I find myself in a derelict 1930’s squash court with Sir William Hanham, thirteenth Baronet of Deans Court in Wimborne, just outside the walls of his estate. He is showing me where his new cookery school, restaurant and supper club dining room are going to be built, and how the room is going to be structured to maximise the light and space.
“There is going to be a kitchen along this side” he shows me, pointing along one wall of the court, where ivy, brambles and nettles have spent the last few decades rampaging across rubble and old fragments of broken wood and roof tiles. The dining area he is delineating with his arms is really spacious, the ceilings are very high and the location is perfect, literally a two minute walk from the very centre of Wimborne Minster itself. “There is also going to be a patio area outside with a herb garden, so that the chefs can, quite literally, go out and pick fresh herbs while preparing the cookery courses and meals” he continues.
There are so many foodie events taking place at Deans Court in the next few months, that the entire family and staff are hard at work round the clock to ensure that everything will be ready in time. No small task, as the number of visitors set to visit this year’s Feast of Dorset Food Festival, on 17th and 18th September 2011, are likely to be in excess of ten thousand. Amongst the many special guests are “Downton Abbey” producer Lord Julian Fellowes and award winning Italian cookery writer Anna del Conte.
In addition to the cookery courses, highlights for the coming seasons are garden tours, beekeeping courses, musical events, picnics, wedding receptions, vegetable box schemes, a farm shop, private tours of the house and cottages and yurts to rent for the holidays.
I ask Sir William what it feels like to have the responsibility of such a big house, 13 acres of gardens, a myriad of staff and helpers to manage as well as all the different events that are planned. Did he ever imagine that, one day, all this would be his?
“Never!” he replied. “I had an art gallery in Bond Street, specialising in Old Masters. When my father, Sir Michael Hanham died in 2009, I became the one destined to take over the running of Deans Court. I was not born here, and I did not know anything about the house until I was about 16 years old. It originally belonged to a great aunt, and it came to me simply because there were no others cousins in the line to take it on.”
And since he and Lady Hanham have taken the house on they have not stopped to draw breath. The interior is very much a time capsule of late 19th Century, early 20th Century English life. They are trying, slowly and carefully, to bring the creature comforts of the house into the 21st Century, whilst at the same time retaining the charm and beauty of the building. It is very easy to get these things wrong, but Lady Hanham has spent many years in the vintage furniture trade, and when it comes to redecorating, painting, furnishing and styling, she is the undisputed queen. A partner in the Brown and White shop in Tetbury, designers and magazine editors have used photographs of her work as paradigm templates for the shabby-chic look “par excellence” for years.
Currently much of the house has no central heating. “When I came to stay here I remember always feeling perishingly cold in winter” said Sir William. “My parents put electricity into the house in the 1970’s, and quite literally there was just one tiny boiler and everyone had electric blankets.”
Deans Court was originally built between 1327 and 1377, when it was the Deanery to Wimborne Minster, during the reign of King Edward III. In 1548 Deans Court was given to the Hanham family, to the then Sir John Hanham, MP for Poole, and it has remained in the same family ever since. Walking around its rooms and grounds you are constantly reminded of its importance in the history of this part of Dorset. It is a grand and imposing house, but at the same time it retains comfortable and unintimidating rooms as well as relaxed and informal gardens that can be used to accommodate family parties, afternoon receptions and village gatherings.
“I am very committed to Deans Court being part of the fabric of the community, and this tradition has been terribly important to the Hanham family throughout the house’s history. We frequently host charity fundraisings for hospices, churches and various charities. We are part of the community around us and they very much support us as well” Sir William told me.
In the kitchen, the housekeeper Margaret is hard at work preparing lunch, and it is around the lunch table that I meet Chef Jez Barfoot, whom Lady Hanham met after he reached the quarter finals of Masterchef in February 2010. He has been preparing the lunches and teas for Deans Court garden’s open days for the National Gardens Scheme.
Along with Chef Matt Davy, Jez is busily plotting and planning his new cookery school and restaurant. In the grounds of Deans Court is the most wonderful kitchen garden, three quarters of an acre big and the engine room for the larder of both the house and the events. The garden is looked after by Head Gardener Julian Ings and his assistant Troy Coverdale, and provides enough fresh produce to fulfil vegetable box orders from the town, feed the Hanham family and their guests and prepare all the meals for the events and visitors to the estate. Their seed order bill in spring must be eye-watering.
Jez effuses excitement and passion. “There are going to be pig keeping courses, I want to make our own charcuterie, as well as selling our own honey and garden produce. We really want to maintain the integrity of The Old Squash Court restaurant and cookery school by keeping the lines on the floor and there are going to be big, old wooden refectory style tables and workbenches. As we pick from the garden we cook and eat the food: the food miles are about a hundred metres at most.”
All around me are the very distinct cornflower blue painted walls that you see in National Trust Victorian kitchens. The colour blue was thought to ward off the flies, an ingenious technique that was very important in pre-refrigeration times when the preservation of raw food was key to survival. There are meat hooks in the butler’s pantry, decorative platters hanging from old wooden dressers and old copper pots and jelly moulds line the shelves. I could sit in the servants’ section of the house for hours, taking in every tiny bit of domestic detail and kitchenalia.
There is a dramatic change, when leaving the bare, ascetic, scrubbed servants’ section, into the formal, wallpapered, rug covered gentility of the family drawing rooms. You feel as if there are two totally separate sections to this existance, and yet, look carefully and you are reminded how closely the cooks, maidservants and butlers lived to their masters at Deans Court. Just a few doors left ajar, and any eavesdroppers would have heard all the secrets. If one of the past Sir and Lady Hanhams did not like the cooking, they would have had to whisper quietly amongst themselves.
When a private party book to do a tour of the house, or garden, Sir William takes them round personally, from room to room, from tree to tree, telling them the history of Deans Court, the way in which the different rooms would have been used and how the paintings, artefacts and plants came to be there. “I think it’s important to keep the groups small, with no more than around 40-50 people at most. I really enjoy doing the tours, they’re fun, I get asked lots of questions and so many people are really fascinated to learn about local and family history.” he tells me.
We go down into the basement of the house, into a very pretty tea room, with cupboards filled with old floral china teacups, handblown storm lanters, glass cake stands and 1920’s soda syphons. In a brand new, purpose built kitchen, Jez and Matt are hard at work preparing the food for the next event at Deans Court. There will be a theatre production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by a local drama production team, and over 300 people are expected to be picnicking in one of the lawns next to the house this evening. Jonathan Cornish, who runs all the estate PR, and his uniformed team are rushing around getting drinks ready for stocking the bar, walkie-talkies in one hand and lists of things to do in the other. This house is no sleeping beauty, the pace is brisk and the agenda lively. There is no skulking around in dark quiet corridors, or you’ll get run over by a trolley full of glasses or a chef wielding a hot pan.
We walk through a wild garden and orchard and Lady Hanham shows me the nearly finished terraced cottages that they are going to be renting out as holiday accommodation. Decorated in pale colours, with natural flooring, Farrow and Ball paints and white kitchens, they have both been decorated to a soft, French country house look meets Shaker and Scandinavian influence. The views from the windows are wide and pastoral, and yet, within five minutes, the cottage guests can walk into a buzzing market town that boasts its own bakery café, Long Crichel Bakery, and an excellent restaurant, Number 9, as well as a myriad of chic boutiques.
“We are never going to sell out and become really commercial, making Deans Court into some sort of Disneyland. But the house needs to pay its own way, and in order for it to do so we feel the sorts of events we are organising, related around food, art, music, history and gardening, all lend themselves to the peace, tranquillity and natural surroundings that we are fortunate enough to live in” Sir William explains.
And while we look at a group of baby swans gliding past us on the shimmering lake, Lady Hanham is quite convinced of one overriding fact. “Everything here is shared, from the harvest of the kitchen garden, to the cottages, the beehives, the new restaurant, the grounds and the house itself. It is very important for the Hanham family to continue weaving its history with the community around it. Deans Court is open, and it’s a pleasure to see it being enjoyed by everyone.”
And as the music starts for tonight’s performance, all around the garden chilled wine bottles are uncorked in ice buckets, small children and excited dogs are settled on tartan rugs and heaving picnic hampers are opened out on wobbly trestle tables. A part of that local community is sat right in front of the shadow of ancient Deans Court, enjoying a quintessential English summer evening under the twinkling Dorset stars, as summer swallows dart overhead.
Deans Court Lane
Dorset BH21 1EE
For further information: www.deanscourt.org and www.feastofdorset.com
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