The blockbuster Atonement in Shropshire

PUBLISHED: 19:33 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Stokesay Court near Ludlow

Stokesay Court near Ludlow

The legacy of the 2007 blockbuster Atonement has assured the future of its principal location Stokesay Court near Ludlow.

The legacy of the 2007 blockbuster Atonement has assured the future of its principal location Stokesay Court near Ludlow.


Rachel Crow took an Atonement tour led by Caroline Magnus, chatelaine of the mansion where Keira Knightley and James McAvoy played out a summer of love before going to war.


Pictures by Adrian Jones



Three summers ago, Stokesay Court was a hive of activity as nearly 150 film cast and crew pitched up at this stately Shropshire home to film what would turn out to be one of the biggest blockbuster movies of 2007.


Atonement, adapted from the best-selling novel by Ian McEwan, tells the story of two childhood friends and lovers, Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), torn apart, first by a fanciful lie and the scheming imagination of Cecilia's 13-year-old sister Briony and then by the events of the Second World War. It's a poignant and heart-wrenching tale of thwarted love across class divides, but while the film ends on a tragic note, its effects on the fortunes of Stokesay Court have been nothing but positive, contributing to its revival.


Used as one of the principal locations for the film as the Tallis family stately pile, and where many of the most memorable scenes in the film took place, this late-Victorian mansion has been put on the visitors' map by Atonement. "It's made every difference to its future," says Caroline Magnus, who inherited the house in 1992. "The film has hopefully given the house a securer future than it would have had otherwise. It can start to work for its own upkeep."


Spotted by Atonement's award-winning British production designer, Sarah Greenwood while flicking through back issues of Country Life magazine, Stokesay Court had been toyed with as a possible film set by a number of location crews over the years but nothing had materialised. So after the directors and designers of Atonement came for a look, making appreciative noises along the way, Caroline Magnus admits she forgot about them. "But this time they came back."


In the summer of 2006, Caroline moved herself into the 'Ladies Wing' (airbrushed out of the film) and the crew moved in. Containers full of period furniture and props arrived and the design teams set to work transforming and giving a much needed facelift to now famed rooms of the house.


"It was crying out for decoration and that's really what Atonement helped with," notes Caroline. "The set designer, who was a genius, saw possibilities in the house and redressed it in the film in a way that opened my eyes to new ways of dressing it or furnishing it and that was really very, very interesting and helpful," she adds. "I know the house very well because it's my home and I love it and it was just very nice to see other people appreciating what I appreciate so much and showing it at its best.


"The film and the work they did enabled me to open the house and show tours around and let it out for events. It has become a visitor attraction in that sense, which I don't think it would have before because, however lovely it was, there wasn't that much to interest people. It was just the architecture because the furniture had gone. So Atonement has added a dimension to the house that was needed to put it on the map."


This imposing and immense mansion Caroline admits she is unsure how many rooms it has, but guesses at just fewer than 100 built in a honey-coloured stone has the ideal mix of grandeur and aura. But while some of the rooms well recognised from the film, in particular the dramatic and dark wood-panelled Great Hall with its impressive gallery running the length above, and the Billiard Room that was converted to a library for filming the steamy scene on the shelves between Cecilia and Robbie, add to the film's dark, foreboding tale, away from the film cameras it can seem an unlikely setting for such brooding passion. "I find it quite funny really," Caroline notes while wandering into the Billiard Room now and recalling the lusty, pivotal scene in the film that took place there. "They had a very private set that day so no-one was allowed to go near and you weren't really aware of what was happening."


With three vast wings leading off the central core, much of Stokesay Court remains empty and unused. But Caroline is steadily undertaking the excruciating task of restoring it room by room, as funds will allow.


Remaining very much a lived-in family home, albeit a colossal one, rather than a tourist destination, Caroline tries to strike the right balance between the tours which show visitors around the main rooms used for the filming of Atonement and which are also the principal rooms of the house, and her own private enjoyment of it.


Commanding impressive views of Ludlow and the Clee Hills, Stokesay Court was built by the Victorian glove manufacturer John Derby-Allcroft, who died within six months of its completion. He also owned Stokesay Castle, gifted to the nation in 1992, but decided to build a new house on the site of the Court on the account of the panoramic vista it afforded.


At the time it was built between 1889 and1892, Stokesay Court was at the cutting edge of technology one of the first houses in the country to boast integral electric lighting and under-floor heating.


The estate passed to John's eldest son, Herbert, and enjoying only brief periods of full use the interior remained virtually unaltered since built. Caroline notes how some of rooms had not been decorated since the house had been built and so when the film crew arrived it was a case of them having to decorate rather than re-decorate. "One of the rooms we go into on the tour was Briony's room in the film, which the film team papered with this wonderful tulip wallpaper from an American archive. That room hadn't been used since 1911 so having the wallpaper put up on the walls was magical."


Herbert and Margaret had two children: Russell, who initially inherited the house before dying childless in 1950, whereupon it passed to his sister Jewell who was married to Sir Philip Magnus, the distinguished royal biographer and Caroline's uncle. Towards the end of their lives, they lived in only a few rooms of the house, ignoring any maintenance required.


Following Jewell's death in 1992, the house was emptied and the entire contents, including numerous treasures collected over the years were sold in a four-day sale at Sotheby's in 1994 to cover the costs of death duties. Caroline took the house and land as her inheritance. By this time it was in dire need of attention with a leaking roof, very inadequate wiring, "and a boiler that heated the whole house or nothing at all, effectively," Caroline adds.


She set about on a programme of repairs but with much redecoration work still to be done, cue Atonement and a new chapter in the house's history.


Caroline saw extracts of Atonement for the first time at the Guardian Hay Festival the summer before it was released. "It felt very strange watching the film," she admits. "It was rather wonderful but it felt strange to look at the big screen and see my home on it."


The pre-book Atonement Tours that Caroline now runs give visitors an insight into the history of the house, before taking them through the locations used in the film. This includes the Great Hall, followed by the equally dramatic but contrasting lightness of the Drawing Room with its beautiful silk fabric panels installed by the film crew; on into the Billiard Room, still with the library bookcases installed by the film crew; through to the kitchens and then upstairs to the bedrooms.


The nursery was redecorated half way through filming for a hotel scene, axed from the final film. "They built a room inside a room, effectively. I have kept it there for the time being because it's such fun to show people how it's done," says Caroline. This room also houses display cases containing memorabilia left behind from the film, such as a fragment from Keira Knightley's green evening gown, and Caroline hopes to add to it with items from the Stokesay archives in due course. Finally, visitors finish their tour in the dining room, where they are treated to a traditional English tea.


"They really get a feel of the areas used in the film, and for instance can walk around the gallery overlooking the Great Hall where Briony runs across in the film. They see some of it as it was in the film and some of it as it is now," says Caroline.


She hopes one day there may be a chance to add a further film tour to the list.


"We had a day of the television series The Green Green Grass last summer, which was great fun, but it would be very nice if there was the chance of another film. That said I think I am jolly lucky to have had one major film like that."




Pre-booked group tours of Stokesay Court (minimum 20 people) can be arranged Tuesdays-Sundays inclusive. To book and for details of individual tours, tel: 01584 856238 or visit www.stokesaycourt.com


The DVD of Atonement is out now.


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