Hertfordshire home: Great Offley House
PUBLISHED: 10:58 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 12:57 19 June 2018
Looking for a country lifestyle for his young family, a theatrical agent created a starring role for Great Offley House
In the orchard a pair of wallabies are making short work of keeping the grass cut, the two dogs are happy, the seven hens are clucking, the four cats are either snoozing or stalking prey – none of the animals needs feeding, and no-one else is home.
It’s an opportunity for Alex Armitage to talk about how he came to sell his London property and buy Great Offley House, a Grade II listed eight bedroom home with medieval origins in the north Herts village of Offley 23 years ago.
Armitage is a theatrical agent. His company, the Noel Gay Organisation, represents many of the best known names in the entertainment business. He’s also a producer. Show business is in his genes.
His grandfather wrote the score for Me and My Girl and many more songs that are still performed whenever the music hall days of the 1930s and ’40s are celebrated for today’s audiences. The catchy tunes that helped to boost morale during the dark days of the Second World War can still work their magic – evergreens like The Lambeth Walk, Run, Rabbit Run and The Sun Has Got Its Hat On. Each was written by Armitage’s grandfather Noel Gay. His actual name was Reginald Armitage but he chose the shorter, catchier nom de plume and that’s the one he’s remembered by.
In all he wrote 28 film scores, 26 London shows and 45 songs. Quite often he wrote the words too. The drama critic and author Sheridan Morley said Noel Gay was the closest Britain came in that era to producing a composer of the calibre of Irving Berlin. There was also a spin-off enterprise – Noel Gay Music – selling sheet music of the shows and songs he produced.
Noel’s son, Richard Armitage, laid the foundation for the present organisation when the theatrical agency he founded in the 1950s grew into a major force in the industry. By the time Alex and his late older brother Charles joined their father in the firm in the 1970s it was widely billed as the UK’s premier entertainment agency.
Now Noel’s great-granddaughter Sophieclaire has become the fourth generation of the family to keep the name Noel Gay in the spotlight. This summer Alex is staging two productions of Me and My Girl. He’s taking the show to New York, then in July it will be part of the summer programme at Chichester Festival Theatre. He’s also selling his Hertfordshire home. It’s going to be a busy few months for the 60-year-old.
What was it that drew the Old Etonian to Great Offley House in the mid-90s?
‘I bought it with my first wife. We were living in Barnes. We had three young children – my fourth child wasn’t born until after we moved here. I’d reached the stage where I wanted them to grow up in the countryside like I had. I grew up in Essex and Scotland. I was free to race about when I was young and that’s what I wanted for them.
‘We were looking for something in this area and the estate agent said I’ve got the perfect house. It was. It’s perfect for a large family. I bought it from John Perkins – a leading light in TV commercials featuring animals. He made the famous chimpanzee tea party ad for PG Tips. He lavished money on the house.’
Like many old properties, it is a mixture of styles. The oldest part of the property is medieval - it has a medieval A-frame. The back part is Jacobean and the front part is Georgian, dating to 1802.
‘It was built as the dower house for Little Offley,’ Alex explains. ‘I’m only selling it because my youngest daughter has now left home to go to university, the other three all have their own lives, so I no longer need the eight bedrooms!’ He laughs. ‘I rattle around like a pea in a very comfortable biscuit tin.’
Major improvements made by Alex, apart from decorating and updating the bathrooms (three in the main house – two en suite – plus another in the two-bed cottage in the grounds), included modernising the conservatory and the upstairs sun room, adding a cooled wine cellar and relaying the gardens.
One of the most exciting moments was when he was renovating the main living room. Pulling out a small Victorian fireplace they discovered a huge bressumer beam and an enormous fireplace. ‘It’s a glorious sight when the fire’s lit in the winter months,’ Alex says. ‘There’s space for lots of sofas. It’s where we all gather when the family’s at home.’
The kitchen is another of his favourite spots in the house. There’s a big larder and a walk-in fridge and a vast Aga. There’s also a kitchen in the ‘party barn’.
The barn is a whopping 54-feet long. Like the oldest part of the house it’s at least 500 years old and was converted into an amazing venue for large parties by Alex’s predecessor. Not only is there a huge log-burning fireplace in the barn for when, baby, it’s cold outside, there’s also a bar and minstrel gallery.
‘We’ve had up to 72 here for Sunday lunch,’ says the host, who is clearly in his element when there are lots of people around.
For Alex, the party barn has been a game changer. ‘All of my children have enjoyed sensational parties in the barn for any excuse – birthdays, end of exams, too-long-since-the-last-party parties. In summer the guests spill out across the lawns and into the swimming pool. I’ve also used the barn to produce musicals open to the public, wedding receptions, rehearsals for shows that went to Edinburgh, TV and radio pilots and try-outs. In late summer we’ve hosted an annual apple picking party when my showbiz friends come down for a picnic on the lawn and then ruin their £300 shoes in my orchard before pressing the applies. When dinner’s cleared away, the evening ends with a cèilidh.’
The wallabies, Bronte and Tamarama, have grazed in the orchard for seven or eight years. Alex can’t remember exactly when he bought them. ‘I thought it would be fun to have animals to mow the lawn. I got in touch with DEFRA to ask the advice of the experts. Goats were one option but I don’t like goats so I chose wallabies. These pocket sized kangaroos do a very good job. They more or less look after themselves. I named them after a couple of my favourite beaches on the same coastline as Bondi Beach.’
Back home in Herts, the grounds of Great Offley House amount to almost two and three-quarter acres.
‘My four children have grown up in idyllic countryside,’ their dad sums up. ‘It has been a fabulous family home. For me, the icing on the cake about living here is I can be at my desk in Soho in an hour. It took me longer to get to the office when I was living in Barnes.’
Great Offley House is for sale through Savills in Harpenden (01582 465000) for £3m.