Winslow Hall: At home with the Gilmours
PUBLISHED: 11:38 02 June 2016 | UPDATED: 11:38 02 June 2016
Winslow Hall Opera is a summer highlight at their historic home – which Tony Blair might well have had his eye on at one time, Sandra Smith discovers
An unpretentious entrance bordered by tall brick walls adjacent to the east wing of Winslow Hall leads to an open gravelled area where, having driven through the gently rolling agricultural landscape of Aylesbury Vale, I park and ponder where to announce my arrival. The front of the property seems an obvious starting point. With no access via large metal gates, however, I return to the rear of the country house, ascending a couple of stone steps when the owner of this majestic property and founder of Winslow Hall Opera, The Hon Christopher Gilmour, approaches.
Casually dressed and welcoming, he leads me across the terrace, entering the house via a palatially large room for which he immediately apologises. An air of chaos is blamed on his three daughters. Piles of discarded clothes and luggage adorn every chair and sofa. Tables overflow with stacks of books, glasses and mugs. Messy? Maybe, but a degree of disorder is akin to homeliness and this very much feels like a family abode.
Once Tipsy the terrier is settled on her owner’s lap, Christopher traces the family move here. “When I was in the restaurant business I spent most of my time in London. We lived in Somerset when the girls were growing up, but then discovered the appalling school run. So after 10 years we decided to look for somewhere closer to London. I knew the area as my dad (the late Sir Ian Gimour) used to be MP for Chesham and Amersham. Suddenly we came across this house which Tony Blair had been looking at. We put in a bid.”
The Grade 1 listed building needed extensive refurbishment. A cottage next door provided accommodation during the renovation, which included the removal and repair of 85 windows along with replumbing and rewiring.
“We knew there was a lot to do but didn’t quite realise how much,” Christopher sighs. He certainly looks at home now, seated next to a large fireplace containing the most generously proportioned wood burning stove imaginable.
As classical music gently infuses the lofty room, we move onto the subject of opera. This may have been a long held passion, but what prompted him to establish his own festival?
“I used to play opera in my restaurant. Someone said as I was a great opera fan Winslow Hall would be a fabulous venue for opera. This sowed a seed.”
Now in its fifth year, Winslow Hall Opera attracts 1,600 people each summer, attendees coming from as far away as London, Northampton, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, with about half returning annually. This summer Christopher’s brother, Oliver Gilmour, will once again conduct his concert orchestra and Elena Xanthoudakis is returning to play Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a role she is clearly relishing.
“I am thrilled to be returning,” the soprano enthuses. “I have a deep love of Mozart. Having sung for the company the last two years I imagine audiences will enjoy the great atmosphere of the summer picnics and great music. It is a strong cast, and again we have Maestro Oliver Gilmour in the orchestra pit, so I am very positive this will be another triumph.”
I ask Christopher about the practicalities of staging this event: “Singers and chorus are London based so early rehearsals take place there with just two dress rehearsals on site. My roles include box office, producer and general dogsbody. Country opera has become very popular and we are committed to quality. We have a full orchestra and international singers. This year I want to use Winslow Opera as an educational platform for kids and people who know nothing about opera so we’re opening up dress rehearsals.”
A philanthropic approach requires sponsors. Indeed, every performance relies on financial support from foundations, individuals and the corporate world.
We’re discussing the marquee’s position – previously attached to the back of the house though this year Christopher is toying with the idea of a walled garden location if he can conquer his concerns about acoustics – when his wife, Mardi, joins us. She is relaxed and informal, and simultaneously eager to fill me in on more details of life in Winslow and their operatic venture.
“People here are so friendly. When we first arrived we were invited to dinner parties. I met more local people than the previous 15 years. Some locals have singers staying with them during the opera; we are so grateful for that. Regular volunteers help out and the Town Council provide gazebos for visitors picnicking in the grounds. There’s a sense of community, which is what I love. Volunteers feel part of it; we couldn’t do it without them.”
One aspect that intrigues me is the use of sub titles. Translations may bring accessibility to a performance but are nevertheless contentious. Christopher’s response, however, is a logical one. “I’m quite a purist but I think on the basis you’re trying to appeal to a lot more people, opera shouldn’t be an elitist pastime. If you have no idea what’s happening, it diminishes the experience. Last year was the first time we provided sub titles. We’ll repeat it this summer.”
The Gilmours’ determination to put Winslow Opera on the map is matched by their passion for Winslow Hall. The attraction of this magnificent 17th century building, reputedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, extends beyond its dimensions, imposing chimney stacks and symmetrical fenestration. Located in the heart of this delightful market town, the house fulfils an integral role – both geographically and socially - within the community.
Similarly, a vision to share The Arts fuels an ambition for Winslow Hall Opera to be on a par with Glyndebourne and Garsington.
A heady aspiration? Perhaps. Yet given the reputation the festival has generated over a mere five years, and the attraction of an internationally acclaimed cast, I’ve no doubt the Gilmours will be celebrating increasing success both this summer and in the years to come.
Don’t miss out
Performances take place 13-24 July. Evening performances begin at 6pm and include a 90 minute supper interval, while the interval for Sunday matinee performances is 30 minutes. The gardens of Winslow Hall will open from noon on the Sundays for those who would like to picnic before the opera.
About Winslow Hall
Although it’s not been proved beyond doubt, many experts believe the country house was designed by Sir Chirstopher Wren, or by an architect closely overseen by him, although the four chimneys forming such a prominent feature are not found elsewhere in his work.
It was built for William Lowndes in 1700 and lived in by generations of that family until becoming Dr Lovell’s School in 1848 for 20 years. For three years from 1865 it was used as ‘a private asylum for lunatics’ before passing through the McCorquodale family until bought by the Northampton Glass Bottle company. Requisitioned for military use during the Second World war, Winslow Hall operated as offices for RAF Bomber Command.
By the end of war it was in poor condition, but was listed as a Grade I building in 1946. Rescued from possible demolition, the house was used as an antiques showroom before being owned by Sir Edward Tomkins. In 2007, when Sir Edward decided to sell the hall and its 22 acres, there was much talk that Tony Blair and family would move there, but this came to nothing.
The Gilmours eventually completed the purchase in the summer of 2010 but could not move in until 2012 while much needed renovation work was carried out.
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