An ambitious multi-million pound renovation, restoration and building project paid for by Northamptonshire County Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is nearing completion with the recruitment of staff and volunteers under way.
The rebranded Chester House Estate £14.5 million project is reaching a crucial few months, seeing it being reborn from the ashes of Chester Farm, after being dogged by delays, financial troubles and a devastating fire. A three-phase opening schedule will gradually welcome visitors to the multi-function complex, set in 85 acres of historic grounds overlooking the River Nene between Wellingborough and Rushden, that promises to have something for everyone.
As well as containing the site of a walled Roman town and its suburbs, the farmhouse and newly-refurbished buildings will offer a wedding venue, artisan courtyard, shopping venue, cafe farm shop, children's play area, conference facilities and bed and breakfast accommodation.
General manager Jack Pishhorn, 26, has been tasked with transforming the large 17th Century Grade II* listed stone farmhouse, spacious stable yard and threshing barn into a must-visit county attraction - for locals and for guests from further afield.
He said: "I feel incredibly excited.
"It's going to be a seven-day-a-week, free-to-enter attraction using a sustainable heritage model.
"We are linking in with the other attractions in the Nene Valley including Rushden Lakes, Stanwick Lakes, the Greenway footpath and working with partners like Nenescape.
"Both footbridges across the Nene will be replaced to allow walkers to access the site from Wellingborough and the river where we will have mooring for four large boats and a canoe pod.
"Every single weekend we will have something happening,and a large-scale event every month.
"We will be hosting school visits from across the county as well as college and university students accessing the site for digs and the archive."
Visitors will use Claudius Way, off the A45, and park on the edge of the site - although there is Blue Badge parking on site via the drive.
A short country walk will lead guests past nine interpretation boards explaining the history of the site, which has been in continuous occupation since the Stone Age, and past the site of the small Roman town, occupied between the C1 and early C5 AD.
In March, the county's extensive state-of-the-art Northamptonshire Archaeological Resource Centre (ARC) will open to staff and researchers who will start the laborious process of cataloguing the thousands of boxes of artefacts from county excavations.
Until now there has been no space for the finds to be properly stored with county museums full to bursting.
Archaeological archives curator Ben Donnely-Symes has been at The Chester House Estate since August last year.
He will be overseeing and transferring and cataloguing of 1,600 boxes of important historical material that have started to arrive at the new Archaeological Resource Centre.
Local volunteers will be invited to get hands on with archiving and with this year’s planned summer dig, while visitors will be able to explore a large museum when it opens in October.
Ben said: "We are creating a legacy and people will get a hands on experience. Most of the items have been inaccessible until now. We have 20,000 boxes to store and room for 35,000 in total.
"To be at the start of a project like this and set up your own catalogue system is an amazing opportunity.
"This is a huge resource and we want people to engage with archaeology - we have items that are 50,000 years old and some spectacular finds."
The bespoke ARC has climate-controlled rooms with different humidities for metal, paper and general racked storage to preserve finds in the best condition.
Among the items to be stored are 1,000 human skeletons, 17 Roman mosaics and huge stone pillars.
Jack said: “At present much of this heritage is buried or kept in unsuitable conditions; our challenge is to preserve it, bring it to life and tell its stories.
"The partnership with the University of Leicester’s Archaeology Department is really exciting because the digs on site will be accessible to the public who can come and volunteer on site.
“Part of the process will be to involve the local community in everything we do.
"We have the opportunity to create a legacy for many years to come.
"The future is positive and is, in itself, history in the making.”
By the summer, Covid allowing, the courtyard shopping area with artisan shops, the education centre and barn wedding venue will be open for business.
In October, the refurbished farmhouse will see the ribbon cut by a VIP guest to open the facility offering a cafe restaurant serving food and drinks from breakfasts through to teatime, a suite of rooms available to B&B guests and conference rooms available for hire.
Jack added: "We really have something for everyone. Our wedding venue can hold 120 people and the barn has its own commercial kitchen, a bar and own toilets.
"Guests can use the courtyard and we have a horsebox catering unit for outdoor events.
"We will have a play area outside on the lawn and we are hoping to host festivals and music events."
Chester House Estate will form the hub for post Covid-19 economic recovery for the Nene Valley area, promoting local food and drink, small businesses, local farming, and creating nine full-time roles, along with up to 50 part-time and seasonal positions.
Eight internships have already been created for college and university students with recruitment under way.
Georgia Wales, a University of Peterborough first year student, will be working on the PR and marketing for Chester House Estate.
She said: "It's such an incredible site. I'm looking forward to seeing it develop. It's such a great opportunity to be involved from the start."
A full calendar of events is already in place including the Nene Festival and a diverse programme of activities to look forward to like outdoor theatre and cinema, festivals, craft fairs, bushcraft weekends, hands-on lambing events, and much more.
As well as being the site of a Roman walled town, evidence has been discovered from the Mesolithic, Iron Age and Medieval periods.
Chester House Estate is working in partnership with the University of Leicester to curate annual digs on site and is linking up with the University of London to enable students to get involved in unearthing the site’s treasures.
Mainly funded by Northamptonshire County Council, £3.967 million was secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2013.
After the split into the two unitary councils, the site will be a North Northamptonshire asset but it is not sure how the funding will be divided. Cllr Lizzy Bowen, of Northamptonshire County Council said: “The Chester House Estate will become a site of national historical importance and will be a local gem that will attract visitors to Northamptonshire from all over.
"In addition, the site will create new jobs in the community and offer local residents a hub for leisure, education, business and heritage.
“We’re thrilled to be working in partnership with the National Lottery Heritage Fund to finance the final stages of the Chester House Estate project, and we’re all very eager to see the positive impact this momentous development will have in the local area.”
Anne Jenkins, director of England, Midlands & East, for the National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “We are delighted to support this project, which thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, will mean that more people will be able to get involved with, protect, and learn about the exciting heritage right on their doorstep.”