Weston Park celebrates 25 years in public hands

PUBLISHED: 07:14 20 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:19 20 February 2013

Weston Park celebrates 25 years in public hands

Weston Park celebrates 25 years in public hands

GO back 25 years, and Weston Park near Shifnal was still the private residence to generations of the Earls of Bradford, with rich historical records dating back to 1671. Sue Foster traces 25 years of change.

GO back 25 years, and Weston Park near Shifnal was still the private residence to generations of the Earls of Bradford, with rich historical records dating back to 1671. In the intervening quarter century, the stately home has been placed in public hands and become a national treasure, renowned as a popular visitor attraction appealing to all ages and interests. It welcomes 7,000 schoolchildren, over 250,000 visitors and serves thousands of guests the finest cuisine every year. Sue Foster traces 25 years of change.

THE death of the 6th Earl of Bradford in 1981 was the catalyst for change at Weston Park. Generations of the Bridgeman family had spent centuries collecting priceless works of fine art, furniture, tapestries, silver and ceramics, including rare Gobelin tapestries and matchless Old Masters by Van Dyck and Lely. Faced with considerable death duties, the incoming 7th Earl and the family were determined to prevent the collection from being spilt up by sale and to avoid the deterioration of the house and park.

The solution, with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, a national body responsible for saving outstanding parts of heritage at risk of loss to the nation, saw the birth of an independent charitable trust, The Weston Park Foundation.

And so it was that in 1986 the 7th Earl of Bradford gifted Weston Park to the public, and the Foundation accepted the responsibilities of preserving and maintaining the House, Park, Gardens and its historical collections for the benefit of the nation.

The Weston Park Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary this month and takes the opportunity to reflect on its own achievements, developments and ongoing commitment to conserving one of the countys most magnificent stately homes, as the Foundations chief executive, Colin Sweeney, explains.

He said: Much of the development over the past 25 years has been built on the work of previous generations of the family.

Conserving the property in perpetuity, and generating the income to do so, is the motivation for everything that happens at Weston Park, from the public opening and outdoor events to corporate hospitality and private parties. Opening up Weston Park to the public has meant that everyone can enjoy the diverse range of attractions that Weston can offer.

To meet its educational commitment the Foundation established a lifelong learning programme for schools, colleges and universities. The Learning Department coordinates ongoing research projects on the estates collections with students and has developed a range of themed educational primary school activities, creating an informative and engaging environment that addresses the National Curriculum requirements.

Outside in the Park and Gardens all the buildings and follies have been restored to their former glory including the Knoll Tower, Pink Cottage, the Boat House and Temple of Diana, each revealing an epoch in Westons history.

The 1,000 acres of Parkland are managed using an ongoing Landscape Management Programme which aims to preserve the Park and take areas back to Capability Browns original design while remaining sympathetic to changes made by other generations.

Directed by Head Gardener, Martin Gee, who comes from a generation of horticulturists who have lived and worked on the estate since the early 1800s, specific tree lines have been removed and clusters of Rhododendrons cleared opening up the true vistas, while retaining the fragrant avenues created by the 4th Countess of Bradford.

The collection inside the House, which includes over 30,000 objects, ranging from oil paintings by Van Dyck to delicate tapestries, require a particular environment with temperature and humidity monitored regularly, explains Colin.

Therefore every year conservation work is undertaken by the Cambridge Hamilton Kerr Institute.

The Foundations Curator, Gareth Williams, coordinates the conservation programme and also promotes the Weston legacy to national galleries, such as the Tate, by arranging specific touring exhibitions of items from the Weston collection.

The conservation and educational obligations is of paramount importance to the Foundation and its a responsibility that the dedicated team of 40, plus over 100 volunteers, do not take lightly, said Colin.

In addition to the historic collections many people recognise Weston Park for its public and family events and fine dining experiences such as the Midland Game Fair, V Festival, Horse Trials, the Firework and Bonfire Extravaganza plus an extensive Adventure Playground, complete with a miniature railway.

The public open season is from May to September and we provide in excess of 30 events throughout the year which are vital to the support of the Foundation.

The renowned V Festival has chosen Weston Park as its northern location for the past 13 years and, although the stately House and Gardens are carefully protected, the extensive parkland is fully used to cater for 85,000 festivalgoers. It contributes over 7 million to the regional economy every year.

Weston Parks national profile extends into corporate hospitality - it has entertained world leaders at the 1998 G8 Summit and the 2001 Northern Ireland Peace Talks.

As a venue that can offer exclusivity, Weston Park now regularly hosts corporate events, business meetings, weddings and private parties and is unique in offering 28 bedrooms for guests to truly enjoy a country house stay.

More recently in 2009 the 1767 disused Granary building was transformed, creating an all year round visitor experience and a new public entrance to the Estate.

Colin said: The launch of the Granary was an extremely exciting venture for the Foundation, turning Weston Park into a seven day a week operation consisting of a farm shop, bar and restaurant and art gallery.

The Granary Farm Shop promotes the regions finest producers as well as the estates own homemade produce, with three quarters of its groceries originating from Shropshire or Staffordshire and a further 16 per cent from its neighbouring counties.

The Granary Art Gallery features monthly selling exhibitions from acclaimed artists from around the UK, as well as displaying exclusive treasures on loan from private collections, which have included the Ford Collection and a rare portrait of Horace Walpole, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

The 70 seat Granary Grill, Bar and Restaurant was the latest addition to Foundations portfolio. The split level seating combines a relaxed easy eating atmosphere with an informal menu heavily influenced by locally sourced seasonal produce.

We are hugely grateful for the support we receive; watching visitors experience Weston in all its guises is hugely rewarding, said Colin.

As part of our anniversary celebrations Westons Curator, Gareth Williams, has commissioned three diverse artists to capture on canvas the achievements and essence of the Foundations work, which will be displayed in the Art Gallery throughout December.

Looking to the future, Colin said: Weston is a living estate, not a House preserved in the past. The Foundations flexible approach has enabled Weston Park to appeal to a wider audience and its this openness which will continue to strengthen the reputation and secure success in the future.

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