Retro: Optimism for stately home future

Sir Gyles Isham pictured outside family home Lamport Hall
Sir Gyles Isham pictured outside family home Lamport Hall

Lamport Hall is on the road to recovery after years of restoration work.

When former West End and Hollywood star Sir Gyles Isham moved into his ancestral stately home near Kettering, his family urged him to abandon it to its fate.

Lamport Hall, pictured in August 1987

Lamport Hall, pictured in August 1987

The house itself – Lamport Hall – was in a state of total disrepair.

Weeds had pushed triumphantly through cracks in the exterior stone stairs, prompting one member of the Isham family to describe Lamport as “dilapidated beyond belief”.

But the most significant problem was the setting in of dry rot.

It would take more than three years and £85,000 to get rid of it, with almost every flooboard, ceiling and piece of panelling needing to be removed.

Norman, Ian, Gyles and Vere Isham outside the dilapidated Lamport Hall

Norman, Ian, Gyles and Vere Isham outside the dilapidated Lamport Hall

Much of the hall had been reduced to a shell by the time the dry rot had been eliminated.

The permanent exhibition at Lamport of the history of the estate describes the outbreak as “possibly the most extensive and costly outbreak of dry rot in any country house”.

However, despite the advice of his relatives – and the fact that Northamptonshire was home to 16 other lost stately homes which were demolished because of the state their abandonment had caused – Sir Gyles was determined Lamport Hall would not join their number.

Years of work followed, and Sir Gyles’ efforts, were rewarded in 1974 when the hall was partly opened to the public.

However, only ground-floor rooms had been restored, earning Lamport Hall the moniker “the stately bungalow of Northamptonshire”.

That year, Sir Gyles also established the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust.

The trust marked both its 40th anniversary and the completion of the majority of the restoration work at the hall with a special celebration last week.

Broadcaster and former MP Gyles Brandreth was the guest of honour.

Brandreth, a star of Countdown and Just A Minute, was named after Sir Gyles Isham, who was a popular figure in Oxford during the 1920s when Brandreth’s father studied there.

In an address to trustees, Brandreth also confessed to being a big fan of garden gnomes – and Lampy, the world’s oldest example of one, was brought to the estate in the mid-19th century.

After leaving Oxford, Sir Gyles Isham went on to star in musicals on the West End stage and in Hollywood films – most famously alongside Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina.

But the trust, and its success in saving Lamport Hall – to which he retuned after the Second World War – is perhaps what he is best remembered for.

George Drye, executive director of the Lamport Hall Preservation Trust, said: “Gyles Isham was very scholarly – he was passionate about his collection of paintings.

“He put the hall into trust so they didn’t have to be sold off to pay debt duties.

“Because his father died and he became the baronet, he didn’t go back to Hollywood after the war, although Hollywood was desperate for English gents.

“Lamport was in a complete mess. The army was here, the public record office was here in case Northampton was bombed, there were Italian prisoners of war and German prisoners working on the estate. Gyles managed to get the MoD out of the place in the mid-1940s, but it was in a right old state.”

Sir Gyles initially asked the National Trust to take over the running of the hall, but the organisation, on seeing the state of the building and the extent of the dry rot, said no. As a result, Sir Gyles decided to found his own trust to look after Lamport.

Mr Drye added: “We had more problems than money, but dry rot was the big killer.

“We were absolutely bankrupt. We had no money and had to reorganise ourselves. We have received no Lottery money, no grants from Government.”

The estate receives income from its farm, from renting out cottages it owns and by hosting events. It has now managed to set up a large endowment fund in the city.

As a result, Mr Drye said, the hall “should now be safe forever”.

He added: “Other places around the country want to find out how we have done it. When your peer group says you are doing something right, it makes your staff feel they are being recognised.

“It’s been enormous fun to see the place come back. Compared with when I arrived it’s a very different place and I have got a very different job.

“Throughout, we have been fortunate to have a wonderful group of volunteers give their time for nothing. I can’t speak highly enough of them. They see it as giving something back to the people of Northamptonshire.”

Although there is a rolling programme of restoration work to individual paintings, items of furniture and the roof, there is optimism of a job well done.

Brandreth even suggested the hall had not been in as good a condition as today even when it was newly built.

Mr Drye said: “We have been through a phase of restoration which has come to an end, but now we are looking forward and asking ourselves how we can squeeze the maximum public benefit of it.”

Lamport Hall hosts a wide range of events throughout the year, and he added: “We have been upping the usage of the hall over the last two or three years. This reflects our ambition now to go into the future as one of the county’s cultural and educational centres.

“We want to get people to spend a lot more time here, quality time, engaging in national and international-standard activities.

“We are really trying to punch above our weight. We are trying to up our game in terms of giving different people ways of enjoying the place.

“Most of those in this condition disappeared, so it’s pretty good it survived.”

Hall’s history

Lamport Hall became the home of the Isham family in 1560 when John Isham acquired the estate.

Over the next 400 years his successors lived at the hall, which was expanded and extended over time.

Isham was made a baronet during the reign of King Charles I, a title which was also passed down the generations.

Shortly after Sir Charles Isham died in 1903, the family decided it could no longer afford to live in Lamport.

But the estate eventually passed to Sir Gyles, who was determined not to let it rot.