Behind the scenes at Browsholme Hall
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 August 2018
Behind the ancient sandstone facade of Browsholme Hall is a remarkable ethos of 21st century sustainability and care for the environment.
They are raising the Union Flag at Browsholme Hall, the stunning Bowland house which has been home to the Parker family for well over 500 years. However, it won’t be fluttering from the ornate rooftops of this outstanding property.
This flag is being formed in the gardens as a restoration project which harks back to the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. It was obviously a big deal back then – so momentous, the family celebrated by creating the new flag in shrubs, borders and herbaceous plants. A tiny representation of it can be found in an old leather-bound volume of plans kept in the hall.
Sadly, what was known as the Wilderness Garden was lost over the centuries but Robert and Amanda Parker, the current owners of Browsholme, have decided to recreate it. And this will be a special flag because while each quadrant will have modern planting representing the countries of the union, at its heart will be a Lancashire rose.
‘Back when this was first created, wilderness gardens weren’t wild places – they had hedges and long paths where ladies could take the air,’ said Robert.
Elizabeth Parker's Diaries
Josh Clarke, John Barber and Mick Fielding setting up the tables in the courtyard at the Tithe Barn
The Queen Anne Kitchen
The Queen Anne Kitchen
Charlie Brown and Adele Loi housekeeping in the dining room
Helen Backhouse and Charlie Brown pruning the shrubbery
Peter Mather in the boiler house
Stephen Brown in the wood chip store
Wildlife roaming at Browsholme Hall
Locals often say there’s always something happening at Browsholme and it’s hard to disagree but, if you thought such an ancient household would be blinkered to the 21st century and mired simply in a battle to conserve its fabric, you’d be wrong.
There is substantial time and money needed to maintain a building so old, but Browsholme is also cutting edge and has a series of impressive awards to prove it. Amanda Parker reels off the roll call of three consecutive Visit Lancashire awards for ‘sustainable tourism’ and a silver in the national Visit England finals.
Browsholme was singled out for praise by the judges who commented on the fact that most finalists in this category were small country hotels or cottages. Here, sustainability took in a Grade I listed house, several cottages, a flourishing weddings business, cafe and extensive grounds. ‘The experience at Browsholme demonstrates that a traditional historic venue can be in the top echelon of sustainable practice,’ they said.
Just about every facet of life at Browsholme is dictated by the family’s desire to operate in a way that benefits the environment and connects with the community that surrounds it.
This policy also extends to the people who supply the estate. The Parkers have a Five Mile Menu for the café – the aim is that food and drink and, of course, the staff come from within a five mile radius.
In return, they want suppliers to operate in a similarly green way. For instance, they don’t want goods in polystyrene boxes and paper should be recycled. ‘Asking business to work with us has a ripple effect and it starts to become a normal way of life,’ says Amanda.
‘As for plastic straws – we did away with those years ago.
‘Some people don’t believe that a Grade I historic house like this can be run sustainably but our aim has been to work with the community and with the environment so we can create jobs and be financially sound without doing any harm.
‘We couldn’t have done it without the team here embracing our ideas. It might be something that gives them extra work but they will do it.’
Despite the innovation and diversification, the estate still doesn’t earn enough to maintain itself and the Parkers have always needed outside jobs. Amanda runs her own IT company that designs and installs integrated home entertainment, lighting and heating systems while Robert is MD of Clitheroe Auction Mart and an advisor to the Historic Houses Association.
They celebrate their differences. ‘Robert is very keen on wildlife and the landscape,’ says Amanda. ‘He sees beauty in a vase of tulips, I see it in a bunch of electrical cables!’
The sophisticated systems used on the estate were designed by Amanda. ‘We have a full building control system that manages heating and lighting with energy-reducing lightbulbs, a ground-source heat pump, a biomass boiler and spring water with flow meters that send a text if the levels drop.’
Robert adds: ‘We can’t have solar power because we are listed but we are working on it. There are some developments where the panels can be made to look just like traditional roof tiles.’
The estate has stopped burning £7,000 of oil each year and gas and electric bills have been reduced significantly by various energy-saving measures. Even the chandeliers use energy saving bulbs and the floor boards in the breakfast room were all re-used from Robert’s family home.
‘We have 120 acres of woodland and two acres of that is felled each year to go into our chipping system that feeds the biomass,’ he says. ‘As the replacement trees take between 50 and 60 years to reach maturity, in terms of sustainability, the programme is spot on.’ They also have hot composters which can produce a growing medium in 18 days.
The estate has a series of lakes and a team from Lancaster University is exploring the possibility of a hydro-electric scheme. ‘The ambition is to be a centre of excellence for renewables,’ says Amanda.’
Habitat management is also part of the plan and the latest arrivals come in the form of beehives. There are also newts in the ponds and they are very proud of the stumpery, like a rock gardens but with dead wood.
As well as some big fish in the main lake, Browsholme is also home to mallard, geese, coot, moorhen, widgeon, oyster catchers and curlews. ‘People say there is a big decline in curlews, but not at Browsholme and I counted 40 lapwings the other day,’ says Robert. They also have a good population of hedgehogs.
‘All the planting is done to look good but also to encourage wildlife,’ says Amanda, a former High Sheriff. They are careful not to make more work so mowing grass to bowling green standard is out; hay meadows with paths are in. ‘Grass is much underrated with a wonderful variety of colours and shapes,’ says Robert.
The end game is financial security and this has come through creating a tearoom that in turn increases visitor numbers to the house. The beautifully restored 18th century tithe barn is used for community and charity events but, for revenue generation, it is 60-70 weddings a year that has allowed them to maintain Browsholme and reinvest.
In the mid 70s there was a single ‘old retainer’ employed but today there is the equivalent of seven full time staff plus double that number for causal employment. ‘They are all local – I don’t think anyone travels further than Clitheroe,’ says Amanda. ‘Everything we have done in the last few years has allowed us to re-connect with the community and that’s very important to us.
‘We’ve been a hub for the neighbourhood for 500 years and we’ve been incredibly proud of how the community has supported us in what we have been doing. They like to know what we are doing and that’s as it should be.’
Before long, people will be able to stay in ten micro-lodges made by Lune Valley Pods. They look a little like an upturned wooden boat but are, in fact, like a boutique hotel room with double beds, sitting areas and showers. They will have a woodland setting and appeal to the increasing numbers coming to Lancashire for cycling, walking, low-level climbing and bouldering, a form of rock climbing enjoyed by the Parker’s adult children, Eleanor and Roland.
They are fully behind their parents’ desire to work with the environment and are proud of their roots. ‘They are both Lancastrians through and through,’ says Robert. Amanda adds: ‘We hope they’ll go away, work for ten years and come back to Browsholme.’
Refreshingly, Amanda doesn’t buy into the cliché of ‘only being custodians of the house’. She says: ‘It’s our home and part of the aim of what we are doing is to continue living here.’
Robert adds:’ Some estates don’t know where to stop and their privacy is lost. They’ve become too commercial. You have to get the balance right.’
Robert inherited the house when he was just 19. He came to live there with his parents, who did a lot to restore its fortunes. Back then, the electric system was deadly and the water supply was poisonous.
A generation later, Browsholme remains a nationally important house, and the oldest surviving family home in Lancashire. It’s a record that now looks certain to continue.
Browsholme Hall is open on Wednesday’s between May and September and some Sundays and Bank Holidays. For full details go to browsholme.com