Gallery: What would you do if you inherited a 3,000-acre country estate from a late uncle? We ask the current owner of Glemham Hall

Philip Hope Cobbold at his home,Glemham Hall in Suffolk. Philip Hope Cobbold at his home,Glemham Hall in Suffolk.

Thursday, August 7, 2014
12:41 PM

It’s been a long time since living in a stately home bore any resemblance to an episode of Downton Abbey. These days, instead of butlers and scullery maids you’re more likely to find events managers and maybe even a music festival. Sheena Grant finds out about the realities of owning a country estate in the 21st Century.

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Philip Hope Cobbold at his home,Glemham Hall in Suffolk.Philip Hope Cobbold at his home,Glemham Hall in Suffolk.

It may be 20 years ago but Major Philip Hope-Cobbold can still vividly remember the moment he learned his uncle had died, leaving him as heir to a 3,000-acre country estate and Elizabethan stately home.

“I was working in London when I got the call,” he says.

In an attempt to convey his rather mixed emotions at news of the inheritance he lets out a noise that sounds a bit like a strangled scream.

And it’s not hard to understand why.

Living in the grandeur of Glemham Hall with its huge rooms, high ceilings and fascinating history might seem like the height of desirability and privilege - and in many ways it is - but the reality is not quite that simple.

The 500-year-old hall costs a cool £150,000 a year just to run and maintain, a figure that’s only ever going to grow as the building ages.

The task of raising enough money to pay for its upkeep and the responsibility of being the current custodian is never ending. It would be enough to cause the odd sleepness night for most people.

Philip admits it does occasionally weigh on his mind. But most of the time he doesn’t let it get to him. Over the last two decades he has worked hard to ensure the hall pays its own way, as much as possible, in a Britain that couldn’t be more different to the one that existed during the heyday of the country estate.

Gone are the ‘Downton Abbey’ days where the ‘big house’ was almost a self-perpetuating, self-contained world, a major local employer with staff to attend to the every need of the aristocracy who resided there and an estate that provided an income to keep it all going.

In modern Britain, owners of stately homes have had to diversify in order to survive.

In Philip’s case that means employing an events manager, marketing his home as a wedding venue, a backdrop for fashion and magazine photography and hosting this month’s three-day FolkEast music festival (from August 15 to 17). On top of that he conducts house tours and members of the public can look around the hall’s stunning gardens at certain times of the year.

Despite his heritage there’s nothing stuffy or stuck up about Philip Hope-Cobbold, who was born at Glemham Hall in 1943. As I soon discover when I visit him on a blustery morning in mid-summer he’s generous with his time and a convivial host, whose eyes are never slow to take on a mischievous sparkle.

Just he and his wife, Raewyn, share this enormous house. As we sit having coffee and chatting in the drawing room I can’t help wondering what its like to be just one of two people living in a house this size. It must be quite easy to lose one another, I say.

“Yes, it is,” he smiles. “And sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.”

And while it is grand, Glemham Hall is no representation of perfection, no gleaming National Trust property with pristine Farrow and Ball-painted walls. It has something of the faded opulence about it. But it is more real and better for it.

All around are curious juxtapositions of the ancient and modern, past generations and current residents. In the entrance hall, for example, are towering, ornately carved pillars that wouldn’t look out of place in some classical athenaeum, while displayed on a table beneath is a collection of Philip’s Ipswich Town paraphernalia, including a toy tractor.

The Cobbold brewing family bought the hall in 1923 as the heyday of the country house was drawing to a close. The first Cobbold occupants were Philip’s grandparents, Captain John Murray Cobbold and his wife, Lady Blanche. Capt Cobbold died during the Second World War and Lady Blanche lived on until 1987. When she died, the estate passed to her son, Patrick, who died suddenly in 1994. Philip inherited from Patrick, his uncle.

“To an extent it was a surprise,” he says. “He was only nine years older than me and if the thought that it might pass to me had entered my head I always thought I would be a lot older. But he died shortly after his 60th birthday, making me only 51 at the time.

“These things, when they are in the family, it is a funny sort of relationship. You love the place but they are quite a responsibility, places of this size. One is really a custodian of a historical site.”

In many ways, returning to live at Glemham Hall after he inherited it was like coming home. Philip was born at the hall and spent part of his childhood there. He always had a base in Suffolk and even when he was living elsewhere he would return regularly to visit his grandmother, Lady Blanche.

“There are places around the house that remain in my memory from childhood,” he says. “Places that I hid in long ago and still come across from time to time. My grandmother was quite a young widow when my grandfather died and through all those years I was always coming here for parties and to visit granny.

“I had never really thought about the house coming to me. Because there was only a small age difference between my uncle and me I had always thought it would jump a generation.

“One has a big responsibility to keep these places going and really that is why we have attempted to do what we do, with the events. We will consider anything, providing it makes sense and doesn’t impinge on our private quality of life. This is our home. But it is a big place and we like to share it with people.

“There was a certain hesitancy when I knew it was coming to me. There is always something that needs to be done. Things loom up on you.”

Farming is still a big part of the estate’s business but these days, most of it is done under contract. Only two tenant farmers remain.

“There is a very real sense of responsibility that comes with the house,” says Philip. “It is a very visible place and is part of local history. I am not an oligarch. I am not one of the super rich. We have to work to keep it all going and pay our taxes. It’s a lot of money. Running costs are in the region of £150,000 a year.

“One wants to keep it as a private family house but also share it with people. Doing the house tours I do and having the weddings here opens the place up. The tours do not go in every single room but people see a majority of the house. We talk about the history and pictures on the walls. Up until the war this house would have still had about 20 household staff and 15 gardeners. The Second World War was pretty much the cut off.

“Now we’ve got someone who comes in each morning and a couple of others who come in part time, one full time head gardener and a couple of assistants, an events manager and estate administrator.

“We don’t use the whole house on a daily basis. We’ve got our own little living area but if we have guests or the family is here we sometimes use the drawing room or go into the library next door.”

As to the future, Philip is pragmatic.

“I don’t know what the next generation will do,” he says. “I think maintaining these places will become an increasing problem.”

Perhaps it should be turned into flats, I suggest. After all, we’re always hearing there’s a housing shortage.

“Who knows,” he says. “That might happen in the future. Other houses have done it but it does break up the innate character of a house. On the other hand, if you can’t maintain somewhere...

“Probably, in the 1800s the people who lived here wondered how they would survive if they didn’t have 100 servants about the place. But in 1913 central heating was put in, as were bathrooms and loos. You no longer had staff carrying all your chamber pots. There was once a pot room upstairs - everything went into the potty and somebody had to clean them up. That’s how things change.

“I just hope that it does survive intact, without too many dramatic changes.”

Hall history

Glemham Hall was built around 1560 by the de Glemham family.

The Glemhams retained the estate until 1708-09, when it was sold to Dudley North. His father-in-law, Elihu Yale, was founder of the renowned American university bearing his name.

From 1722 to 1727 big changes were made to the facade of the hall, giving it an overall Georgian appearance.

Glemham Hall remained in the North family for more then 200 years.

In 1923 it was purchased by the Cobbold family and became the home of Captain John (known as Ivan) Murray Cobbold and his wife Lady Blanche. Captain Cobbold was killed during the Second World War. Lady Blanche died in 1987 and the estate passed to her son, Patrick.

Patrick died suddenly in 1994 and the present owner, Major Philip Hope-Cobbold (Patrick’s nephew), inherited the estate, where he now lives with his New Zealand-born wife, Raewyn.

Philip Hope-Cobbold was born at Glemham Hall in 1943, attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served with the 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own) until 1992. He is Patron of Ipswich Town Football club and was High Sheriff of Suffolk in 2005/6.

Changing times

Just a century ago, Glemham Hall was a very different place.

There were kitchen staff, gardeners and a myriad of workers who did a variety of jobs from keeping the house warm in winter by lighting and tending open fires to organising the supply, removal and emptying of chamber pots in the days before flushing toilets.

How things have changed.

These days the ‘downstairs’ quarters that were once a hub of activity are silent. There are just a few employees - gardeners and cleaners - and one new role that would have been entirely alien to the early 20th Century occupants of Glemham Hall: that of events manager.

Yet these days that role is one of the most important to the hall’s future.

Donna Stockley started as an assistant in the events office four years ago and was promoted to the role of manager about two years ago.

Weddings make up a big part of the business and the estate is currently home to FolkEast. Philip will be leading a series of house tours to coincide with the festival. He does tours at other times of year as well and the hall’s spectacular gardens, which also boast a small collection of sculpture by leading artists, are also open to the public at certain times of year.

In addition, the hall is also a venue for open air theatre, can be hired out for fashion photography and on August 3 will host the Suffolk Coast Bike Ride.

“There’s a fine line to tread with the job,” says Donna. “You have to be respectful of the fact that it is still a family home and not do anything to compromise that. We don’t want it to be a large commercial venture because it would lose its character if that happened. It is lovely for the family to open up their house and let others share it, working within restrictions imposed by the fact that it is a home but trying to take the business forward at the same time.”

• To find out more about Glemham Hall visit www.glemhamhall.co.uk. For tickets or more information on FolkEast visit www.folkeast.co.uk

1 comment

  • Great article, and while it may not be a preferred solution for Glemham Hall, I would still urge Ipswich & Suffolk people to think again about what the National Trust can do for us. Contrasting the fortunes of similar parks and estates in West Sussex, where I had lived and worked for 8 years. We had joined the National Trust and were frequent visitors to Wakehurst Place (with its botanical Gardens managed by Kew), Nymans Gardens, Standen and Chartwell. No one in West Sussex questioned the plentiful mix of (free) public parks and trust-managed (small chargeable or membership) parks. It was simply the best way to preserve and maintain the magnificent, larger parks for all. Our populations are very similar, but you can fit West Sussex twice into Suffolk. Despite that West Sussex has 16 National Trust sites. In Suffolk we have just 9 sites…. and sadly, despite 1300 years of history and a third of a million people dependent on the county-town, none at all in Ipswich. Note: The National Trust has 179 sites in South East England and 136 sites in the South West, but just 15 sites for Suffolk & Norfolk combined 1.5m pop. Perhaps, with National Trust investment, some of our forlorn park and stately homes can receive the transformation and upkeep that they deserve, and this would free up valuable funds. There are other treasures too which taxpayers struggle to maintain. The very symbol of Ipswich, Wolsey’s Gate, along with deteriorating historic sites in private hands, such as the former County Hall. No one underestimates the challenges and obstacles in transferring public assets, but surely Ipswich & Suffolk can do a bit better when it comes to attracting National Trust investment, or ownership, for our historic monuments, buildings and parks?

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Mark Ling

    Thursday, August 7, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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