Chatsworth to spend £50 million on restoration, build 1,000 homes and create 1,000 jobs

The roofers are in at Chatsworth. Opposite the 470-year-old estate's main office, just before visitors reach the road that snakes down to reveal breathtaking views of the magnificent Grade I-listed country house, men can be seen mounting ladders to carry out repairs at a cottage on the charmingly-named Teapot Row.

Friday, 14th February 2020, 11:45 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th February 2020, 5:38 pm

It's a small job compared to the £32 million restoration - famously involving 1,500 sheets of fine gold leaf to embellish the window frames - that concluded in 2018 at the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire's stately home in the Peak District.

But carefully maintaining this little cluster of properties in the village of Edensor is part of a much bigger plan to protect Chatsworth's future and ensure it thrives over the next decade.

"We've been here for centuries and we're going to be here for centuries," says Stephen Vickers, chief executive of the Devonshire Group which also encompasses Bolton Abbey in North Yorkshire, the Compton Estate in Eastbourne and Lismore Castle in Ireland.

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The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth House.

"This is about custodianship and stewardship in the long term. Our role is to help the family hand it on from generation to generation in a way they can be proud of."

Stephen previously looked after the business interests of another aristocratic family, the Bucchleuchs, and since 2019 has steered the Duke of Devonshire's ventures alongside Andrew Lavery, CEO of the Chatsworth House Trust, who arrived four years ago after jobs in finance and aviation.

Together they have worked on a document called 'Our Commitment to Our Shared Future: 10 Goals for 10 Years'. This sets out Chatsworth's priorities for the 2020s, from spending a further £50 million on restoring properties and grounds to building 1,000 homes on family-owned land, creating 1,000 jobs and improving transport links to reduce visitors' reliance on their cars. The wide-ranging plan includes goals around apprenticeships, using local suppliers, partnering with schools and cutting waste and emissions - targets with a social impact, extending far beyond the generation of cash.

"Needless to say, there was lots of debate getting 50 goals down to 10," says Andrew.

Chatsworth House, the stately home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

"When people think of Chatsworth they probably think of Chatsworth House, 100 acres of garden and 1,000 acres of park, and that's it. But actually the core estate just around Chatsworth is about 12,000 acres, and then elsewhere in Derbyshire we've got other blocks of land. And then there's Bolton Abbey as well. We always try to think about both key estates and the whole group. Many people don't realise how big and diverse it is."

Stephen and Andrew talk of the all-important 'Chatsworth experience', which they describe as 'like being welcomed into the family'.

"That comes right down from the Duke and Duchess," says Andrew. "They are actually delighted that 250,000 people wander round their house every year - it's probably a million when you count events and people walking into the park. The whole estate can be shared."

Whether they are staying in a Devonshire Group hotel, seeing an exhibition, taking their children to the Chatsworth farmyard or simply buying jam from one of the gift shops, visitors' expectations are extremely high.

Stephen Vickers and Andrew Lavery at Chatsworth. Picture: Jason Chadwick

"We wouldn't want it any other way," Stephen says. "The challenge for us is to live up to it. But it's not a bad challenge to have."

The £50 million investment will be spread over the 10 years, Andrew emphasises, while admitting the sum is a 'huge number'.

"People won't realise how much it costs to keep these buildings from falling down," he says. "At some point we'll tackle the stables at Chatsworth, and the cascade in the garden. It needs a severe restoration. The water runs straight through it rather than over it because all the pointing has been washed away. We probably do a kilometre of drystone walling every year."

Meanwhile, parking is a 'hot topic', Andrew says. The popular Christmas Markets – one of Chatsworth’s prime annual events along with the RHS flower show and the Country Fair – were affected by last year’s floods, meaning cars could not be parked on the grass as usual. Large aluminium pads were brought in to prevent the lawns from being churned up by tyres, but numbers still had to be limited.

"We'll never get away from the geographical challenge," says Stephen. "We are in a rural area, and a national park as well. We can't just create car parks wherever we want."

However, year-on-year, car numbers have fallen while visitor numbers have held up, suggesting measures to encourage public transport use - like offering a discount on admission to bus passengers - are working.

Elsewhere, the group's housing developments are coming to fruition. The Chatsworth estate has owned the site of the old Staveley Works iron and steel factory in Chesterfield since the 17th century - 700 homes are going to be created there, plus a marina and shops.

"The reality is that the UK has a demand for housing," says Stephen. "We have land to deliver against the Government's ambition. But centuries ago we were the builders of communities. Around here you've got all the villages that were built as part of the estate. It's continuing that legacy. We do know what a good place to live looks like."

Such schemes do generate a return for Chatsworth, he says. "But it's a very long and expensive process to go through. It starts several decades ahead. And also, in somewhere like Staveley, the house prices are not that large. I don't want to paint a picture that this is rivers of gold heading towards Chatsworth. It's hard work to deliver these houses."

The wider group's annual turnover is around £70 million, led by the visitor and hotel business.

"We don't generally do anything where you throw a penny in at one end and £100 comes out at the other," says Stephen. "We generally do a lot of things with relatively small margins."

Another 10-year goal is to enable every child in local schools to experience the estate as part of their primary education, either through coach trips or a 'virtual presence' in classrooms.

"Someone from a more deprived background might think 'What's Chatsworth got for me? It's just fine art and cream teas'. But it's not. It's the outdoors - Chatsworth on prescription, the idea that your mental health and wellbeing can be improved by an enriched experience in a countryside setting," Stephen says.

The joy of being a boss at Chatsworth is that 'no two days are the same', Andrew reflects. "The Duke and Duchess are wonderful and they're lovely people to work for."

Stephen believes the stresses of life as a chief executive must be offset with enjoyment. "You're spinning too many plates, and there's too many things that could potentially go wrong if you mess it up, to do it for any other reason than it being what you love to do."

And the path to making sure Chatsworth loses none of its specialness by 2030 can easily be found, Stephen thinks.

"Its charm and integrity comes from the fact we don't mess around with it too much. We want people to go away from Chatsworth having felt they've got more than just a day's entertainment. It sounds a little bit highfalutin but that's not the intention - Chatsworth has always been that place that people come to learn, to engage and to inspire. We've got to make sure we continue that."