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“They usually overstay their welcome,” moans Lady Ashcombe, referring to the wedding parties which often take over the 15th-century castle at weekends. And while the 64-year-old – who was born plain Elizabeth Chipps in Lexington, Kentucky – may resent the ghastly intrusion into her genteel, aristocratic world, at around £20,000 a pop, events such as these are the only thing holding together her crumbling castle.
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Sudeley has survived the ravages of Cromwell’s victorious army – and even the wedding of Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar in March. But today the castle with links to the Tudors and Stuarts is in financial dire straits and facing the worst crisis in its 1,000-year history.
Which presents something of a dilemma for Lady Ashcombe. While she wants her family to carry on living in the aristocratic manner to which she became accustomed as a young woman, to do so she must open the gates and let the fee-paying oiks in.
It means loud music until the early hours and drunken guests vomiting on the manicured lawns. Perhaps – horrors! – we might even see the venerable old place playing host to the weddings of a Premiership footballer or two.
To make matters worse, Lady Ashcombe has found herself pitched against her children, Henry and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst. All three have a stake in the castle – but all have vastly different visions for its future.
The squabbles and rows that have almost driven the family apart have been caught on camera in a documentary which will be shown on BBC 4 tonight. It’s all terribly undignified.
“This estate is haemorrhaging money,” wails Lady Ashcombe. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s made all the more complicated because there are three of us who are involved. There’s my son Henry, my daughter Mollie and both their families, and myself, who all have a vested interest in Sudeley.”
While Lady Ashcombe bemoans the noisy weddings – “When it’s somebody else’s wedding going on outside your window until all hours, it does start to grate a bit” – and wants to preserve the castle as a family home, her jet-setting film producer son Henry, a close pal of Elizabeth Hurley, wants to transform the estate into a money-spinning business by encouraging more corporate events and hiring out Sudeley’s private quarters.
“What I would like is for the castle to be the most unbelievably commercially viable well-run location,” says the 41-year-old, who recently moved back to Britain from Hawaii with his model wife Lili Maltese and their sons, Mark and Luca. “But it’s like turning around a huge battleship.”
Meanwhile, his sister Mollie, 38, who lives in the castle’s east wing with her film director husband Duncan Ward and their young children Lucien and Violet, resents the nosy hordes of sandal-clad tourists and has something a little more aesthetic in mind for her childhood home.
“I really enjoy beautiful things,” she coos, “so my vision is creating a very beautiful sculpture park. It’s something which is not very popular, so it is something that becomes very beautiful and very exclusive.”
Brother and sister’s opposed viewpoints have sparked some interesting moments. Before the opening of one of Mollie’s outdoor art exhibitions, Henry and a friend added their own “sculpture” to the collection, driving billiard cues into the ground and hanging underpants off them. All just good-natured joshing, of course.
Caught between the three family members is Sudeley’s debonair chief executive David Sherbourne, a man with 30 years’ experience in managing estates, who has found his task of reversing the castle’s financial fortunes something of an uphill struggle. “The company is being steered in different directions,” he says.
“I have got Henry, who thinks the castle should be made available for people to hire for exclusive events. Then we swing over to Lady Ashcombe’s point of view, which is that the identity of Sudeley as a family home should be maintained.
“I just want one set of operational parameters so I know which direction to take the company in.” Reading between the lines, one gets the impression of a man at the end of his tether.
“Sudeley,” he adds, not without exasperation, “is known as the most romantic castle in the country. It should be raining pound notes, really.”
Unfortunately, Lady Ashcombe, who admits to being “enemy number one” within the family, doesn’t share his belief that Sudeley should be encouraging more corporate events.
“It doesn’t feel right for the integrity of the space and the building to me,” she says. “It’s just very odd. The music comes down the chimney, boom, boom, boom.”
Henry says of his mother: “I think her ultimate goal would be to see her children living at the castle along with her grandchildren, while she lived on the edge of the estate and everybody lived happily ever after.”
Unfortunately, such fairytale visions will not help pay the castle’s £1.5million annual maintenance bill. Its leaky roof has had near-catastrophic consequences. On one occasion, water which came through the ceiling narrowly missed a Van Dyck painting worth more than £1million, but damaged a pair of 17thcentury curtains. During another rainstorm, poor Mollie’s 400-year-old bed was soaked.
On top of all that, the castle and grounds are suffering from chronic under-investment. The number of gardeners has been slashed, and those who remain haven’t had a pay rise for four years. It’s a sorry state of affairs for a once-glorious estate.
“No one is taking this place in hand at the moment,” says the weary head gardener, Alistair. “There are several bosses on the family side – but no one’s taking the castle and gardens in hand to push it forward. Staff are leaving left, right and centre because they have found the family’s not interested any more.”
Complex family trusts mean that all three members of the family wield a certain amount of power and can hold each other to ransom. Being joint heirs to a multi-million-pound estate must be such a tiresome business.
As an exhausted Henry puts it: “You can choose to be in business with a business partnership, but it’s a difficult thing to be in business with your family. The fact that the house has got turrets is great – but a house is a house and it’s only worth so much emotional stress.”
The crisis at the castle can be traced back to 1972 and the tragic day that Lady Ashcombe’s husband, Mark, died of a heart attack at the age of 40.
The couple had met in the early 1960s on a blind date in New York, where Elizabeth, the daughter of Kentucky doctor Henry Davis Chipps, was then living. They married in 1962.
“I was very young and impressionable,” she says. “I thought he was great. I’d heard a lot about Sudeley and I was a bit nervous about coming. I remember coming in the gates and the castle was all lit up by the moon. It was like something out of a gothic film. I was completely captivated by it and him.”
When her husband inherited the castle on his father’s death, the pair began an ambitious restoration project. But just two years later Mark died, leaving his wife with a half-restored castle and enormous death duties to pay.
He left no will, and the result is that Lady Ashcombe owns a half share of the castle, while Henry and Mollie own a quarter each. They’ll inherit another quarter each when their mother dies.
By the mid-Eighties, Lady Ashcombe – who gained her title in 1979 after marrying Baron Ashcombe, who also lives at the castle – had turned Sudeley into a successful visitor attraction. But now, following a family agreement made in 2002, Lady Ashcombe is in the process of handing Sudeley over to the joint ownership of her children.
“From the very day I inherited it from Mark, their father, that’s what I decided – that I would keep it and do my best with it until they are of an age and mind to take it on and make those decisions themselves-This is the time that we’re talking about. We are right in the middle of it.”
But when Mollie and her family moved into the East Wing a couple of years ago, they found that sharing their home with rank-and-file members of the public was not exactly to their taste. When the state rooms and private quarters were closed to visitors without warning, not surprisingly, those paying the £17 entrance fee were somewhat disappointed. The response of Mollie’s husband, Duncan, was given with the bluntness for which the upper class is renowned.
“Unfortunately, you can’t have everything all the time,’ he says. I would just like to say: ‘Chill out, relax. Breathe a bit of fresh air. It’s not as bad as you think. I think some Ethiopians are in a little bit poorer a predicament at the moment.'”
That’s the spirit, Duncan. Let them eat cake.
The castle and its award-winning gardens used to attract up to 150,000 visitors a year, but after the decision to close the interior of the castle, Sudeley’s numbers dropped to 50,000 in just two years.
As chief executive David Sherbourne puts it: “At the end of the day, people come here to go around the castle. You can’t shut the castle and expect things to carry on as before. I said to Lady Ashcombe: ‘We’re going to have to call it Sudeley Gardens if you are not going to open the castle.'”
Today, the family finally appear to have reached some kind of entente cordiale.
Faced with the prospect of financial meltdown, Lady Ashcombe and Mollie have bravely agreed to allow guided tours of the private apartments on three days a week during the summer season. For £15 a head, up to 20 visitors are given an hour-long tour, with a guide book and tea thrown in for good measure.
Meanwhile, David’s expansion of Sudeley’s corporate events calendar seems to be going to plan.
At the end of this week, Cirque Surreal will be erecting their Big Top in the castle grounds, with ringside seats costing up to £28 a head. The castle will also be hosting the Summer Magic Proms complete with fireworks in July and a “Blues In The Ruins” concert.
Then there’s Shakespeare in the garden in August, and a performance of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility in September.
Henry, who believes that it is almost impossible to run Sudeley as a castle and a home, adds: “It’s really about having a clear and definite arm’s length relationship with the castle that’s pragmatic, commercial and realistic.”
Mollie has also soldiered on with her aesthetic arty vision. Last week, she hosted a glittering party to launch a contemporary art exhibition, aptly named “Resurrection”.
Guests who graced the lawns for the Arts Council-funded event included Tracey Emin, socialite Pia Getty and Sotheby’s chairman Patti Wong. What a pleasure it must have been for Lady Ashcombe to see people of quality coming through the gates again.
For now, she has set about renovating a farmhouse on the edge of the estate and plans to retire there and make room for her children at the castle.
She says: “I would like to live here on this estate in very close proximity to my family and grandchildren. This is my dream, to still be, hopefully, involved in the development of Sudeley in the future, particularly the garden.”
Mollie insists: “We agree on the major things. The most important thing is to make Sudeley into something which is a success and which maintains it as a beautiful place.”
Henry adds: “We are having, in my view, our last crack at it. And if it works, then I think we have done something wonderful and I think it could work financially. I think it’s down to the will of the family.”
Whether or not they manage to do that remains to be seen. Certainly, if they don’t get things sorted, the Van Dyck may soon be up for sale. That is, of course, if it survives the summer storms currently beating down on Sudeley’s leaky roof.
• Crisis At The Castle is on BBC 4 tonight at 9pm
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