Interview: At home with the hedonistic heir
PUBLISHED: 14:16 01 October 2013 | UPDATED: 14:45 11 October 2013
© Thousand Word Media Ltd
Beautiful Elmore Court is opening as a wedding and event venue under the guidance of owner Anselm Guise. Anselm may once have been the despair of TV's Ruth Watson and her Country House Rescue, but he's proving a far-sighted guardian of this ancient estate, says Katie Jarvis.
There’s something charmingly boyish about Anselm Guise.
Yes, yes. I know he’s in his 40s. I know he has two gorgeous children and a lovely wife. I know he’s a responsible businessman with, some might say, the courage of a Greek hero. (Think Anselm as Hercules; Elmore Court as Antaeus; and imagine the current restoration project as a giant-yet-unbalanced wrestling match.) (Takes a bit of effort but it works.)
But I can so see why Ruth Watson came over all maternal during those Country House Rescue visits when he’d newly inherited this £25 million ancestral pile, taking him under her wing and shouting, “This place is a tip!” (Translation: “Go and tidy your room!”). And “Are your friends hippies?” (Translation: “You’re not on drugs, are you?”)
I dodge hoards of very nice workmen who appear randomly out of rooms, saying things like “I was swearing earlier. Sorry” to find Anselm in his office-cum-lair. It’s full of fascinatingly ancient-looking artefacts – Bunny Campione would have a field day – alongside teetering piles of paper, bills and formal-looking letters. I can see what a weight of responsibility he bears. I just hope he eats enough fresh fruit and always has a clean hanky.
He dashes off on a whistle-stop tour of the house, as I fly behind, giving up trying to make notes and relying on my voice recorder instead. (As a result, it’s full of the sounds of furious sawing, and me saying, ‘Oops, sorry’ as I bump into workmen on the grand staircase.)
“Now this,” Anselm says, taking me into the main office where various admin staff are busy beavering away, “this was the laundry room: there were huge fixed cupboards and hanging things [drying racks, I assume] on the ceiling.
“When we did some work about three years ago, I actually didn’t ever say to the builders, ‘You can tear down the cupboards’; but, when we came back, all the cupboards had gone! Nice old Victorian cupboards. I was like: ‘What have you done!’”
He shows me some old wallpaper he managed to save (which, to my philistine eye, looks more 70s Vymura than, say, William Morris). “I asked them to varnish it but they didn’t clean it first, so all the cobwebs have gone into the varnish.
“Anyway,” he says, of the vandalised cupboards, “the damage had been done. It was a shame but it was one of those things I’d never have had the courage to do. But now I’m much more courageous.”
I ‘umm’ sympathetically. I can understand how daunting it must be, making changes to an estate your ancestors have lived on for the past 750 years. Even the portrait of his Uncle John, from whom he inherited the property in 2007, gazes down with steely, sternly-severe, just-don’t-touch-it authority. And that was painted when his uncle was aged seven.
It reminds me of a particularly powerful Ruth Watson moment. It was when she stared the portraits of all those ancestors directly in the eye – they blinked first - before turning to Anselm and declaring, “Actually, they are history.”
He nods. “It was really positive, going on that show, in lots of ways: primarily because it was good experience. I still stay in touch with the sound guys! It gave me some really good business advice and, off camera, I went to stay with Ruth and David in Suffolk on a totally personal basis. They are very sweet: because they haven’t got kids, I got a bit of the maternal instinct and they took me under their wing.”
Crikey. Isn’t Ruth a bit scary for any kind of socialising?
“Funnily enough, she’s not. She plays up to it on camera.”
So what about that moment when, in the middle of a family meal, she told your dad to stop talking? And the entire TV-viewing audience gasped and hid behind their settees.
“Yeah – that was the only thing my dad was quite cross about. She’s definitely an acquired taste,” he concedes, though his fondness for her is undisguisable.
Oh, I do like to tease. And Anselm really is very mother-able. But he’s also very admirable, too. When he inherited the decaying, money-munching family estate, with its 16th century house, five years ago, it was hardly a piece of unalloyed good luck; many-another would have sat down and wept.
But not Anselm. He’s thrown ideas at it, which the estate has gaily thrown back (such as an abortive cookery school), until the present one stuck. And it looks like a clear winner, for it’s opening up as a wedding (and other events) venue this autumn, for the first time in its long history.
It’s hard to think of a nicer place to hold the best day of your life. The palatial, yet charmingly-asymmetrical, golden façade is gilded by a variety of window styles (a 16th century mullioned bay; a three-storey sash), garnished with an 18th century Doric porch. It’s a bit like the Olympic opening ceremony: an entertainingly eclectic romp through time. Inside is pretty, too, full of 16th century fireplaces, Jacobean panelling and an imposing oak staircase.
Despite being stuffed to the hilt with said-workmen, the house will be beautified but relatively untouched. “We haven’t changed the layout too much because it worked,” Anselm explains, on our guided tour. “I’ve got a set of points that I must never deviate from and one of them is to ask of any decision made: ‘Would we do it if we were living here? Are we doing it just for the business?’ It’s a really important one. If it’s no, we don’t do it.”
So no one will be living here again full-time for the foreseeable future?
“Not for the foreseeable future. Which is sad. But, at the end of the day, we’re doing this because I haven’t the resources to look after the place, and it was a ticking time-bomb of repairs.”
And yet, I can imagine there’s some relief in that. Lots of people who’ve inherited these poisoned chalices dream of a bungalow in Spain.
He sort of nods. “It’s funny because I lived in a bungalow near Nailsworth before; so this [Elmore] was too much space. But it’s begun to fit me more and more.”
Instead, he and his wife, Sarah, are intending to convert the coach house; “But we’re going to live in a cottage in the village until I know what this” – he sweepingly indicates the whole restoration/building project –“costs.”
We see the lovely, light morning room, where wedding guests can have drinks after getting married in the splendid hall. And the beautiful bedrooms – including one with an original four-poster (“That bed is older than America”): a room that will be fitted out with a big free-standing copper bath. Lucky bride and bridegroom.
Is the house haunted? “It’s not haunted. But my Uncle John used to have a lovely St Helena couple called Rex and Bonnie as staff. When Uncle John was close to passing, Rex was in here with the nurse, and they suddenly heard the sound of someone walking into the room. They both looked up to see who was there and there was no one.
“Bizarrely, just afterwards, really close to his death, Uncle John started looking up [at one spot]. It was as if there was an angel who’d come to prepare him, and my uncle was pointing to say, ‘It’s time for me to go upstairs”.
We wander through the rest of this huge and fascinating house, passing various portraits of illustrious and dissolute ancestors. Including the Whig Parliamentarian Sir Berkeley, who was allegedly a bit of a lad with all the money back in the 19th century. Would Anselm like the chance to give him an earful?
He grins. “There’s a better one. A General Guise gave a collection of paintings that’s now in the Guise Gallery at Christ Church, Oxford. I believe it’s insured for a million. He went mad: there’s a painting of him in the house dressed as Julius Caesar. I do occasionally think of turning up and saying, ‘I know he gave you these pictures 300 years ago, but he was mad. So could I have my paintings back? Or at least one of them’.”
That fortune would certainly be dandy now. As opposed to the one Anselm is spending. We wander outside the house, to the piece de resistance: the Gillyflower, a brand new venue for dinner and dancing that’s being built at the back. Instead of some kind of faux-Georgian folly, it’s an amazing sustainably-fashioned ‘rammed earth’ construction, with a meadow-green roof that blends into the landscape.
“Timbuktu was made like this. You put a layer of mud into a rammer and ram it until it can’t be rammed anymore: you can tell when that is because the sound changes. Keep putting layers in and slowly you’ll fill up your shuttering. Take it away and you’ll have this nice terracotta earth wall.”
The romantic story of Anselm, DJ and music-festival organiser, who inherited a grand estate out of nowhere is now writ in the annals of legend. Yet that story is not strictly accurate. Born in South Africa, he was mainly brought up on a farm outside Sherston that belonged to his Great Aunt Bun. “The River Avon went running past so I had a really lovely, outdoorsy, fishy life.”
His dad (who, it has to be said, is now one of his greatest supporters) wanted Anselm to follow him into banking. Instead, his son followed his passion for electronic dance music, running club nights and free music-events. It might sound hedonistic, “But I’ve never been afraid of hard work. I was in my 20s when I did Amnesia [an internationally-renowned nightclub] in Ibiza, and a weekly night in London. We’d get 1,000 people every week. Admittedly, in the midst of it, there was a lot of fun and chaos and all the rest of it, but I’ve never been a layabout. I get bored of doing nothing - terribly dull.”
The point is, underlying it all was the clear knowledge that he was heir to a Gloucestershire estate. “I knew I could have that sort of life because I always knew I’d inherit this. If I’m really honest about it, I was never thinking mortgage and deposit. Although I was always told the picture was much rosier than it was, I was kind of like: one day I’ll have this, so I don’t need to get on the property ladder.”
So Elmore almost gave him permission to go free-range?
“Yes, but it’s a funny one. Even though it’s very lovely bricks-and-mortar, I strongly believe that life is much more important than any property. Having said that, if you choose to look after something that’s very lovely as your life’s work, that’s a really good thing to do.”
We talk about expectations: although most locals are utterly down-to-earth with him, there are some old-school left, who remember having to curtsey to the fearsome Granny Guise.
So has he really escaped those genes? Is he actually more traditional than he thinks he is?
“I know I am. I know that I have those sort of hang ups, if you know what I mean. I think, to be honest, one of the reasons why I went so ‘off’ was that I hated school. I was sent to Stowe and didn’t like it at all. In the sixth form, there was someone who came in whose mum had won the pools. So he turned up with his white flannel socks and all the rest of it and I really liked him. And then there was a whole class thing about the fact that I was friendly with a ‘Kevin’. And it just shook me to the core. I had a real reaction to it: I do not want to be identified with that kind of toffee-nosed stuff.”
Anselm Guise is a breath of fresh air. He’s open, honest, genuine, boyish, with not a pretension to his name. And he’s working harder than almost anyone I know.
Would Uncle John be surprised?
“Gosh - I don’t know what he’d think.”
Did his uncle dread that this would turn into a permanent party venue?
“And how right he would have been!” Anselm jokes. Ah, yes; but someone else’s parties. Discreetly held. Elegant. Considerate. And brilliantly-planned.
We pass a fireplace featuring Old Father Time. Anselm glances up at him and reads the inscription. “’Behold as you may stand reward or pain’. His message is: Don’t waste time! Enjoy life or have pain.”
Elmore Court is at Elmore, GL2 3NT
Telephone: 01452 720293