Period Property of the Month - February 2009
We travel to the Scottish Borders to find out how a young couple intend looking after and maintaining their inherited family home
Paying its way
People who buy into grand country houses sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the scale of the project. But John has lived with the idea of Chesters since he was a boy growing up in Fife. The house has been in his family since it was built by one Thomas Ogilvy in 1793. John went there in the holidays to visit his grandfather, and he knew he was going to inherit the place from an early age. And that's what happened, five years ago, at the age of 30. Since then, he has reroofed it, replumbed and rewired it - the big three horrors of all old houses - and repaired the ceiling in the hallway which was gradually descending. All of that has been done without recourse to any grants or outside assistance and with a consequent lack of interference from the conservation busybodies. Indeed, clearing out the attic rooms and making them habitable again, the most recent step along the road, was carried out by John and Ellie entirely by themselves. There was enough family junk up there for the TV cameras to have knocked off an edition of the Antiques Roadshow while they were there, had they been so inclined.
They have not done very much to the main public rooms of the house. The ivory drawing room and the red sitting room are much as they have been for the last 50 years. They did repaint the wood panelled dining room in a shade of green, but only because it desperately needed something. What people notice about the house when they come to stay is not so much the 60 rooms (many of them in a series of later accretions on the back of the property that John is tempted to knock down altogether), and the family portraits, but the general air of liveability. It is a house which is not afraid of a bit of mud being trailed about.
John and Ellie plan to make that even more the case by living there themselves. They plan to quit London, where he is creative director of an advertising agency and she runs a theatre company, and move permanently to Chesters "within the next 12 months". The next project is a new kitchen, which they hope to build in the little pavilion to the left of the main house. So just how are they going to make it pay?
To start with, there are 1,500 acres of commercial farming, rented out to five different farms, which generates a fair amount of rent. John wants to use the barley that is grown there as the raw material for a micro-brewery (very popular in Scotland at the moment, from Orkney to Skye). And although that will need some start-up grant money from the local enterprise company, this is not some CAMRA enthusiast trying to make money out of his hobby. John is not a brewer but, as he says, he knows quite a lot about marketing and advertising, so he should be able to sell it.
Ellie, for her part, is looking forward to using the space for all sorts of arts activities. Part of the motive for sorting out the attic was to make room for performers to stay and work in the house, (not unlike the established centre at Cove Park on Loch Long in Argyll). She has already staged a performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters in the house, moving the audience from room to room. There are other plans too, for example, to bring the one-acre walled garden back into productive use for products to sell to the visitors coming to the brewery. John envisages a portfolio of offerings, no single one of them is the magic bullet for prosperity, but between them they add up to a sustainable business model. Quite what level of prosperity it will all bring will depend on many things. But neither of them are looking for quick hits. As John says, he feels "hefted" to the estate, a wonderful old word which speaks of being attached to a piece of land. They say it takes three generations of sheep to forget the land to which they are hefted. And John's family has been on this land for a lot longer than that.