Halecat Estate - why one of Lancashire’s most historic families is declaring open house

PUBLISHED: 00:30 28 May 2013

Halecat as viewed across the Main Lawn

Halecat as viewed across the Main Lawn


One of the north west’s most notable families is now welcoming guests to their home - complete with a loo with a stunning view. Karen Barden reports. MAIN PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRSTY THOMPSON

The latest chapter in a remarkable family saga spanning more than five centuries is being played out at beautiful house in the south Lakes.

Halecat has been the most recent home of the Stanley family, a dynasty which held such power across the region that a biographer once dubbed one member as ‘The King of Lancashire.’

Now, the family is declaring open house as they bid to make Halecat, which is located at Witherslack, pay its way.

The Stanleys rose to national prominence in Tudor times with Thomas, who became the 1st Earl of Derby. Over the centuries, they famously changed sides after Richard III met his maker at Bosworth, they sponsored a promising young playwright called Shakespeare and the 14th Earl Derby was thrice Prime Minister. Another was Governor of Canada and two were Cabinet ministers in both World Wars.

In Victorian times they turned to iconic Lancaster architects Paley and Austin to create a grand Gothic pile. This was Witherslack Hall which eventually became a school when the family took itself off down the road to the more modest, charming Halecat.

This once private home is now gearing itself up for a new lease of life as a party venue, self-catering holiday home, meeting place and wedding location.

Present incumbent Nick Stanley lives in an unassuming cottage next to the Halecat yard where he spent much of his childhood. The 59-year-old with a background in theatre, property, economic development and public service – mostly in Liverpool – says the old place has to earn its keep.

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to his great grandfather, the 16th Earl, Nick inherited the house, along with the 2,000 acre estate, comprising 50 houses, Witherslack Hall and substantial woodlands.

For the first time in its 180-year history, Halecat is playing host to paying guests. It was, he says, designed for parties as well as being elegant, flexible and great for kids.

‘If you have to ask what kind of parties, you are probably not the sort of person we’d want,’ grinned the former Liverpool Labour councillor, an avid supporter of conservation, communities and most things green.

We were standing in Halecat’s stunning drawing room with its breathtaking views, old family furniture, paintings and objets d’art.

I’d already committed the faux pas of asking about specific items and had been rebuked. That was merely ‘family stuff’ I was told.

However, it is an amazing country house, oozing ambience and a way of life now largely gone. History and heritage leap out of every crevice but it is going through an intense period of change – even the 75-year-old gardener has been brought out of retirement to help restore the grounds.

Changes will accommodate a 100-capacity marquee at the end of a splendid terrace, freeing up the lawn for guests to use. ‘I don’t want people to feel intimidated. There will be no ‘do not’ notices or roped off areas here,’ says Nick. With elegant reception and dining rooms, massive hall, kitchen, four bedrooms and a smattering of bathrooms straight from a 1930s film set, this is definitely period letting. Halecat doesn’t pretend to be five-star – it is about character, offering a unique experience.

There are no showers at the moment and baths need re-enamelling; it’s faded grandeur at its best. According to the family, it even has one of England’s loos with the best view.

Nick advocates rural regeneration, sustainability and landscape management. He’s bringing orchards and woodlands back to life and they fuel the estate’s massive wood-fuel heating system. Eco-camping is also on the agenda.

‘We want people to be able to have a party or wedding where guests can camp, cook on an open fire, do their own thing. Or, if they need a cook, we’ll organise one.

‘We have significant nature in our midst and are in a butterfly conservation area. The flora and fauna are particularly noteworthy; we have 750 acres of superb native woodland.

‘We’re doing things gently because we have to balance the need for income with making the right changes for Halecat in making it accessible.’

There is already a real buzz about the place, according to Nick. Families living in wings of the house, workshops, woodyard, bring bonhomie, enthusiasm and essential income.

Like his forbears, Nick was Eton educated, but admits to having hidden his ancestry to ‘avoid being pigeon-holed’.

‘However, there is a rather curious feeling of personal connection to much of England’s history – what were the Stanleys up to then? I suppose it’s a sense of tribe!’

Odd too, the feeling when Richard III’s remains were recently unearthed under a Leicester car park. As the Wars of the Roses raged and the monarch was slain, the Lord of the Manor of Witherslack swiftly changed allegiance to the victorious Henry Tudor.

‘Cousins, descended from the Plantagenets, claim to be the rightful Kings of England, betrayed by the Stanleys. I have similar conversations with friends who are Evertonians!’

During an Indian Independence Bill debate, Churchill told Nick’s Cabinet minister grandfather, that the ‘******* Stanleys’ were all the same - turning up late and on the wrong side.

A home that had reached its sell-by date suddenly seems animated and eager for the new era. Along with his partner, graphic designer Cathy Noble and their combined broods of four sons and two daughters, the family are firm allies. ‘In a way,’ he explains, ‘Halecat will become a family house again - to very many different people and that will be such fun!’

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