HOME IS HIS CASTLE
Sunday Times – 16 April 1995
It has taken two years for one Englishman to realise his grand ambition, restoring the 18th century Wardour Castle to its original magnificence. By Julian Keeling
At the start of the year Nigel Tuersley was beginning to enjoy the first fruits of his two-year restoration of Wardour Castle, between Salisbury and Warminster in Wiltshire. One of the elegant apartments in the west wing had been rented, and the others were nearing completion. An extensive replanting programme for the surrounding parkland was under way and Tuersley himself was happily installed in the ornate state rooms. All, it seemed, was well with the world. So when a photographer rang his doorbell and asked to take pictures as a record of land that was about to be destroyed by a road-building programme, the king of Wardour Castle was horrified. "I nearly had a cardiac arrest," says Tuersley. Thankfully, there had been a misunderstanding. The photographer was meant to be at Cranborne Chase, 10 miles away in the next valley. The confusion was due to the castle’s previous incarnation as Cranborne Chase School for Girls. Panic over.
Should the Department of Transport ever wish to carve one of its furrows through his house and grounds they would meet bitter opposition. The castle itself is a Grade I listed building - a superb example of Palladian architecture, designed by James Paine in 1770 for the eighth Lord Arundell. The 52 acres of lush, rolling parkland surrounding the castle were originally landscaped by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. The interior is equally impressive. Niklaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, felt moved to describe it as "the most glorious Georgian interior in Wiltshire".
The building's most memorable feature is a central hall, or rotunda, that rises 60 ft above the inlaid stone door. Crowning this huge space is a sky lit dome that rests on a set of eight columns of the Composite order. Against this grand setting, Tuersley, 44, descends the cantilevered stone staircase to greet me.
There is an air of swashbuckling confidence about him — he seems every inch to the manor born - so it is a surprise to learn that his childhood home was a council house on the edge of Winchester in Hampshire. His work, as a property developer and a dealer in foreign currencies, made him a wealthy man and enabled him to realise his dream of owning Wardour. "When I first saw this place, I knew I was going to get it. I didn't know if I would have enough money but I felt sure I would be living here." In the end he bought the property for a relative bargain, the castle and the land costing him "less than a million". In London, as he points out, there are three-bedroom flats on the market for more.
However, buying the place turned out to be the easy part and - given the extent and the attention to detail of the restoration - probably the cheapest. Tuersley is not only returning the building and parkland to their former glory but, with the help of James Paine's original designs, he is completing many of the tasks that were left undone in the 18th century.
As the proud owner shows off the stunning piano nobile - which houses his own apartment and offices — it is clear that he has not cut any corners. There are, for instance, 94 French-polished doors, veneered in Cuban mahogany, that he has had restored. Bronze light fittings have been especially cast to the original architect’s exact specifications. Fanned and fluted ceilings have been rebuilt after the school knocked them out to put up partitioning between bathrooms. (The school's distinctly unPalladian extensions were also removed.) The 160ft-high, beamed ceilings have been repainted in Venetian blue and gold, and the floors have been relayed with 2in-thick pine boards.
Modem conveniences, such as central heating, wiring and under-floor rubber soundproofing, are as unobtrusive as possible, but on a windy spring day you can appreciate their existence. Traditionalist masochism might complain that a stately home is not quite the same thing without freezing draughts, a long walk for hot water and a half-hour walk to answer the solitary telephone, but it is hard to fault any part of the restoration, or to doubt Nigel Tuersley's claim that his project is not simply a reflection of a huge ego, but motivated by a genuine love of classical architecture.
He is also a lover of the environment and much of his working life has been devoted to raising funds for ecological projects, including the protection of the Cameroon rainforests and a scheme to redevelop the Docklands before it was destroyed by the iconic Canary Wharf. At least now he has some control over his immediate environment and, since work on the castle is all but complete, he is turning his addition to the parkland.
Again, with the help of the original plans, he is putting right what a couple of centuries of neglect have undone. Magnolia trees, cedars and oaks are being replanted, along with rhododendrons and oriental limes. About 120,000 bulbs of iris, narcissus, tulip, snowdrop and daffodil will be in place for a colourful spring next year. The ornamental garden and flower meadow are also being given new lease of life and Tuersley is planning an organic kitchen garden to feed himself and his tenants – with any luck raising a few pounds towards the renovations.
Renting out the seven apartments he has created within the castle is the main method of funding the project. They may not be as grand or as ornate as his own set of rooms but they are huge, with white-painted walls, wooden floors, thick stone walls and fireplaces and a tangible sense of quality. Tuersley explains that he is "pioneering the idea of luxury, international-standard flats in a country setting".
They are not, apparently, to everybody's taste. "One American lady looked round one of the flats in the east wing and exclaimed: 'We've got apartments just like this in New York!" I suppose I should take it as a compliment. I like that minimalist look for interiors. It allows the occupant to furnish according to their tastes, not mine."
It has to be said that not very many New York homes are as peaceful and as far away from the city stresses. Certainly none looks out on to landscaped parkland, a lake and the gloriously unspoilt Nadder Valley - the view from the castle's elevated site that makes the place so special.
Robert Churchill, the first tenant, who has based the offices of his hi-fi company, Yamamura Churchill, at Wardour, enjoys being able to turn away from his computer screen, stomp across the flagstoned floor and out into a rural idyll. "The alternative." he says, "was to rent a place in west London, but I find being able to go out for a stroll in the grounds preferable to risking the streets of Notting Hill.”
The newest arrival, Sandy McCardle, a semi-retired banker, has no doubts about the pleasures of luxury living: "It's just perfect here," he says, three weeks into his stay. "If I tried to describe it to you, I'd run out of superlatives."