Lancashire’s oldest ancestral home has been revived to support several diverse enterprises thanks to the ambition of CLA members Robert and Amanda Parker.
Brownsholme Hall, a 620-acre estate in the Forest of Bowland, has been home to 13 generations of the Parker family for more than 500 years. The Grade I building was constructed in 1507, and the current estate includes 150 acres of woodland and forestry, two tenanted livestock farms and nine cottages and farmhouses.
Robert, who grew up in East Anglia, inherited the estate without warning when he was 20 from Col. Parker (DSO), his fourth cousin once removed. “My cousin lived in the house, which was fully staffed, in 1938,” he explains. “When he came back from the Second World War, he found agricultural rents had fallen to the extent that the estate could no longer support maintenance and repairs or rising wages. By 1975 there were no staff, the water supply was poisonous, the electricity supply dangerous and the Hall in a poor state.”
Undeterred by the task at hand, the family moved to Lancashire from their home near Cambridge in 1978. Only three years earlier, the Labour government had introduced a conditional exemption from death duty on Grade I and II* listed buildings; previously, this only applied to historically associated objects. Without this relief, Browsholme Hall would have been sold. The main condition of the exemption regime was to allow public access, so it was agreed that the house would be open to visitors for 28 days a year.
Today it is open for more than 140 days, welcoming 10,000 day visitors, coach parties and wedding guests.
Robert and his wife Amanda took up residence in the main house in 1988, joining his parents, who had converted the east wing for modern family living. Over the following years, this energetic generation introduced novel enterprises, including paintballing, farmers’ markets, craft fairs, and open-air jazz and opera concerts. Inspired by a visit to Layer Marney Tower in Essex, the couple embarked on a journey to transform a Grade II listed stone-built barn – Tithew Barn - into a multipurpose venue.
“Our strategy in 2008 was to construct a modern range of livestock buildings to secure the future of the home farm, thereby releasing the traditional range of farm buildings for another use,” Robert says.
Everything we do is deeply rooted in our family values, sustainable practices and local communities
It took three years to convert the buildings, which cover 3,000 square feet, and they were immediately used to host exhibitions, concerts, markets and private functions. Within a few years, it was clear that weddings would become the main source of revenue, and in 2022, the award-winning venue attracted 100 private functions.
Amanda and daughter Eleanor conduct viewings for couples, and an events team delivers the function. There are 27 other competing venues in the borough – more than anywhere else in England – and a limited supply of overnight accommodation. Undaunted, Amanda and Robert developed 10 micro lodges in a nearby ‘woodland glade’ for wedding guests and short-stay holidays; the addition was transformational. By also using two cottages for guests, the venue can cater for up to 30 overnight guests – and attracts 1,000 bed nights per year.
“To ensure a quick turnaround, we provide our guests with an early breakfast in another farm building converted into a kitchen and dining area. Getting guests out early ensures we clean and turn around the ‘woodland glade’ for the next day’s guests; it is also used as a tearoom for day visitors to the Hall and gardens.”
A sustainability ethos
Sustainability has been at the heart of all family decisions on the estate. The barn restoration included underfloor heating, with energy provided by a 20Kw ground source heat pump. As heat pumps were not found to be practical for heating the hall itself, a 199Kw wood chip biomass boiler was installed in 2015, and uses timber from the estate’s 150-acre woodland. Each year, two acres are felled and chipped for the boiler, which also heats two cottages and the tearoom, and any excess wood can also be used. This ethos extends to include water usage, electric vehicle charging, the sourcing of produce for the tearoom, and recycling.
Covid-19 was exhausting for Robert and Amanda as most staff were furloughed. Amanda and Eleanor had to sensitively manage the 60-plus weddings that been booked pre-pandemic, of which only a few ended up being cancelled.
Robert says: “It changed the way we manage enterprises, and we successfully applied for bounce back loans and cultural recovery grants, and because we are a Grade I listed house, we applied for a major works grant from Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund to repair the hall roof.”
Any venture has challenges. For the Parker family, this related to funding, planning consent in a listed environment and dealing with endless regulations.
Reflecting on the future, Robert says: “Our work here is 24/7 and we are still working on recovering the estate from its decline in 1975. Even now, we are only halfway through what is an 80-year project. We now employ eight full-time, 12 part-time and 15-plus casual members of staff, and eight volunteer guides, all of whom help connect the estate to the local community and beyond.
“Everything we do is deeply rooted in our family values, sustainable practices and local communities. Both our children, Roland and Eleanor, are becoming more involved in future decisions, and no doubt will adapt the business strategy of the estate to their circumstances.
“Our current project is to recreate the wilderness garden of the mid-18th century, which was shaped in a Union Jack, as well as creating a woodland garden with rhododendron and other ornamental trees.
“It will take time to establish, but our view has always been that we will continue to enhance the estate along sustainable principles for the enjoyment of the family and our visitors.”