TWENTY-TWO YEARS AT THE HELM OF STANSTED
By James Cooper Born 1958-
Former Director, Stansted Park Foundation
During 1996, I was visiting my family who then lived on Hayling Island, when they took us for a visit to Stansted House. I was captivated when walking down the main avenue in front of the House. I was immediately attracted to it and felt that this was the kind of place that I would like to manage. As on my very first visit, I still see a magnificent house set in an extraordinary landscape.
My career up to that point had been to qualify in ‘Rural Land Management’ at Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester (established in 1845, as the first agricultural college in the English-speaking world). I qualified as a chartered surveyor in the rural sector.
I had already spent a year in Australia and had worked for the National Trust first in Cornwall, and later worked for fifteen years in Kent and East Sussex. With the National Trust I had become very involved in the ‘heritage sector’, including, for example, managing Chartwell – Winston Churchill’s home – Scotney Castle, and the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’. So, in 1997, I regarded it as a huge privilege to be offered an appointment as Director at Stansted Park Foundation.
The Stansted Estate has a long history going back to Norman times. It has changed family ownership many times and has been rebuilt, and rebuilt again after a fire in 1900. It has been visited by many monarchs over the years.
The Stansted Park Foundation is more recent, being set up in 1983 by Fredrick Ponsonby, the 10th Earl of Bessborough, who died 1993. The main reason for setting up the foundation as a charitable trust was because of insufficient capital funding to sustain the large estate.
The objects of the trust can be summarised to ‘preserve the estate in perpetuity’, and ‘provide public access, enjoyment and education’. In educational terms, an estate such as Stansted offers everything from archaeology to zoology.
The Chairman of the Trust is currently Myles Ponsonby, the 12th Earl of Bessborough – a cousin of Frederick, the 10th Earl who established the ‘Foundation’. The Board of Trustees meets quarterly and the seven trustees were closely involved with planning and direction.
My role as Director was to provide a management service to them, with my main aim to generate income to meet the charitable objects – in a way that was sympathetic to the landscape and historic elements of the estate.
Management of Stansted
By nature, the manager of such a large and diverse estate delegates many responsibilities. While I sometimes felt like ‘a Jack of All Trades but master of none’, I delegated to: a House Manager for the House and related spaces such as offices for commercial letting – some 20,000 square feet; a Head Forester for the ongoing conservation and management of the woodlands including adapting to ‘climate change’, as well as leasing agricultural land for farming; the Head Gardner for management of the grounds around the House and ; the Buildings Manager for buildings of all types – domestic and agricultural – right across the estate.
Challenges and Achievements
The challenges that I knew that I was addressing focussed largely on securing funding both to maintain and then to improve the estate and its buildings for contemporary use. I am proud to have increased revenues six-fold during my twenty-two-year tenure.
It was generally agreed that the House was considered sacrosanct and that any changes were highly sensitive developments, and that other commercial developments should be ‘within the character of the place’.
The Walled Garden and the Garden Centre attract huge numbers of visitors daily and were useful in taking visitor pressure off the House so that it did not become crowded. Considerable investment was put into visitor facilities so that the main car park doubled to over 300 spaces, required moving some 20,000 tons of soil.
The Farm Shop was also a major asset, built with timber from the estate, using traditional carpentry construction methods. In the Walled Garden, plans are under way to complete the restoration of the original glasshouses, using modern materials.
The Garden Centre was totally refurbished in my last year in office, to make it more attractive.
One of the elements that defines a successful estate is that it creates a sense of community or ‘family’ embracing all employees, volunteers and ‘Friends of Stansted’ (FoS), with the continuing historic involvement of members of the Ponsonby family, all of which provides a strong sense of ‘emotional ownership’ for the Estate, respecting its history.
The Foundation was keen to develop relationships with the neighbouring village of Rowlands Castle (which shares the same post code as the estate but is just over the border in Hampshire). Representatives of the Parish Council attend functions on the estate and one has a seat on the Committee of Friends of Stansted. Villagers continue to work on the estate and still provide volunteers for both the House and the gardens. There is also mutually beneficial co-operation including display of an iconic model railway during D-Day 1994, purchased by Rowlands Castle Heritage Centre and displayed in the House during the past three years.
With a big birthday imminent, after a short break including some sailing in Alaska, I am looking forward to new challenges mainly focussing on consultancy in the ‘Heritage Sector’.
As a family, we have just moved from a comfortable cottage on the Estate to a flint-laced Jacobean farmhouse in nearby Compton. This will continue to provide opportunities for sensitive refurbishment over several years!
Our three children have grown up on the estate and moving to Compton should allow us all to keep in touch with our many friends. We departed after a series of very pleasant ‘farewell’ events, for which we are all most grateful.
Editorial: James Cooper retains the copyright to this article. It is based on conversations with James, reviewed and approved by him. It was first entered onto the RCHC website in October 2019.