Home of the month: A golden opportunity
PUBLISHED: 14:01 14 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:10 14 April 2015
The beautiful 30-room Goldingtons in Sarratt has been home to a Master of the Rolls and a setting for Four Weddings and a Funeral. Pat Bramley talks to the current high-flying owners and explores the historic home and grounds overlooking the Chess Valley
There was only one drawback for Dr Anthony Freeling when he became President of his old college at Cambridge last September. Needing to live close to Hughes Hall meant he and his American- born wife Laurel would have to sell the 30-room mansion which has been their home for 18 years.
Goldingtons stands in 52 acres on a hill above the Chess Valley on the edge of Sarratt, one of the most beautiful spots in Hertfordshire.
The young and beautiful high-flyer from Massachusetts and the Cambridge graduate met when they both worked at the London office of McKinsey, the management consultant.
Although they weren’t in the same department, their relationship grew out of a rivalry to bag the last space in the office car park each morning.
‘There was one too few parking spaces for the number of employees. We were always the last two to arrive in the morning and we vied to get the last spot – I usually won,’ Laurel (left) says with a laugh.
She won’t forget the day in March 1997 when she and Freeling and their two young daughters saw their future home for the first time.
Four years earlier, Goldingtons was a set for Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of the most successful films made in Britain, grossing £144m worldwide. It was the backdrop for the first of the four weddings, when Hugh Grant’s character Charles meets Andie MacDowell’s Carrie.
‘We knew nothing of that when we came to see the house,’ Laurel remembers. ‘We’d been looking for a country house for over a year. With two young children, we were looking for somewhere with more land than we had at our Victorian villa in Chiswick. We didn’t want two houses, so it had to be an easy commute. We must have seen 25 houses. We liked the last one we viewed but we lost it, so we instructed the agent who’d shown us that house to act for us. He knew our budget and exactly what we wanted and he came up with this.’
The 57-year-old American, who has British citizenship, certainly aims high. But that fits with her career in the top echelons of the finance industry, which includes being a senior adviser for the Bank of England. Outside work, she has gained a diploma in advanced gastro-nomy, plays harpsichord and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Academy of Music. She says she was enchanted with Goldingtons as soon as she saw it.
‘We turned into the lane leading to it off the main road. I looked across the valley and there it was on the other side of the hill. I said to my husband, “This is it”.
‘We arrived at the entrance and were met with the most amazing sight. Each year in the spring there’s a broad swathe of daffodils either side of the drive which spills out into the parkland that slopes down to the River Chess. We stopped the car just to take in the scene.
‘To my horror, my younger daughter, then aged about two, leapt out and started picking the daffodils. She’d never seen so many. She was just carried away. We all were,’ she adds, covering her eyes with her hands at the memory.
The family drove up to the porticoed entrance to the manor, got out of the car and pulled the knob on the Georgian bell beside the black front door. A few moments later the door was opened by the lady of the house. ‘My daughter flung out her arm, and without saying a word, held out the flowers to her.’ Much to the Freelings’ relief, the owner laughed.
‘It turned out the people had children the same age as ours, two and four, and understood what they’re like. Right from that moment we got on well. We were just very, very lucky.’
Goldingtons was first built in the 16th century, but the name dates from the 12th, when the manor was held by Peter de Goldington and his wife Grace, the daughter of Acarius, one of the Knights of St Albans.
The Grade II-listed white-rendered mansion seen today is a fusion of the Georgian house, which modified and enlarged the earlier building around 1780, and the west wing, which was added in the Victorian era.
The house has had several illustrious owners over the centuries including a Master of the Rolls. In 1860 it was bought by Herbert Ingrams, proprietor of The Illustrated London News. Then came the Clutterbuck family, who owned the estate for more than 100 years until 1977.
Today there are 11 bedrooms, seven bathrooms and eight reception rooms including a cinema room, music room and library. The living area amounts to 11,897 sq ft over three floors.
There was no central heating in what was probably the servants’ quarters at the top of the house when the Freelings arrived but there is now. There’s also a music recording room, which was converted for Freeling, who ended up as senior partner at McKinsey and later became chair of the development committee for the Open University before taking up the post of President at the oldest graduate college in Cambridge.
When screenwriter Richard Curtis, producer Duncan Kenworthy and director Mike Newell arrived with a film crew and a cast of little-known actors in 1994 to shoot Four Weddings..., they filmed mainly outside, shooting inside only in the 50ft garden room with its four sets of French doors opening on to the Yorkstone terrace. The bulk of filming was in the gardens. At the time there was a walled kitchen garden near the lawn tennis court where the film crew pitched a vast marquee for the wedding breakfast scenes.
‘We’ve put up marquees for our own parties on that spot,’ says Laurel pointing to it. ‘It’s ideal because the ground is flat. The last time we had a marquee in the garden was the joint party for our 50th birthdays. We had 180 guests here for that.’
But the kitchen garden is no more. Laurel explains, ‘The old greenhouses had collapsed by the time we arrived. We demolished them – they’d gone too far to be saved.’ Instead of hothouses for fruit and veg, there’s now a leisure complex with an indoor pool, sauna and gym.
And where once there were spuds, leeks and cabbages growing in outside beds there’s now a rose-covered pergola, herbaceous borders and a series of ponds from where water flows down natural stone waterfalls into a large pool. There’s also an outdoor kitchen for al-fresco dining when the weather is warm enough.
The estate includes an entrance lodge, Victorian coach house and stables as well as six loose boxes with the original divisions.
Has Hugh Grant been back to visit the location which made him a megastar? ‘No!’ laughs Laurel. ‘We’ve hired out to a couple of film companies since, but only to use the garden.’
She adds, ‘We did have one chap who called in and asked if he could look over the house. He said he’d been evacuated here as a child in the war. He told us the Clutterbucks had taken in 30 children. He said they were very kind to them.’
The Freelings did intend to stay longer at Goldingtons, but the new position at Cambridge has changed all that. Initially, they lived in the official residence at Hughes after Freeling took over from his predecessor while they found a suitable house to buy. Fortunately, the hunt didn’t take nearly as long as it did the last time they moved.
‘The house we’ve bought just outside Cambridge has its own story to tell,’ Laurel reveals. ‘It was once the home of author Philippa Pearce and was the setting for her book Tom’s Midnight Garden. And we’ve traded the Chess River for the Cam – we still have swans.’
Goldingtons is for sale through the Rickmansworth and London offices of joint agents Savills and Knight Frank for £4.95m.