At home with Lord & Lady Hamilton
PUBLISHED: 15:21 20 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:10 20 February 2013
Gavin, the fifth Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, and his wife Lady Harriet confess they were a little daunted at the prospect of country life when, at the age of 38, Gavin inherited the 8,000 acre Apley Estate between Shifnal and Bridgnorth.
At the time he and wife Lady Harriet and their three daughters were living in Brussels, where he worked as a financial controller. By 2007, the Hamiltons were firmly ensconced into the family home at Harrington Hall, with Gavin devoting his working life to managing the sprawling estate.
It was a significant lifestyle change for the couple and their family, who up to that point were rather more used to spending time in the cities of London, Paris and Brussels.
Gavin was keen to keep variety in his life and, as for Harriet: I didnt want to go fishing, hunting and shooting, I was not getting dogs and I didnt want us to tie ourselves down.
At first Harriet, keen to find new outlets for her seemingly boundless energy, set about renovating and decorating three of the estate properties, turning them into luxurious holiday cottages.
These include the charming five star rated property, Linley Station, converted from a former station on the Severn Valley Railway line, a GWR line disused since 1963. Harriet reveals that the station was originally built at the insistence of the estates owner, Thomas C Whitmore, for his guests, in return for allowing the line to come through his land.
Nearby is Forge Cottage, a four star rated cottage, near the River Severn and popular with fishermen.
Both cottages, which boast the much coveted Enjoy England Gold Award, enjoy stunning locations in the private parklands.
Forge Cottage gives views towards a pretty suspension bridge, built in 1905 by William Henry Foster, who was a member of an important and wealthy family of iron founders.
Harriet explains its intriguing history: It replaced a ferry, which on one occasion, got the guests across, but then tipped over with the luggage, guns and diamonds, none of which were ever recovered. Mr Foster was so embarrassed he built the bridge for his sons 21st birthday.
The holiday homes are part of an ongoing scheme to maintain and restore the estate. A hydro electric plant and wood boiler have been installed as part of a renewable energy programme.
But while getting the holiday homes project up and running, Harriet was also hatching a plan designed to maintain her longed-for balance between city and country life.
I asked, please Gavin, can I have 50 per cent pavement and 50 per cent farm track! she said.
Her answer sees Harriet, baby son Francis and the three girls, twins Sybilla and Octavia and their younger sister Venetia, spending much of the term time in Paris, where the older children are educated at a bilingual school.
She continues: I am passionate about education and educating my children as broadly as possible. At the time the UK was entering an economic crisis and I thought we really had to add strings to their bows by learning languages.
The twins had already attended a French school in Brussels. Said Harriet: When we came back here they were six and a half. If they had stopped French then, they would have lost it.
Harriet first recruited a series of French couples to come and help out and to talk to the girls in French but then decided on the twin Paris/Shropshire lifestyle.
I emailed all my French friends in Paris and asked them where their children went to school and, as they all go to local schools, they all emailed back with different options but every single one said you should try one particular bilingual school in the 15th arrondissement, where they subsequently gained three places.
Gavin, who visits regularly at weekends, explains: Its a State subsidised French bilingual school where the ethos is to speak both English and French. They are taught half in English and half in French, which has made it easier for the girls to integrate. We were very lucky to get them in because it is in demand and we applied quite late.
Not only that, but when Harriet and the children arrived in France for the start of the school term last year, she had not yet found anywhere to live.
Renting a furnished apartment in the popular 15th arrondissement, near the school, was proving an impossible challenge. September 1st came and I still had nowhere to live. However, I had got the children into a super school so I decided to rent a maison vacances for two weeks and carry on with the search. I needed all my courage and self conviction, because I didnt know how much the children would really enjoy it.
However, taking the risk and jumping in with both feet paid off: Within a week I had found an amazing flat with parking, central heating, on the ground floor for the baby buggy, with public gardens and a playground in front. I had fallen on my feet it was perfect!
Whilst the girls were settling in to their first year of a two year stay, which ends in June 2012, back on the estate, Gavin was busy with a farm diversification project, renovating a courtyard of redundant farm buildings and turning them into a farm shop, caf, childrens play barn and 22-seat conference centre.
The project was already under way when Harriet left for Paris, and the shop opened in March this year, so there was a flurry of emails between Paris and Shropshire as the couple shared ideas and progress reports!
Apley Farm Shop focuses on providing fresh, quality produce from the estate, tenant farms, and producers from Shropshire and the surrounding counties.
The estate traditionally produced food for the local people so its a way of reconnecting with the ideal that was there before. Its a farm diversification project, a good use of redundant farm buildings, but also a way to give a public face to the estate, explains Gavin.
The beautiful restoration of the farm buildings has been done by local craftsmen using oak from the 1000 acres of woodland on the estate, and the names of the buildings pay homage to the history of the estate.
Piggs Playbarn is named after John Pigg, who with his father before him, were farm managers on the estate for a total of 57 years. The Creamery Caf Restaurant is so-named because it used to be the estate creamery, Thatcher) and his wife, Lady Hamilton of Epsom. This explains why one of the bedrooms there is known as Lady Thatchers room she and Denis were frequent visitors.
It makes for a comfortable and warm family home - the perfect foil to city living and a wonderful place to retreat and hatch yet more plans.