Before I tell you this story I should introduce you to my family: My name is Albert Forester – not a name that you would normally expect for the owner of a pile like this. It makes sense, though, when you go back over my family tree.
I was born in 1950; my father was born in 1910 and died quite recently; my grandfather was born in 1880 and died in 1943 in an air raid. His father, my great grandfather, was born around 1840 – the illegitimate son of Alice the wayward daughter of Sir William St John and Charles, the young man who looked after the woodlands of the estate – he was the Forester. Match the date with the husband of Queen Victoria and you get the baptismal name of my Great Grandfather – Albert Forester. That has been the given name of the first-born son ever since.
The male line of the St Johns got weaker over the years until the last of the line passed away 9 years ago. The powers that be finally established me as the most appropriate member of the bloodline to inherit the house. I got the house but I didn’t get the ‘Sir’ status. So …. Thornhill Hall is now the legal property of Albert Forester Esq. and his charming wife Samantha. Who will inherit when I pass on? That may be interesting as we have twin boys – Patrick and Robert – and none of us are quite sure which was born first. In fact, there are times when Sam and I can’t tell which is which even now!
Following the death of Sir William the Great House was more like a Great Shell. From the outside it was all there but inside the heart was missing. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t devoid of buildings, or of occupation. This was all there. Someone returning from 100, 200 or even 300 years ago would have recognised it – would know it. As I said, it was the heart that was missing – and it was now my aim, my job, to get that heart beating again.
What we should do with Thornhill Hall was our first decision to make. Sam’s suggestion was to demolish it and sell the stone.
‘No can do – it’s a Grade 2 listed building.’
Suggestion two was to sell it.
Another ‘no can do’. There’s a nasty clause, according to the solicitors, that says it cannot be sold while a male heir can be found!
There was nothing for it then; we had to make a go of it ourselves.
It was Sam who had the idea – ‘let’s open it to the public. There are lots of places that have done it.’
‘It’ll be hell’, I said but, as usual, I came second in the ‘discussion’.
The first year was exciting though. We visited many houses – mainly the smaller ones – that were open to the public. These gave us ideas – and some worries as well. Late in that summer we made contact with James and Helen who had gone through the process three years before. Their background was much the same as ours. When we arrived the first thing they did was to take us round their ‘public space’ as they called it. There were six rooms and they looked good. James and Helen were positive and descriptive about the things they were showing us – effectively giving us a guided tour as the said they did for their visitors.
We felt buoyant as we went into their private part of the house for coffee.
It was there that their ‘professional’ face slipped. A non-stop stream of negatives hit us. They complained about their volunteer helpers – unreliable and unhelpful. They complained about their visitors – noisy and forever complaining about their entrance fee; the quality of the coffee and how little there was to see. This diatribe continued for 10 minutes or more before Sam interrupted.
‘There must be some plusses’ she said.
‘Can’t think of any off-hand’ said James, almost as a question to Helen.
‘We have had some tax benefits’ she said to him.
‘Not much of that’ James said.
The conversation struggled on for another half an hour or so. That was enough for me. I twitched my eyebrows as I glanced at Sam and she turned her eyes toward the door – our pre-arranged sign. I glanced at my watch in a way James and Helen couldn’t miss; then looked up at them.
‘I’m terribly sorry. I’ve just noticed what the time is. We have another viewing this afternoon and I’m afraid we really must be on our way. Thank you so much for showing us around and sharing your experience with us. It has been a great help.’
We shook hands and left; waving to them as we headed off down their drive.
‘What a miserable pair of …’ I stopped Sam in mid-description.
‘Forget it. Forget them. Let’s get home.’
‘I thought you said we had somewhere else to go.’
‘I did. We have. We call it home.’
For the rest of the journey we were both quiet with our own thoughts.
This all took place some five years ago. Now we are ready to open up our house, Thornhill Hall, to the public. The first time such a thing has happened. We have absolutely no idea what to expect. For this start we have three rooms of our living area open to view and three of the outbuildings. We have decided not to have a set entrance fee – in fact NO FEE.
We have been dropping little posters in the areas around us. It’s been a bit tough at times but the rain hasn’t been too heavy and the general weather quite mild. The posters have said that we open on Saturday 5th March – with a little nudge that Sunday 6th March is Mother’s Day – and Helen and her friend Sue will be having tea, coffee, soft drinks and homemade biscuits available for children, mothers and grand-mothers. At the other end of this March we have Easter.
We have put together a nice little – free – booklet telling the history of the house and what we have been doing to it over the last 5 years. At the exits of the house and the outbuildings we have put theft-secure opportunities for visitor contributions.
Wish us well. We’ll let you know after April Fool’s Day how we got on!