Hugh and Lara’s very stately family enterprise
- Credit: Andy Abbott
Hugh Crossley is transforming the businesses – including two pubs – on the Somerleyton estate as a way of ensuring the future of his ancestral home. Tessa Allingham went to meet him
Baron Somerleyton is on paternity leave.
Like any responsible, modern baron he is taking the full allowance, no doubt doing his share of changing the Hon Margot Somerleyton’s nappies and playing with her two older siblings so that his wife can rest. Lara, Lady Somerleyton, gave birth to the couple’s third child, a sister for Johnny, four, and Christabel, two, on May 25 at the James Paget hospital, Gorleston. Like any busy, modern mother after a straightforward birth, she was back to the business of family life in no time.
“We are very hands on,” says Somerleyton, or plain Hugh Crossley to his friends. “Of course we have some help, but things were very different in my parents’ day. They were always gallivanting and we were looked after by nannies (Hugh has four sisters) but Lara and I don’t believe in outsourcing our children.”
He uses the management phrase with a smile. The business of raising a family naturally occupies a lot of the couple’s time – children’s scooters litter the hallway of the family entrance, dolls’ pushchairs skitter about – but Hugh somehow finds time to focus on running a business too. Or make that several businesses.
He’s not only in charge of Somerleyton Hall with its tours and weddings, but also two pubs, Fritton Lake and its cluster of log cabins, and his own restaurant in Norwich. Multi-tasking on this scale it’s no wonder Hugh fiddles as we speak, twisting a copper band on his wrist, pushing his hands through his hair, talking fast and lots, fizzing, it seems, with ideas and energy.
Someone with this amount of entrepreneurial get-up-and-go is probably just what the 5,000-acre Somerleyton estate needs. All the estate’s businesses contribute to the upkeep of the hall, bought by the Crossley family back in 1863 thanks to a wildly successful carpet manufacturing enterprise in Halifax. Six generations on, Somerleyton Hall, a Victorian reworking of a 17th century manor not far from Lowestoft, makes annual demands of several hundreds of thousands of pounds in basic upkeep alone.
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The work is relentless, but things have taken a leap forward this year following a restructure in 2013, and the almost entirely new team is working well together.
“It wasn’t easy coming here from a working life in London,” says Hugh, who used to run the Middle Eastern restaurant, Dish Dash, in Balham. “I found the pace of change frustrating. But I’ve learnt to work with that and I’ve got a lot of new people working here, my people. It’s allowed for a new impetus.”
The family decided to outsource the leisure attractions at Fritton Lake, the log cabin lodges, and the two pubs back in 2009, and take a rental income. “Lara and I got married that year and we wanted to have time not worrying about these businesses,” Hugh explains. The plan always was to bring them back into the fold, however, something achieved earlier this year when both the Fritton Arms and the Dukes Head were refurbished and reopened under fresh, new Somerleyton management.
Both are now tasteful visions of shabby rugs, sludgy grey walls of the Elephants’ Breath ilk, beams, open fires (they were previously plastered over), mismatched chairs and squashy sofas. There’s not a hint of bling – these are comfortable, welcoming pubs, the sort of places that cherish scuffed armchairs rather than ditch them.
Lara has led the project, working with Norfolk interior design firm, Arie and Ingrams Design. “They’ve been absolutely critical,” she says. “Laura (Ingrams) has been an inspiration and we both feel we’ve created a ‘contemporary but classic’ country pub where you can eat, drink and even have a game of pool!”
Outside the Fritton Arms, landscaped gardens lead down to the peaceful lake with its boat hire and adventure playground. Previously a boutique hotel, the new look Fritton Arms – now a ‘pub with rooms’ – will have 13 bedrooms once phase two of the renovations is complete.
The food in both places is determinedly local. Executive chef Stuart Pegg wants to get as close to 100% estate-sourced as possible.
“I spent this morning looking over our herd of Welsh black cattle and flock of Norfolk sheep,” he says. Pike is fished from Fritton Lake, venison culled on the estate and game shot in season.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” says Stuart, happy to be back on home East Anglian turf after a career that has seen him work in the classical kitchens of the Dorchester and Gidleigh Park. Typical dishes from his Fritton Arms menu include a Swannington ham hock terrine with red onion marmalade, a burger made from the Welsh Black beef, served with Norfolk Dapple cheese and triple cooked chips, or a rhubarb crème brulee. The Dukes Head menu might include slow-roast belly of pork or seared sea bass with chorizo and wilted spinach, and both pubs sell a selection of Lord Somerleyton’s chips [see panel].
Pegg is working with the estate’s new – and first female – head gardener, Anna Outlaw, to grow produce in the hall’s spectacular walled gardens and Victorian glasshouses. “I’m hoping he comes up with stuff to grow through the winter,” Anna laughs, buried in glasshouse abundance. “As you can see we’re chock full inside at the moment!”
Pubs – tick. With those running smoothly, Hugh is turning his attention to the lodges by Fritton Lake. Tucked away in the woodland surrounding the lake the 50 wooden lodges are leased on a 15-year basis, and building will start next year on a further 45. “Permission has been a long time coming, but Great Yarmouth planning department and I have got to know each other quite well over these past few years!” says Hugh. “And we have an excellent new team here driving the business so I hope building will start next year.”
Closer to home, weddings – about 20 a year – contribute too. “We do things a bit differently here, so the wedding party can have exclusive use of the hall and grounds, and we move out. I like the idea of weddings being house parties – we’ll never be one of those venues that turns out several a day. Once we’ve refurbished the upper floors of the hall (another project for 2015) we’ll be able to accommodate 32 overnight guests.”
As for tours, the house is open on certain days during which the family ensconces itself in the private wing, leaving the majestic stuffed polar bears, spectacular Grinling Gibbons’ wood carvings, and of course Crossley carpeted floors to the curious public.
“The ‘treasure houses’ like Holkham and Chatsworth have always done it brilliantly,” says Hugh. “They’re inspiring. We’re perhaps championship league rather than premiership, but we still aim for the same standards.”
While Hugh is grateful for the interest in his family home, he naturally has ambiguous feelings. “We have to open. All stately homes do. It’s a reality of living somewhere like this. My aim – and I think it’s achievable – is to cut the loss that the house makes by running the other businesses successfully.”
And, while Margot Crossley won’t inherit Somerleyton, her older brother will. “I’d like to leave Johnny three businesses – tourism, farming and property – that are as free of debt as possible. That’s what I’m working so hard to achieve. I want him to be able to feel happy living here.”