Uniqueness is key, according to Archie Montgomery at North Cadbury Court in Somerset. The house, which has been owned by the Montgomery family for over a century, has been the site of a thriving weddings and events business for the last eight years – and establishing distinct points of difference has been vital to success in such a crowded and competitive market.
One such feature at the Grade I property is the presence of a casino, where visitors can try their hand at roulette, blackjack and poker in one of two former wine cellars (the other one houses a full-blown DIY disco).
“They just play for chips, we have no commercial stake, so we don’t need a licence,” says Archie. “Visitors can hire in a croupier to enhance the experience if they want. We once appeared in a ‘10 most crazy casinos in the world’ article.” Another standout feature is the rooftop putting green and golf tee. “It’s the first tee for our three-hole golf course,” explains Archie. “It’s a tough course – the first green is 300 yards away over a bunker, lapping onto the lake.
“This is unlike most old Elizabethan houses in that we’ve got a flat area behind the parapets, so it’s a perfect spot for guests to have a cocktail and enjoy the view. Not many people come here who don’t go up and hit a ball off the top!” Alongside the features you might expect to encounter at a country house, such as fishing lakes and tennis courts, there’s also an air-pistol shooting range in an area created under the walled garden and a swimming pool made from stone quarried on estate land.
“Another of the reasons we were confident that the house would work as an events venue was because we have, unusually, two very big rooms, each of which can accommodate 150 people seated. Most old houses are lucky if they have one decent size hall, so that’s quite an ace in our hands. We knew we’d never need a marquee – and that’s a big draw.”
“You have to be that little bit different,” explains Archie. “The concept of fun is sometimes overlooked, too. Whatever guests want, we’ll try to accommodate. That’s why we have lots of ‘toys’ – everything from an archery range to giant bumper balls that clients can roll down the park in. We’ve even got pedalos on the yacht club lake.”
The setting and its historical associations also contribute to the unique offering. Cadbury Castle, inextricably linked with King Arthur’s Camelot court, is within the estate’s curtilage. “Walking up the hill to it is a great hangover cure for visitors,” says Archie. Meanwhile, the house is surrounded by lush ground, grazed by the dairy herd from which Archie’s brother, Jamie, produces the prize-winning Montgomery’s Cheddar.
The Covid-19 pandemic has, of course, presented huge challenges and caused great disruption to weddings, which account for more than 50% of business. “I feel desperately sorry for people who are hoping to have one of the most important days of their lives – only to have had to postpone it not once, not twice, but even up to three times, with constant uncertainty about what’s round the corner.
“Some can carry on, on a small scale, but it’s very hard for us to put a budget together. We’re looking at every option as to how we can keep the house earning money and, crucially, keep the staff employed.”
The family feeling
An abiding principle in any endeavour at North Cadbury Court is to retain the place’s feel as a family home.
The atmosphere is absolutely critical. We’ve deliberately left lots of family photos up. It’s as if we moved out yesterday. We’re not a stuffy baronial property - this is a living, breathing family home that is comfortable and fun.
“You can’t ever be complacent and that’s why we keep changing the offering and adding to the property. We’re currently adding another 16 bedrooms by converting a coach house.”
So where do these ideas come from? “Probably me,” says Archie. “I enjoy coming up with ideas, bouncing them off people and seeing how they evolve. Of course, it’s one thing having ideas – another thing actually doing them so I do try to see them through. “We’ve had to invest an immense amount of money to get where we are,” he says. “Sorting out the plumbing and heating of the house was eye-watering, but it’s investment which isn’t lost because it’s added to the capital value of the property.
“I’ve also had to learn a lot during this whole process, such as about people management and social media. We’ve employed really top-grade staff. My wife, Janet, has particularly strong people skills so she’s pulled a fantastic team together.
“I enjoy strategising. I’m also the trouble-shooter, so if the boiler breaks down or the cooker has a wobble before a wedding feast, that’s my domain.” Archie says that when they first started out, they knew nothing about hospitality and the service industry. “We only knew what we liked ourselves. One of the things I’ve always abhorred are hidden costs so we said: If we’re going to make an offering, everything has to be up front." This meant that, from day one, there were no extras such as corkage charges - which has proved popular.
One of the great joys of the journey that the family have undertaken over the last eight years is seeing more of the building enjoyed, compared with when they solely lived there. “Back then, we effectively only used half the building. Now, to see every room – every nook and cranny – properly, fully used is very gratifying. It’s what the house was built for.
“Going into the events business was a big decision to take, but we’ve kept control of the house and it’s still our family home. We’ve spent money that’s a one-in-a-100-year spend on structural items such as roofing and walls, but it means when we’re all gone the house will still be there and in a better condition than it had been.
“Ultimately, we’re all only life tenants and we’re all proud of what we’re doing here.”