Christopher Gilmour, 56, owner of Grade I-listed Winslow Hall in Buckinghamshire is positively intrepid, you might even say a trifle rash. When he bought the house in 2010 as a new family home for himself, his wife Mardi, and their three daughters, Leonora, Gabriella and Christobel, the building was in such a poor state that the flood was a mere drop in the ocean of problems that needed solving. Gilmour had big further plans for the house — possible to make it a new venue for Stowe Opera, so no deluge could put him off.
© All photographs by John Lawrence
To Londoners he is best known as the man who launched Christopher's, the famous Covent Garden restaurant, also on a rush of enthusiasum. He sold it two and a half years ago, though it continues to offer diners live opera from its staircase — a tradition Gilmour established.
Tall and affable, Eton-educated Gilmour, son of Ian Gilmour, the former Tory Cabinet minister and peer, fell into the restaurant business almost by chance. Striding along the wide Oxford stone terrace at Winslow Hall, a magnificent red-brick pile overlooking the rolling fields of North Oxfordshire (and possibly designed by Christopher Wren) he explains: "I lived in Chicago in the Eighties and that's where I got my love of restaurants. I thought, 'why don't we have something like that in England?' So I came back and opened Christopher's."
But the hours in the restaurant business are very long. "We had a lovely house in Somerset," he says, "but we found we were spending a lot of time on the A303. So we thought, 'hang on a minute, we're too far from London.' Then we saw Winslow." Gilmour's father had been MP for the nearby constituency of Chesham and Amersham, so the family was familiar with the area.
On that memorable day when Gilmour and his wife spotted Winslow Hall, the wind that regularly whips at the house thorough winter failed to make itself felt. Only after moving in did the family experience the full force of its fury.
"I don't think there is much between us and Siberia," says Gilmour. "The children have said they will not stay another winter if they cannot have the heating on. But heating doesn't make the slightest bit of difference — we simply heat the fields around. That's why I turned it off."
Only the threat of a family uprising has forced him to consider alternative heating methods for next winter, of the sort that do not involve five-figure annual bills.
But back to that purchasing day... "There was only one other buyer looking at the house," Gilmour says, absentmindedly adding that it was Tony Blair. "The house had belonged to diplomat Sir Edward Tomkins, but I don't think they had put a penny into it, except for the roof. We had to rewire and re-plumb, and every single window had to come out. The renovation bill so far is over £800,000. If only I had known then what I know now!" He grins, for part of Winslow Hall's impressive beauty is its exorbitant size and number of windows.
The huge pediment over the front door says the house was built in 1700 for William Lowndes, Chancellor of the Exchequer under William III. Set unusually close the main road in Winslow, a small market town north of Aylesbury, it is, visually, a "rus in urbe" — creating the illusion of being a country manor, though in a town setting.
Its body is rectangular in plan, with a staircase running front to back at each side. It once had wings, now long gone. Each principal floor has four square rooms. It is the sort of house a very clever child would design: rational, symmetrical, with four of the biggest chimneys you've ever seen soaring from the slate roof, serving fireplaces in the central corner of each room.
"Lowndes invented the phrase, 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves,'" Gilmour says — unrepentantly; for though he got the house, plus 26 acres, for well under the £3 million asking price, it has cost him an awful lot since. He adds: "It was in a terrible state, made worse by the water tanks splitting, and deluging it. Rot ran right through. I had a team of builders living here for a year. There were times when we said to each other, 'What on earth are we doing here, why don't we go and live in Barbados?'"
But his wife has bought wholeheartedly into the project. She is a bargain hunter. Some of the curtains are still mismatched and the whole place is in a "temporary" state of chaos, with house contents piled up on tables and chairs, mingling with all the detritus of children returning from school, including travelling trunks.
But fabric is on Mardi's bargain-hunting list. The huge marble bathroom suite is a Mardi bargain, too. The house is definitely a work in progress for some years to come but Gilmour is completely untroubled by his "To Do" list as he ambles genially through oak-panelled rooms that glitter with Rococo mirrors above replacement fire surrounds (all the originals were looted), declaring with a masterstroke of understatement: "We like a project," and: "It will all be cleared up by the time curtain raises on he first night of the opera season in two weeks time."
And there is the explanation for not heading for the Caribbean. Gilmour has had a lifelong love of opera and so when a friend suggested he could save Stowe Opera by making Winslow Hall its new venue, his somewhat gung-ho approach to life clicked in.
Now there are six performance of Carmen coming up in a vast marquee squatting over the back terrace of the house and a large section of its lawn. The pitched ranks of seats aren't in yet but already a rich baritone wafts boldly out across the garden, filling the summer air with promise.
There are constant rehearsals, opera singers and crew sleeping over and filling the cottage. The scene presents itself as an epic piece of English eccentricity for which the Gilmours' new home seems a totally appropriate setting.
"The thing to accept with a house like this is that you'll never sort it out, there will always be something else to do," says Gilmour. "But we wanted somewhere for our girls to come back to and to be proud of. It's cost us an absolute fortune — but it's a lovely house, for the children and their children after them, after we've wandered off into the sunset."
Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Fontane performs and directs Carmen at Winslow Hall on July 25, 27, 28, 30 and August 1 and 3 in a marquee in the stunning grounds, which are open for picnics during the 90-minute interval. The nearest railway station is Bletchley. Find all the details at winslowhallopera.co.uk.
Photographs by John Lawrence