Armed with a love of historic buildings, former lawyer Chris Badham and artist Damian Llambias embarked on a project of a lifetime. They ditched their lives in London and bought the magnificent 30-bedroom Huntsham Court, a beautiful Grade II*-listed Victorian mansion located in the heart of the rolling Devon countryside. Recently, we were able to chat with the pair about the purchase, renovations and vision for the manor.
JustLuxe: Tell us about Huntsham Court and its history.
Owners: The house, with its extensive grounds, five grand reception rooms and 30 spacious bedrooms suites is available to hire only for exclusive use for short breaks, special occasions and events. Huntsham Court was completed in 1869 as a wedding gift and private house for the Ackland Troyte family. It was designed by renowned architect William Burges and is one of the finest examples of a Victorian Gothic private mansion in the country, with a unique octagonal double height vaulted Victorian kitchen (the only one in England).
JL: What made you decide to leave London?
O: Timing. Having had a civil partnership we both decided that it would be great to have a project we could both get our teeth into instead of continuing with our separate careers. We both have a love of historic buildings and when we found Huntsham Court, we just went for it.
JL: How did you find it?
O: A combination of relentless rummaging online, luck and faith. Having looked for a venue for ourselves to host our civil partnership we realized that there were not a lot of choices out there if you wanted to have exclusive use of a big country house to fill with your friends and family for a weekend. We set out to buy somewhere which we could rent out (to help pay for itself) and be a place where other people could treat as a home from home.
JL: Do you live in Huntsham?
O: Yes, it is our home. But we rent it out because the cost of running the house and maintaining it is huge, we otherwise couldn't afford to keep it. These houses were built to be lived in and host big get-togethers, not to be broken up into flats or left to fall apart. We thought it would be great to give the property a lease-on-life that preserves it intact for another generation. And we love living in a huge place and sharing it with friends, and wanted to create a place where we could rent it out affordably so other people can have huge get togethers to mark a moment in time — a wedding or party that is remembered forever in totally homely surroundings with a real relaxed grandeur.
JL: What changes have you made?
O: It is Grade II*-listed so everything you do is about preserving the building, making like-for-like repairs and doing right by the building. As it was a private house, then a hotel, then forgotten for 10 years, it was mainly plumbing, electrics, roof repairs, windows and then decoration and furnishing.
JL: Tell us about the décor.
O: We wanted it to feel like a family country pile that had moved with the times, but kept the best of the old. We wanted it to be eclectic and not feel over interior-designed or hotel-like with identical bedrooms. One decadence was the wallpaper in the library, which is an original design from 1845, a complex and boldly colored design [by] Shrewsbury Welby [who was] commissioned from Pugin by his prominent patron, the Earl of Shrewsbury for Ingestre Hall. Art is also important and [a] joint passion, so we have sculptures, prints, tapestries and paintings throughout the house often with modern next to old as the juxtaposition gives a great dialogue.
JL: Did you ever have a 'what have we done' moment?
O: Lots. The biggest moment was our first day. The buying process was exciting and romantic buying a big run-down pile to make your home; and it's so massive, it seemed unreal. On the road down from London we laughed how it was such a mild February and wouldn't it be funny if it snowed and we had to turn the heating on. That night a two-week arctic freeze started — the entire house was frozen, we spent 5,000 pounds [approximately $8,100 USD] on oil in eight days. And thought, as we sat in a huge empty, cold, broken house realizing the scale of works we needed to do: What have we done?
JL: Are guests able to hire out the whole venue?
O: We only ever hire out the whole house for guests to have exclusive use, privacy and the fun of having a big country pile to relax in with friends and family. It can be rented either for the day with just reception rooms mid week, or the whole place — house and gardens — for two night stays with 19, 27 or all 30 spacious bedroom suites.
JL: What are the catering options?
O: Huntsham Court is a self-catering property but on a very grand scale and with the infrastructure, luxury and available facilities of a five-star hotel. Guests can choose the level of service they require and they are free to bring in their own catering and alcohol without incurring any corkage or storage charges. We have developed a great suppliers' network of wonderful local produce and suppliers in the area which cater for all tastes and budgets, but you are also welcome to bring your own caterers in with no extra charge. For those wanting the highest levels of service, a full staff including butlers can be provided.
JL: Why do guests choose Huntsham?
O: We truly want people to treat it as their home, relax, put their feet up and have their guests as their guests. We hand the house over to you. There is a lot of trust involved and people respect and appreciate that. We always suggest to the lead guest bringing loads of photos of themselves to put round the house and they 'move in' as such. Often guests like the fact the house is grand enough for the formal parties but then to be able to have breakfast in their PJs slouching over the sofa or in the kitchen, that is, what people remember as much. Also the privacy means you aren't sharing space with hotel-type staff unless that's what you want.
JL: Can you name drop VIPs who have stayed there?
O: Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, wrote So Long & Thank You For The Fish whilst staying at Huntsham Court. Also Dorothy Sayers stayed and wrote at Huntsham Court. Even the Dickie Beasley character from the Viz was created here. EMI [Music Publishing Group] also used to send many of its high-profile artists to Huntsham Court back in the '80s and '90s for its EMI writers' weeks. Artists included Kirsty MacColl, Henry Priestman and Suggs from Madness. Liam Gallagher recently stayed to film his current video Shine A Light (currently shortlisted for Best Video 2013 at the Q Awards), prior to opening Glastonbury 2013. In the 1980s it was even used as secret hideout for a Russian defector.
Huntsham Court can be hired starting around $7,000 USD for a day-only hire and from approximately $11,650 USD for two nights based on 44 people sharing.