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Tuesday, 20 February 2018
TAKING charge of an historic country estate would be a daunting prospect for many people.
But the Hon William Stonor, whose family has owned the Grade I listed house and grounds at Stonor Park for at least 850 years, says he is proud to hold the duty of preserving it for generations to come.
The 42-year-old, who will one day inherit the title of Lord Camoys from his father Thomas Stonor, has returned to live in the UK with his family after 12 years working overseas as a diplomat and financier.
He is living in the main house with his wife Ailsa and children Tommy, nine, Harry, seven, and Cecily, three, while his parents Lord and Lady Camoys have moved into a cottage at a converted wool house within the grounds.
Mr Stonor hopes to significantly increase the number of visitors to Stonor Park in order to pay the estate’s maintenance costs of at least £100,000 a year.
The estate attracts about 7,500 visitors a year on the 60 days that it is open plus another 40,000-plus when the audiences at special events are included.
However, that’s still only about half the number of annual visitors to Greys Court, although the National Trust property is open all-year round.
Stonor has already hosted several new events this year, with more on the way, and now has a children’s adventure playground in order to attract more young families as the majority of visitors have traditionally been older people.
Mr Stonor says maintaining the house is a constant battle as parts of it date back to 1150 and there are often problems with subsidence, dry rot and roof leaks.
On one occasion several years ago, a large chunk of a downstairs dining room ceiling caved in, covering the furniture in thick black dust and narrowly missing a valuable painting on the wall.
The entire ceiling had to be replaced and the family’s insurers refused to cover the cost, blaming faulty workmanship from 1760.
Mr Stonor said: “It’s basically a never-ending job — once you’ve addressed one problem, something else needs addressing.
“Even if you could repair everything in one instant, you’d soon find problems springing up again.
“The windows have to be repainted every few years and it takes so long that by the time it’s finished, it’s almost time to think about starting it again.
“We’re never in crisis but the need for attention is always pressing as the house wasn’t built with modern techniques in mind.
“You just have to keep on top of things as best you can and deal with issues as they crop up. As one workman said, you can’t afford to be a perfectionist because it’ll never be ‘just right’.
“My parents did a great job of keeping it in good condition but there will always be builders here doing something. Because of that, it’s vital that we remain open to the public.
“Being a Grade I listed building, everything has to be done to the highest possible standard by law.
“In the past 10 years, the costs associated with maintenance have risen significantly.
“Like any small business, there’s an enormous amount of legislation to abide by and that adds time and cost.
“If this place doesn’t wash its face, we will have a real problem on our hands but we’re confident with all the hard work we’re doing that we will be able to thrive.
“Of course, I can’t stress enough that I’m not complaining at all. We know we’re jolly lucky to be living here and don’t take that for granted for one second.
“As a family, we really enjoy sharing it with everyone who comes to look around. It makes it worth the effort — we love simply living here, but it’s extra special that other people can take pleasure and satisfaction from it too.
“If visitor demand increases, which we’re very much hoping for, we will be glad to meet it by opening the house more frequently.
“The adventure playground is part of that drive — it was a big strategic decision and a serious investment but we’ve been thrilled with the positive response it has received.”
Lord and Lady Camoys were living in Suffolk when Mr Stonor, who has three older sisters, was born and they moved back to the ancestral home in 1978, when he was four.
The building was in such poor condition that a 19th century service wing had to be demolished and intensive restoration was needed on the remainder.
The house opened to the public in 1979 and has done so every year since.
Mr Stonor was educated at the independent St Mary’s School in Henley and Eton College before taking a history degree at the University of Manchester.
He then worked for private equity firms in Bristol and London before joining the Foreign Office as a diplomat and serving in Afghanistan, Delhi and London.
During his time in the capital, he led a counter-terrorism team that identified chemical, biological and nuclear threats.
He married his wife, a landscape designer who used to work in international development for non-governmental organisations, 12 years ago.
Mr Stonor returned to private equity in 2009. He founded Ilex, a mergers and acquistions company focused mainly on Asia, with Lord Rothschild in 2009 and moved to Beijing soon afterwards.
He returned this year as he felt the time was right to take over the family home but will still travel to China to oversee the business for a few weeks every year.
Mr Stonor, who will be the 29th successive custodian in his family, says: “I needed to let my parents retire as they’ve been looking after Stonor Park for almost 40 years and they’ve done an incredible job of it.
“They really have earned a rest because they basically saved the place from total ruin.
“Although we were originally based in Suffolk, I have very few memories of that time and really consider this my childhood home.
“It’s a wonderful place — this might sound cheesy but I love it to bits and feel like it’s in my blood.
“Our family has lived in this valley for so long that I feel part of the landscape.
“I enjoyed working abroad, especially for the Foreign Office, but I knew that wasn’t going to be compatible with running the estate.
“This takeover has come later than expected and my parents were very kind in letting me delay it for a few more years while I worked abroad.
“They have also been very supportive of our plans for the future.
“I’m very, very lucky to have Ailsa working alongside me and we’re taking our duties incredibly seriously.
“We think it’s crucial to leave it to our successors in as healthy shape as we found it. That’s a big responsibility but we consider it a privilege.” The couple’s children are enjoying life in rural England.
Mr Stonor says: “They adored being in China and it was a valuable experience for them but after the concrete jungle of Beijing, with its 25 million people, they’re pleased as Punch to be living in the English countryside.
“They really appreciate how wonderful Stonor is, just as I did as a child, and while they miss the Chinese food they don’t miss the freezing winters.
“They’re discovering their roots and developing more of a sense of British identity although my eldest two speak Mandarin Chinese, which is something I never anticipated!
“I’m slightly in awe of them because I wasn’t able to pick it up but I suppose they found it easier, growing up there.
“Sometimes you have to live somewhere else to realise how special this country is.
“It’s not perfect but it has so many wonderful things going for it and, of course, we’re very lucky to have Henley on our doorstep with all the incredible events it hosts.
“This is just a lovely corner of the world.
“I enjoy travelling back to China because this is very much its century. It’s an emerging economy so it’s fascinating to do business there but it’s so lovely to have Stonor Park to return to.
“The responsibility can be daunting and I sometimes have sleepless nights but I’m confident that we’re taking the right steps to secure its future.
“If a bit of worry is the only downside to living here, I can hardly complain.”
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