TV presenter Sarah Beeny on A Great British Christmas at Rise Hall in East Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 19:52 02 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:42 24 October 2015

Sarah and Graham get into the Georgian holiday spirit

Sarah and Graham get into the Georgian holiday spirit


Sarah Beeny at home in East Yorkshire

Property guru Sarah Beeny doesn’t do small, quiet family Christmases because she doesn’t have a small, quiet family.

‘The minimum number sitting round the Christmas lunch table is 20,’ she said. ‘Quiet and intimate, it is not.’

Sarah will be celebrating in London this year with her husband Graham Swift, their four lively boys Billy, Charlie, Rafferty and Laurie and their extended family, but she’ll be in Yorkshire for the New Year, bringing her large, noisy crowd to Rise Hall, the enormous 19th century property she bought in 2001 and has since painstakingly restored.

‘We can’t do Christmas at Rise this year because we have a wedding booked in just a couple of days later and didn’t want the team having to clear up our mess,’ she explained. ‘We’ll fill Rise quite easily for the New Year though. It won’t know what’s hit it.’

It’s a little ironic that Sarah won’t be having Christmas at Rise this year as she’s been filming a one-off festive programme for Channel 4 about that very subject throughout 2013.

‘We’ve been filming over a long time, basically from last Christmas to this,’ she said. ‘It’s such a massive subject, but it’s also been massive fun.’

The show takes Sarah and her family through traditional Yorkshire Christmases at Rise Hall from the Georgian era to the Victorian festive boom, through wartime austerity and on to today’s modern consumer-fest.

‘It was the little things I liked most, especially from the wartime Christmas when it was the little things that saw them through,’ she said. ‘I hadn’t come across the tradition of threading popcorn and hanging it on the Christmas tree before – we’ll certainly be adopting that in our house this year, although I suspect most of the popcorn will be eaten by the boys before it goes anywhere near the tree.’

The show is primarily about the differences between our festivities over time, but Sarah was also struck by the similarities, most notably between the Victorian Christmas and our own contemporary celebrations.

‘We have obviously gone completely mad now, buying ridiculous amounts of stuff and stocking our homes with mountains of food,’ she said. ‘But that’s not actually too dissimilar to the Victorian Christmas. They were wanton consumerists too. They bought almost as much stuff as we do.

‘For the Georgians, however, Christmas seems to have been all about repulsive food. They used to have a fish head in the middle of the table and eat the tongue. I can tell you, it tastes disgusting.’

Through seemingly endless hours of research and numerous dress-up days for the cameras, Sarah has come to realise that Christmas is basically about two things: dancing and feasting. And, if push comes to shove, we can live without the dancing.

‘Christmas is all about children now but there have been times, most notably the Victorian era, when children were totally irrelevant,’ she said. ‘The Victorians actually got rid of the children before they started dancing and feasting. They simply were not part of their Christmas equation.’

Children are, however, very much part of Sarah’s own Christmas. Her boys play an important role in her television special, relishing (for the most part) the chance to dress up and throw themselves into numerous festive activities. And, come Christmas morning in the Beeny-Swift household, it’s all about Billy, Charlie, Rafferty and Laurie.

‘Thankfully, my boys are very lazy,’ said Sarah. ‘They’ll stay up late on Christmas Eve, probably watching a Batman film, and will still be snoring at 9am on Christmas morning. It’ll be me that starts making a racket just to get them up and unwrapping.’

The rise of Rise

Rise Hall, which sits a little inland from the coast between Hornsea and Beverley, was built by architects Watson and Pritchett between 1815 and 1820 for Richard Bethell, the High Sheriff of Yorkshire.

It remained the Bethell family seat until after the Second World War, when it was leased to St Philomena’s Convent School. When the school closed, the house was left empty and increasingly derelict until Sarah Beeny and her husband Graham Swift bought it in 2001.

‘We both have a passion for British heritage and were excited not only about rescuing an important building but also creating a family home which has the capacity to host fabulous weddings and events,’ said Sarah. ‘Above all, our aim has always been to fill Rise Hall with people, laughter and fun. Now it’s properly up and running, we hope everyone finds it as magical a place to be as we do.’

Rise is now an important part of its community again, providing jobs (both directly and indirectly) and a sense of local pride. It’s quickly built an enviable reputation as a premium wedding venue and is beginning to tap into the birthday celebration, anniversary, baby-naming and conference markets as well as providing a stunning backdrop for photoshoots.

The Rise Hall restoration project has proved a vertiginously steep learning curve, even for someone with Sarah’s ample experience in the property business, but she believes the blood, sweat and occasional tears that have gone into its regeneration have been well worth it.

‘Graham was always confident we were doing the right thing,’ she said. ‘I was the doubting Thomas. But, of course, it turns out he was absolutely right. He’s driven the project along from day one, and he still very much drives the business now.’

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