stately home with 25 bedrooms that you can hire as a venue for pretty much anything: birthdays, bar mitzvahs, corporate awaydays and of course weddings.
Restoring the estate and bringing all the rooms up to standard ran to more that £1.5 million – of which the plumbing alone counted for £600,000. Costs were kept under control – it could have been vastly more were it not for the practical skills of the brothers. The explanation of how the sag in the roof was corrected with winches and widgets left me baffled. But it saved them £50,000.
Savings were also made by doing a deal with Lewis & Wood by visiting their factory in Stroud and offering to use their wallpapers and fabrics exclusively in return for a discount. Not the sort of deal the average householder can strike.
“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 Lady Langman by John Singer Sargent – was sold for £1million to an American collector to avoid death duties.
What there is however is just exactly what you do want to find. It has the eclectic aura of a comfortable old estate withmasses of Georgian and Victorian furniture, stylish oriental carpets, busts, ancestral portraits, gilded mirrors and an astonishing collection of photos from the Boer War shot on a Box Brownie by Sir Archibald when he was a prisoner behind the Boer lines. There are pretty counterpanes and handmade mattresses on the many antique beds, and masses of hardbacks – paperbacks being banned from the Court.
There is only one TV screen in the entire place hanging in one of the two large reception rooms inside a great gilded frame that was found in a barn.
“A house has a soul,” says Archie. “Our guiding rule was not to destroy it.”
A tour of the house pretty much takes as long as you have, with Archie unconsciously reminding you all the time that this was their home by flinging open doors to rooms named after potatoes (Lady Rosetta, Charlotte, King Edward) and saying: “this was my uncle’s bedroom” or “nanny loved this room.” All the bedrooms have en-suite baths or showers, often quirky features such as the sunken cast iron bath which was uncovered when the floor was taken up and is now Exhibit A under a protective layer of glass. The bedrooms in the oldest part of the property, the 13th century medieval hall built by the De Moels family, are cosy under the curved and signed roof trusses.
Parties who come for one night rarely have time to relax and enjoy all the facilities, including a casino and a disco, both created in the cellars, the indoor pool, gym, spa. Even the roofspace 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 yacht club on the lake. But the brothers use the moment to inspect the leading rather than admire the view over the Somerset hills with Glastonbury Tor in the distance.
Georgia Baxter is ‘the gatekeeper’ to North Cadbury Court, which is available midweek to the end of 2018 and cost from £7,500 for a two night stay.
“We would be lost without Georgia,” says Archie. Incredibly, he has only one other full time member of staff – a gardener. But he reckons that the estate brings upwards of £1 million into the local economy annually with its demand for catering, cleaners, B&Bs, taxi firms and so forth.