Christmas at the 'perfect English house'

PUBLISHED: 13:31 08 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:37 20 February 2013

Unusual holly decorations

Unusual holly decorations

Burton Agnes Hall has been decked for Christmas and is open to the public. But when visitors leave , the owners celebrate the festive season with their young family. Tony Greenway meets them PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER

The Cunliffe-Listers aren't your average Yorkshire family. The clue is in that double-barrelled surname, and the fact that they live in one of the most beautiful privately owned Elizabethan halls in the county, if not the country.

It is stunning with manicured lawns, 40 or 50 acres or grounds, an award-winning walled garden, and a magnificent interior full to bursting with carvings, paintings, antique furniture and tapestries. It's open to the public - and has been for 60 years - so for a small fee you can check it out yourself. Author and Times columnist Simon Jenkins thought Burton Agnes Hall 'among the finest and best presented houses in England. It is the perfect English house, embodying the climax of the final great age of domestic architecture - Elizabethan.' 'It's a gem of a house,' says Simon Cunliffe-Lister, 'slightly tucked away in East Yorkshire.'

I tell him I've never visited the hall before, half expecting him to set the dogs on me - but he doesn't turn a hair. 'It's not a county people pass through,' he shrugs. 'You have to go to it.'

'We think the house looks lovely dressed for Christmas, so the idea was: "Let's open and show everyone else."'

When I visit, Susan, Simon's mother, is busy decorating the hall in preparation for its November opening. 'Traditionally, we've always closed for Christmas,' explains Simon. 'But three years ago we decided to open in the run-up to the festive period, partly because my mother was decorating the house anyway. It's a family home after all.We think the house looks lovely dressed for Christmas, so the idea was: "Let's open and show everyone else."'

It's been a great success, and people have told the Cunliffe-Listers that they've enjoyed the atmosphere of a traditionally decorated house: swags of yew, ivy and holly adorn the portraits, and sycamore branches with seedheads are sprayed silver and decorated with lights. In 2007, the hall received 57,000 visitors, 6,000 of whom came in November and December. So, right now, it's all hands on the decs. Who has the job of putting them up? 'It's pretty much us,' smiles Susan, glancing Simon and Olivia, his wife.

Simon inherited Burton Agnes Hall from the late Marcus Wickham-Boynton, the cousin of Susan's ex-husband Nicholas Cunliffe-Lister. Marcus had no children of his own, but wanted the estate to remain in the family after his death. 'I was 12 when he died,' says Simon, 'so my mum chaperoned the hall for me.'

During his twenties Simon made a career in London as a banker with Lloyds-TSB, but after his marriage to Olivia decided to give up city life and move back to East Yorkshire to manage the estate. The couple say they were eased into their new life at Burton Agnes thanks in part to their ancestral home at Swinton Park (now a luxury hotel) in Masham. 'When we took on the responsibility for Burton Agnes,' says Simon, 'we continued to live at Swinton Park, so we had a divided life. That probably kept our feet on the ground.'

Susan Cunliffe-Lister is the daughter of Viscount Willie Whitelaw, the late former chairman of the Conservative Party, Home Secretary and Margaret Thatcher's Deputy Prime Minster (of whom the Iron Lady once famously remarked: "Every Prime Minster needs a Willie.") While Susan was care-taking the house until Simon came of age, she created the fabulous walled garden in the grounds and now takes responsibility for making the traditional Christmas decorations festooned around the hall. 'I've always been into gardening and drying flowers,' she says.

'We use dried flowers in the house because fresh flowers always need changing and then you end up spilling water on the antique furniture.When we started opening the house at Christmas, I thought it would be nice to use plants from the countryside and the garden and grounds. That's how they would have done it in years gone by, so it seems to sit well with the house.'

Planning the festive dcor for a home this size isn't easy. 'I go out in February when the trees don't have leaves on, choose the branches I want, cut them, store them and spray them later in the year,' says Susan. 'Then I can put baubles and other decorations on them. I've been around some houses and they have a Christmas tree in every room. That's a bit boring.We do have a big Christmas tree from the estate in the Great Hall and another outside the front door; but I thought it might be nice to do something a bit different.'

For instance, Susan made a life-size Father Christmas in the hallway upstairs, which is certainly an unusual touch. But - hang on - this particular Santa looks remarkably like...'Donald, Rumsfeld, yes,' says Susan. 'I made the body out of wire netting and his suit was easy. But I wondered who I should model his face on and scoured the internet looking for suitable pictures. No pop star looks like Father Christmas, so I thought I'd try famous politicians. Tony Blair? No, he didn't work. But Rumsy fitted the bill.' And, to date, he hasn't frightened anyone off.

'I enjoy making the decorations,' says Susan. 'It's just a question of being really prepared and getting it all done in good time. The only trouble is, after I've decorated the hall, I then have to decorate Swinton Park.'

This is an important time of year for Simon and Olivia because they were married at Christmas four years ago, in nearby St Martin's Church. 'We had a candlelit service and a torch-lit procession back to the Hall,' says Simon. 'There was mulled wine and a brass band. It was magical.' So how will they celebrate the season this year when all the paying guests have left? 'One of Olivia's family traditions is a reading of T'was the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve,' says Simon. 'After that, we'll have smoked salmon and vodka.' 'Really cold vodka,' corrects Olivia. 'It's got to be cold. It's an extravagant Christmas Eve feast.' Afterwards, says Simon, there'll be the rushed filling of Christmas stockings ('Or rather,' he corrects himself, 'we put the stockings out in readiness for Santa.'), followed by midnight mass.

'On Christmas Day we get stuck into the presents and have Christmas lunch on the table in the Main Hall, where the kids can run around and enjoy themselves. In the afternoon, we have a big walk, either on the estate or on the coast because we're just five miles from the sea. And on Boxing Day we'll have a shoot.'

In the teeth of an economic downturn, it'll be hard to gauge visitor numbers this Christmas. 'It could swing either way,' admits Simon. 'If everyone decides not to go abroad for their holidays and find things to do on their doorstep, then we could be in for a busy time.' 'And,' says Olivia, 'a day out here is cheaper than a cinema ticket. I expect it will be a downturn in the weather, rather than the economy, that'll put people off.'

With a caf, shop, gardens and art gallery on board a working London RouteMaster bus, Burton Agnes Hall is a wonderful location. But it's especially inviting at Christmas. 'It's certainly a great privilege to live somewhere like this,' says Simon. 'There are definitely moments when I think: "This is an extraordinary place." These houses were built to entertain large groups of people, so at Christmas time it's really nice to organise a big family gathering and enjoy the surroundings.'

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