She was seven years old when she skipped over the threshold for the first time. I imagine the stone hallway echoing with the sharp intake of breath from the overawed child – then the clatter of her sensible little shoes as she ran hither and thither to explore.
Now Alexandra Sitwell Hayward is the lady of the house. Renishaw Hall, with its 5,000 acres, is all hers. The heels are higher, but the awe is still there.
It is a magnificent home, and an awesome responsibility. The 53-year-old says: “I feel very lucky; it’s a beautiful house and a privilege to be its custodian, though it is also a huge task. At the end of the day, it all rests on my shoulders now.
“But I have a team of very good advisers; people who have been with Renishaw for a long time and know it far better than me.”
Although her main home remains in Kensington – a house with a practical, modern kitchen and a pretty little gothic dining room which rather reminds her of Renishaw – she, husband Rick Hayward and their teenagers Rosie and Bertie have now moved into the Jacobean manor house with Georgian Regency additions. They will flit up and down the M1 to the stunning house once described as ‘the most romantic house in England’ just as she did in her childhood.
The only child of Sir Reresby and Lady Penelope Sitwell. she could not inherit his baronetcy, but she was thrilled to be given the keys to the 400-year-old estate, one of her father’s proudest possessions, a year his death in April 2009.
The elegant, friendly and unimposing woman who crossed the threshold as Renishaw’s latest custodian last year well remembers arriving here for the first time. It was months after her father had inherited the Sitwell estate from his unmarried uncle, Osbert. One of the famed Sitwell trio of siblings who became writers and patrons of the arts, Osbert had chosen to live in his Italian castle.
“That first time was so exciting. Right from the start, it seemed such an exciting place,” she says.
“The head gardener’s daughter Tina became my best friend. I was always a tomboy and we would tear around together. The gardens and the attic full of all sorts of curious things – it was heaven.”
Nevertheless, in those early days, Renishaw must also have been a daunting place. It certainly was for her parents.
In 1965, the house had only had electricity for seven years – and even then, oil lamps provided the lighting. Damp was seeping into the brickwork, bringing wallpaper peeling off in soft sheaths. Fires provided the only heating; the place was so cold, her parents often retreated to the family car to read the papers.
Alexandra remembers the cold. And the blackened exterior: “There was still mining around here too. Everything was sooty, even the grass.”
Her parents, who had met in 1951 in the antique furniture department of Fortnum and Mason, where her father was working – began the huge restoration on a very meagre budget.
Penelope was the granddaughter of the Earl of Granard but no matter how grand their connections, the couple had very little money in the early days and Reresby worked for a living as a wine merchant. Restoring their huge new second home in the country must have been a daunting proposition.
As a girl, Alexandra sewed new curtains with her mother while the staff painted the walls.
“They redecorated, regrouped furniture, had leaks fixed; everything they could to make it feel warmer and more homely,” she recalls. “They put in central heating in 1968, but even then we still needed the roaring fires. We still do.”
Things changed on Uncle Osbert’s death from Parkinson’s Disease. He left Reresby the castle in Tuscany, a picture of which still hangs in one of the hallways.
But Reresby knew he could never afford the upkeep on both properties. While many these days might plump for the Tuscan dream, Reresby opted for heritage and tradition. He sold off the castle, poured the money into Renishaw and saved an important piece of English history – and gardens regarded as among the finest in England.
They had been laid out in Italianate style by his grandfather, Sir George, the eccentric, outspoken MP for Scarborough and father of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, but had fallen into chaos.
The weeds were cleared, the shrubbery tamed and more planting commenced. In 1971, Reresby even turned part of the old walled kitchen garden into a vineyard -the most northerly in the world at that time.
He took the place from cobwebs, decay and decline to its peak of beauty. Many said that Renishaw had become a finer memorial to the Sitwells than any of their books or their support of the arts. Alexandra’s task is to maintain his work – and make her own mark. With just two live-in caretakers, a cook, three and a half gardeners and two ladies whose cleaning and dusting simply never stops, she is keeping the place in order. But she also has plans.
“Because of what my parents did here, it has been so much easier for me. They did all the groundwork. But when I came here there were things I wanted to do. A lot of opening things up and making it all feel much lighter. And introducing events to make the place more accessible and also more profitable.”
One day, she dreams of introducing a modern art collection. Though the owner of one of the most beautiful homes in the country expects she ‘will probably have to win the Lottery first’.
We’re chatting in the entrance hall, which she has made surprisingly cosy by grouping feather-stuffed sofas and chairs into intimate little room-sets. Magnificent landscape oils – of Venice and England’s great old houses – line the walls. They are the work of John Piper, a frequent Renishaw guest during World War II.
“Would you like coffee?” she asks. I’m half-expecting a butler to appear, but no: “Let’s go through to the kitchen,” she says, leading the way past an oil of her parents to a lovely, high-ceilinged room. The inky blue of the high old fireplace and range are echoed in the recently added kitchen cupboards and the wallpaper is a bold blue Chinoiserie.
She’s unscrewing a jar of instant when she realises there may be a little real stuff left in the vacuum jug on the kitchen table.
Would I like to see more of the house, asks Alexandra, who is carrying on the organised public tours initiated by her father. “He loved being able to show off the house and gardens and so do I,” she says. “People whose families have lived in this area for generations had never been inside. They are absolutely fascinated.”
The tours serve a hugely practical purpose, though; they bring in money towards the maintenance work and the heating bills, she explains as a succession of grand old rooms furnished for 21st century family life in soft, warm tones and faded pink chintz, give way to strong, striking hues, sumptuously-upholstered antique furniture, valuable objets d’art, glorious old paintings.
In the Great Drawing Room hangs John Singer Sargent’s portrait of her great-grandparents, Sir George and Lady Ida, with Osbert, sister Edith and brother Sacheverell as young children.
The ballroom, added in 1803, is one of her favourite rooms. In 1977, a ball was held here for her coming out, her father’s 50th and her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. “It was a wonderful night,” she reflects. We had 700 people, a marquee on the lawn. My mother and I had dresses designed by Raavis and all the married ladies wore tiaras.”
She and husband Rick had their reception room here after their marriage in the village church.Her mother’s keen but totally untrained design eye is hugely evident and everywhere are portraits of Sitwells past and present. In one room stands the instantly recognisable Cecil Beaton photograph of Dame Edith, poet, writer and style icon who died in 1964.
Alexandra looks nothing like her; the eccentric, theatrical dress sense and that strong, hooked nose clearly didn’t descend the family line, though a love of art and of Renishaw did; Alexandra worked in the art world up until she became the mistress of Renishaw. and arts patron Edith was deeply attached to her childhood home. But one of the most outspoken women of her generation never got to own it, or dictate its future.
How much she would have envied her great-niece.
Renishaw Hall, museum and gardens are open Thursday-Sunday until September 30, including Bank Holidays. Tours of the hall are on Fridays, 12.30pm and 2.30pm and 90-minute tasting tours of the vineyard (£6) on September 4 and 18. Guided Christmas Hall tours are on December 5 at 3pm and 6pm. Tours should be booked in advance. Call 01246 432 310 or email email@example.com