Miserden Estate, situated among the rolling hills at the heart of the Cotswolds countryside, is a traditional estate with a Jacobean manor and beautifully landscaped gardens at its centre. It’s the epitome of English charm, but until recently it was clear that without major investment it would not fulfil its true potential as a thriving and dynamic rural community. It is a challenge that Nicholas Wills, who took over the reins from his father, Major Tom Wills, in 2017, has grasped with relish. After university, Nicholas spent 10 years in the Coldstream Guards, where he rose to be Company Commander. Joining the Army was not an automatic choice, he says. “I was really keen to stay in agriculture, but I realised that by doing that I probably wouldn’t ever leave the county, let alone the country. So I joined the Army to gain wider experience and broaden my horizons.” That experience has given him the confidence to “jump in feet first” when modernising the estate. At the age of 34, he feels he has the energy to change the way the business runs.
Many would see Miserden’s ‘off the beaten track’ location as a significant challenge, particularly in terms of attracting commercial tenants. This is summed up by the fact the village was once given the title of having “Britain’s worst broadband speeds”. Nicholas has changed that with the implementation of superfast broadband and the installation of a mobile 4G mast, situated on the approach into the village. It has been instrumental in attracting tenants both commercial and residential. He had the foresight to make the most of it when the roads were dug up during the installation of a huge new biomass system. With the footings in place, he decided to implement fibreoptic broadband for the village. “We installed a blank conduit to enable fibre-optic cables to be subsequently drawn through,” he says. The installation of the mobile mast was achieved by encouraging a commercial operator to take advantage of government support for a site that would have otherwise been considered unviable. By the time he left the Army, Nicholas had already embarked on the project to install the biomass heating system that today serves 38 properties. Engagement with the tenants was crucial. “We held a number of meetings in the village hall. It was important to get the tenants on side with such a huge project,” he says. But with the promise of reducing tenants’ heating bills, it was clearly a winwin project. The heating system was initially run off bought-in softwood, but now it runs on hardwood from the estate’s forest. Elsewhere, unused barns, previously part of the estate’s dairy enterprise, are being transformed into light industrial units. One recent conversion has brought challenges of its own. Its idyllic location on the hilltop overlooking the valley has views to inspire and will create a fantastic working environment. However, daily checks from bat conservationists significantly held up work, as did the long winter. To mitigate the concerns, bat access points were installed in the roof of the converted barn appeasing the bat conservation officer while making little impact on the look of the building. Other unused barns are being converted or utilised for new projects – the former cattle housing is now used as the drying store for woodchip, while another barn now houses a stonemasonry commercial tenant, for example.
“Modern estates have to have a commercial outlook and really look at enterprises that aren't profit making"
In addition to its 77 residential properties and 31 commercial tenants, the estate has an 11- acre garden, which is open to the public six days a week. A key part of Nicholas’ strategy has been to rebrand the estate. “It sounds very corporate, but it meant giving us a unified identity,” he says. As well as broadening the appeal of the estate to a wider demographic, the rebrand has been the springboard for other things, including a new website and the introduction of social media. The garden’s opening hours were doubled and two unused greenhouses were converted to house the café. Nicholas also saw the opportunity for Miserden Nursery, which specialises in herbaceous perennials. “The nursery is an entirely independent operation run by commercial tenants. They were happy to run it in partnership with the garden and café, as well as take on the Miserden brand ethos.” A pop-up restaurant has also been introduced, giving chefs from all over Gloucestershire the platform to show off their culinary skills. “It enables them to work without the overheads of a restaurant,” Nicholas says. In the first year, garden visitor numbers have increased from 1,900 per annum to 7,500.
Nicholas has always been clear about wanting to maintain the integrity of the estate. “I want to retain what is important: I want to work with what we’ve got here,” he says. “You need to be sympathetic. It’s a complete balancing act. Modern estates have to have a commercial outlook and really look at enterprises that aren’t profit making – you have to drill down and work out what will break even.” This includes farming – the sheep flock is being increased from its former 370 ewes to 1,200 by 2020. There are currently 865 ewes and Nicholas is honest in admitting the smaller flock was unsustainable. In future, he will be making more use of the estate trees for biomass heating and future renovation or build projects, and he also hopes to be able to sell a small quantity of firewood. He wishes to continue building on the relationships his father built with the tenants and plans to convert more buildings and further improve Miserden’s growing commercial community. With its rural surroundings, thoroughly modern building conversions and high-speed internet and mobile coverage you’d expect to find in a city, Miserden is increasingly appealing to commercial tenants and a younger demographic that wants to raise families and build business in a vibrant, connected countryside community. “Community is central to everything we do – we need to keep people in rural jobs,” Nicholas says. His passion for the estate is clear and the changes he has implemented since taking over have been significant, but they have not eliminated the traditional feel of the estate. Today, it is a vibrant, inspiring village with all the beauty and charm you expect of rural Cotswolds. Nicholas is indeed a place shaper.
Nicholas Wills' Top Tips
- Teamwork is important. Maintain relationships with everyone, including your tenants, your contractors and staff
- Create a balance between the time spent behind the desk working on solutions and ways forward, and getting stuck in and getting your hands dirty
- Always do your market research when establishing new enterprise