Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


It is the most extraordinary and wonderful of challenges. The scale of Elveden Hall in Suffolk is daunting, but for a restoration drama it is hard to beat. The vast central Indian Hall – its crowning glory – has been described as the most accomplished and spectacular single room in any of Britain's Edwardian country houses. This exotic, domed fantasy – with soaring walls coated in white Carrara marble – is just one part of Elveden Hall, which has suffered from years of emptiness and gradual decay. Lord Iveagh, Edward Guinness, and his wife Clare have set themselves the task of restoring the Hall and finding a future for one of Suffolk's most intriguing country homes, so rich in design and with such a wealth of stories and history.

It could well prove to be a lifetime's work, given the epic grandeur of the Hall, spread over three floors with vast cellars below and parkland all around. But the Iveaghs are both patient and pragmatic, as well as innovative, taking the project one careful step at a time while making sure that the surrounding Elveden Estate – spread over 23,000 acres – supports both itself and the gradual restoration of the Hall.

"Making the Estate pay for itself and contribute to the upkeep of the Hall has been a challenge," says the Earl of Iveagh, a descendant of the Guinness brewing family, who inherited Elveden at the age of 21. "The Estate is a big asset but wasn't, historically, very profitable. It was not a runway enterprise and was sometimes a headache for my father. I'm proud of our ability to retain, grow and improve the Estate – with the Hall being the heritage jewel."

The first grand country house was built here in the 1760s by Admiral Keppel. But it was the flamboyant Maharajah Duleep Singh who transformed the house in the 1860s, creating an extraordinary homage to his Indian homeland and an extraordinary base from which to indulge his passion for shooting. As a child, Singh was removed from his property and territory in the Punjab by the British government, as well as being forced to relinquish the notorious Koh-i-Noor diamond. In compensation, Singh was granted a controversial pension and bought Elveden in 1863.

The Maharajah's Wing, which still survives with many of its original features in tact, was designed by his architect John Norton, with a sequence of startling spaces coated in ornate plasterwork, mirrored ceilings and a sweeping marble staircase. The Wing's vibrant colours were whitewashed around the turn of the century by the First Earl of Iveagh, who used part of his Guinness fortune to reinvent the Hall and the Estate.

The Earl commissioned William and Clyde Young to double the size of the Hall, as well as asking Caspar Purdon Clarke – the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum and an expert in Indian decoration – to design the Indian Hall to link the new and the old. At the same time, Lord Iveagh radically modernized the Estate, building vast servants blocks, sculpted gardens, a water tower and stables. His shooting parties were legendary and a royal favourite.

Yet the Hall itself is largely unchanged since the 1930s, when the last great parties were held here. The American Air Force requisitioned the Hall in World War II to use as a headquarters – their stenciled office numbers and directions still visible on the wallpaper. Although the Estate was well tended, the family concentrated their lives on Dublin and London and Edward Iveagh's father sold the contents of the Hall at auction in 1984.

"We only came for fleeting visits to Elveden when I was a child," says Edward Iveagh, who mostly grew up in Dublin, at the family house of Farmleigh, now owned by the Irish state, and later studied at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. "I remember really enjoying playing with my go-kart on the parquet floors when I was 5 or 6, which must have made someone's life a misery, but the Hall was mostly empty. But from the age of 11 or 12 my father did send the Elveden Estate Office weekly minutes, wherever I was, at school or home."

The Iveaghs moved up to Elveden in 2001 and married in the nearby Church of St Andrew and St Patrick, which the first Earl much extended and where Duleep Singh and his wife are buried. Clare had studied in England and the States and had worked in interior design and public relations. Together the Iveaghs began updating the image of Estate, as well as finishing a five year project to update their own rectory home, close to the Hall.

"I was really struck by the natural beauty of the Estate when I first came," says Clare Iveagh. "It's relatively quiet here, like parts of Wales and Scotland. I loved the Hall, too, but the inside more than the outside perhaps. It has grown on me. I love the Maharajah's Wing especially, which is fabulous."

The rectory is the focus of the Iveaghs family life, shared with their two young sons, Rupert and Arthur. Parts of the rectory dates back to the 1740s, but it was largely rebuilt in the 1930s Edward Iveagh's grandfather, who died at a young age in World War II. The Iveaghs have respected the character of the house – and gardens – but have made many changes, including opening up the warren of small rooms around the kitchen to create a large, open plan family living area, which has become the focal point of the house.

It is a short walk both to the Hall and also to the new stables, where Clare Iveagh indulges a passion for carriage driving. It's a sport that she took up six years ago, using the grounds for practice all year round and now competing around the country. Her husband often serves within her team, making competitions something of a family outing.

On the Estate itself, the Iveaghs have established a new brand identity for Elveden, as well as launching a range of Elveden shops plus a restaurant and farm store within a range of Victorian farm buildings. The shops and restaurant have been running for two years, selling own brand Elveden foods, soaps and cosmetics as well as plenty of other local and regional produce.

"This is what Ned and I have always wanted to do," says Lady Iveagh. "We sat down and designed all the livery and created a brand identity that talked about the history of the Estate without feeling antiquated. Having done some pr, and with my father having been involved in creating and marketing brands most of his life, it's something I have grown up with. It's our face to the world."

Edward Iveagh is now looking to increase the level of Elveden branded products going into supermarkets, as the Estate continues to raise its own marketing profile. But it is already a vast enterprise, with around 10,000 acres of farmland on the Estate producing great quantities of grain, as well as onions and potatoes. Other Elveden businesses include Christmas trees, while conservation work is also taken very seriously, with a team of six gamekeepers looking after not just the shoots but wildlife and rare bird populations, such as the stone curlews who like to nest in the onion fields.

"We have to be good managers of the Estate and that includes re-investing in the business," says Iveagh. "It has to pay its way and contribute to its own improvement and generate enough income to help restore the Hall. The shops really help us showcase Elveden and the brand. There is so much to proud of and the history here is so rich and deep. We've always been proud of that but historically have kept it to ourselves so now we need to link with the consumer and it's vital that people can relate to us and what we do."

The Hall itself is used only occasionally, mostly for NSPCC balls and occasional events supported by the Iveaghs, as well as becoming a film backdrop, with a starring role in Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The restoration process of the Grade II * listed building is slow and painstaking, using a small but dedicated Estate team of craftsmen. Much of the effort so far has been on reroofing the Hall and making it water tight – an independent process, carried forward without government grants.

"I have to manage the restoration step by step, so that I know that we really can complete each project that we have started," says Iveagh. "I have not put any time frame on the restoration because I want to avoid the sensation of having failed in any way. It's easy to set yourself a deadline and then to feel defeated if you don't meet it.

"Realistically, it's two steps forward and one step. Looking at the fabric of the house and under floorboards there can be more nasty surprises than pleasant. It's like the Forth Bridge, in a way, and there will always be things that need to be done. But if we can get the major works completed, then it would be an achievement. We are proud of reroofing the Maharajah's Wing out of our own resources but it is a lifetime's project. Like any family custodian, the objective is to pass it on in a far better condition than when I inherited."

Lady Iveagh, though, admits not just to a love of the Maharajah's Wing, but can foresee a time when the family might just move into part of the Hall. "Ned is very pragmatic and careful," she says. "I have a million ideas. I am already choosing carpets and curtains and everything else. He can't bear it because it puts him under pressure. But you can't help but think, wouldn't it be nice…"

Elveden Estate –