Host a society bash: country houses that you can take over


Love it or hate it, in just five days’ time most of us will be swept up in New Year’s Eve celebrations. Whether you are an enthusiast who plans the event months ahead or a last-minute convert who, after weeks of resisting, relents and joins in the so-called fun, the traditional options can be unappealing: expensive entry into a packed bar or restaurant, or the stress of hosting a party in your own home.

A growing number of people are choosing to get away from it all, but, rather than watching the fireworks at Sydney Harbour or seeking winter sun in the Maldives, they’re not travelling very far.

Instead, large groups of families and friends are renting out castles, Georgian town houses and country piles to celebrate New Year’s Eve in style and play lord of the manor for just a few days.

Shephard family at Hedsor HouseThe Shephards at Hedsor Photo: John Lawrence

For those who fancy partying celebrity-style, Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire is going to throw open its doors to the paying public next year and let them sleep over. The 54-bedroom mansion, with its 11 newly refurbished luxury suites and a 3,000 sq ft bridal chamber, has traditionally been rented out for filming, events and A-list parties, but without over night accommodation.

Brad Pitt shot scenes from his new film, Machine, at Hedsor, the cast of Downton Abbey descended to shoot a charity ball earlier this year, and Tom Hardy made a appearance when filming parts of Legend.

The DJ Mark Ronson held his 33rd birthday at Hedsor and Phil Harvey, the manager of Coldplay, got married there, says Nick Shephard, 34, whose family owns the pile.

Hedsor HouseOne of the newly refurbished bedrooms at Hedsor Photo: John Lawrence

While the very thought of welcoming strangers into your family home may send a shiver down the spine of most property owners in far humbler residences, it has allowed the Shephards to hold on to the house, parts of which date back to 1166.

Alexander Shephard, father of Nick, was born at Hedsor in 1938. The house had been a wedding present to his parents from his wealthy grandparents.

He lived there as a small boy but the family moved out when the Second World War started and the house was requisitioned for British military use. They returned five years later only to leave again in 1952 when the running costs became too great. But unlike many stately piles in similar positions, it didn’t fall to the National Trust. It was the Americans who moved in.

“Out of the blue the air force wanted it urgently for a spy base,” Alexander says, and they stayed for 14 years monitoring Russian movements. “There were tripwires in the woods and guards everywhere,” he recalls.

The Shephard familyAlexander Shephard with two of his sons, Hamish and Nick Photo: John Lawrence

The US military left in 1965, at which point the family was faced with a dilemma – sell up or cling on to their heritage.

Luckily a computer company swept in and took over the house for 35 years as a training centre so despite being in constant use since the Shephards acquired the property, it hasn’t been a family home for more than 60 years. “We’re lucky to have the house and we never want to sell it,” says Nick, “but it must wash its face.”

Turning stately homes into high-end holiday lets is the key to survival, the Shephards believe, who have spent years restoring the top floor in order to enable people to stay.

Hedsor HouseHedsor House Photo: John Lawrence

The regular income should also cover projects such as repainting all the windows of the 34,000 sq ft property, and with public liability insurance, damage deposit and a secure contract between owners and guests, they don’t worry about welcoming in Britain’s fun-loving public, or rather, the ones that can afford to stay there.

“It’s price on application,” explains Nick, “depending on whether you just want to stay a few nights and do your own thing, or need a catering package or disco as well.”

While Nick resides in London, where he works as an investment manager, his parents live just 500 yards from the house.

“It’s far enough away that we’re not disturbed. They can’t see us and we can’t see them,” Alexander says

However, for many, seeing in the new year in an historic setting is not high priority. More commonly it is about size and finding somewhere that can comfortably put up large groups of extended family, lots of children and the odd pet.

HurstoneHurstone House, near Taunton Photo: Strutt & Parker

Hurstone, John Bone’s seven-bedroom house near Taunton, is available by the night and guests can book in through the agency

Bone’s only request is that there are no fireworks or sky lanterns for safety reasons and because the house is surrounded by livestock.

“People are here to enjoy themselves,” he says, “and as long as they respect the property then we’ll go along with it.” He lives in a converted barn on-site, so is available if needed (and to police those partygoers).

The best-loved holiday lets are all about the small touches. The crystal decanters of brandy and whisky and the cake on arrival at the Dene in Alfriston, a village just over the South Downs from Brighton, make you feel at home. These hosts are neither seen nor heard. A code is emailed to the guests and keys picked up from an external safe, meaning the owners do not get in the way.

Woodstock, AscotWoodstock, in Ascot Photo: Strutt & Parker

Another man with a house to spare is Robert Jones. His Victorian mansion, Woodstock, in Ascot, Berkshire, has been listed on Airbnb since June this year, and is available for weekends away. When Robert and his family moved to a farm in Norfolk, they made the decision to list the house online.

“My wife wasn’t keen to start off with,” he says, “but now we’ve moved our personal possessions out and she’s living away, she doesn’t mind.”

The house has four large reception rooms, two double rooms with en suites, plus two further bedrooms. Outside there’s a swimming pool and tennis courts. The rules are simple: “No smoking, no drugs and please treat the place with respect.”

Maybe it is the £1,500 rent charged for New Year’s Eve that convinced Mrs Jones. “It’s a good source of income,” Robert says. “And it pays the school fees.”