A winding gravel driveway lined with red and pink rhododendron bushes leads to Hedsor House, an impressive pile set in 100 acres of gardens and woodland in Buckinghamshire.
The place is a hive of activity as a small army of builders repairs the tennis courts, fits new carpets and inspects the stonework. It is the latest in a long line of renovations undertaken by the Shephard family to restore their 19th-century pad to its former grandeur.
It’s had several identities over the years – from family home to convent school, American army spy base and corporate headquarters. Its latest incarnation is an elegant events and weddings venue and film location.
Hedsor is where music producer Mark Ronson threw his 33rd birthday party. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and Tom Hardy have all filmed here, as has Dustin Hoffman, who hired the house for six months to make his directorial debut, Quartet. Its stars signed the visitor’s book when they left.
“Billy Connolly said thank you for letting us use your home – you’ve made us all feel homeless,” says Alexander Shephard, 79, who owns the property along with his three sons, Nick, 36, Mark, 34 and Hamish, 32. “Pauline Collins wrote, ‘If I ever get married, this is where it will happen,’ and Maggie Smith said, ‘How could you do this to your home – turn it into a commercial venture?’” he laughs. “So we were scolded by her.”
He is sitting in the pale-blue drawing room that has been used in many films as the Cabinet Office for its resemblance to Downing Street. The fake marble mantlepiece was left by one crew. It is one of 52 rooms that include 11 bedrooms, a 3,000 sq ft bridal suite, a ballroom, dining room, library, billiard room and central hall with a gallery and domed glass ceiling.
“I was born here, so I feel great affection and responsibility for the house, and I’m thrilled that my sons have now taken such a keen interest in looking after it,” says Alexander, who lives with his wife Janey in Gully Farm on the estate grounds.
Hedsor House was designed by James Knowles in 1868 for Lord Boston, and came into the Shephard family in 1934 when Alexander’s grandfather bought it as a wedding present for his son Philip and his bride Florence.
The previous owner was D’Arcy Baker, a charismatic managing director at Fiat and racing driver, who immediately set about “Georgianising” the highly embellished Victorian building by removing the four corner domes on the roof and half the pillars in the central hall. He installed wooden panelling in the ballroom and marbled the two main bathrooms, one in golden onyx. The works bankrupted him and on his death, the estate passed to his bankers.
Maggie Smith said, ‘How could you do this to your home – turn it into a commercial venture?’ So we were scolded by her
The extended Shephard family – grandparents, uncles, aunts and 100 staff – moved in and lived there until 1939, when it was requisitioned by the British government to be used as a temporary girls’ school during the Second World War. “I was the only boy there for nine months,” says Alexander, who was a pupil until he was packed off to boarding school. “When I went to the loo I remember the nuns made a point of telling me to lock the door just in case the girls got any shocks.”
The family moved back in again briefly after the war ended until 1952, when, upon discovering that it had “started to get very costly to run”, they leased it to the American Air Force, as a spy base for intelligence gathering. “There was 10ft-high fencing, trip wires in the woods and guards,” recalls Alexander. “They were very friendly with us. My mother used two or three rooms for storage and would be escorted by a chap with a gun to go through her suitcases.”
By the time the Americans moved out in 1965, “reality had dawned that running and heating a place like Hedsor was a huge upkeep operation,” says Alexander. So it was a relief when a computer company rented the house for their offices until 2005. The Shephard family continued to maintain the grounds; Alexander, who ran his own publishing company until he retired, has planted more than 2,000 hardwood trees – oaks, beech, walnut and lime – over the past 30 years, while his sons enjoyed the freedom that 100 acres could offer three young boys.
I had great expectations of asking Nicole Kidman to join me for a gin and tonic after work but I couldn’t get near her
“Mum would drop us off and we’d spend hours there,” says Mark, who runs his own company. “It was paradise. We’d charge off round the woods with cap guns, have camping parties with friends and row our boat on the pond.” They also helped their father maintain the land, “making bonfires, chopping down trees, clearing up, weeding the ponds. It was always great fun, never a chore.”
It was when the computer firm moved out, however, that the Shephards were faced with the dilemma of what to do next with the house. It had been kept in good repair, but bedrooms had been turned into offices and there were “corporate carpets and cables everywhere,” says Mark. “It wasn’t beautiful.” They had offers from buyers – including one of the dragons from the BBC show Dragons’ Den – “but I was too attached,” says Alexander.
His eldest son, Nick, a partner in a private equity company, came up with the idea of approaching film location managers, and soon it was chosen by the makers of The Golden Compass as the London home of Nicole Kidman’s character.
They hired it for four months but filmed for just two days, and in that time sanded and rewaxed the floorboards, laid a mosaic floor (which they later removed) and had a £50,000 bespoke carpet made for the central hall (which they left). “I had great expectations of asking Nicole to join me for a gin and tonic after work but I couldn’t get near her,” says Alexander.
At the same time, a friend of the family asked to rent the house for their daughter’s wedding, which led to further wedding requests. “The idea of selling it felt like such a horrific, emotional wrench,” says Mark. “We also thought, ‘What are we going to do with the money?’ We were 23, 21 and 19 at the time, and thought the much more exciting challenge would be to back ourselves and go for it.”
Doing their sums “on the back of a fag packet”, they hired an events consultant (they now have 14 full-time staff) and ploughed every penny back into the property, starting from the ground floor and working up.
They’ve spent more than £2 million so far – more than a million on the bedrooms upstairs alone, where a bridal party can stay overnight. The 12ft chandelier that hangs in the central hall cost £10,000, and £150,000 was spent on the ballroom.
“It’s fantastic to walk in today in comparison to 10 years ago,” says Mark. Some 100 weddings are now held there every year. “It’s giving a lot of people a lot of pleasure,” Alexander adds, “and we hope that the family continues to run it for years to come.”