Charlotte Digby shares the story behind creating a successful and enterprising Bed and Breakfast
PUBLISHED: 15:45 02 May 2014
You need to be resourceful to run a noted Georgian home and develop a business around it, and Linda Fawke found that determination when she met Charlotte Digby
The Honourable Charlotte Digby is eager and proud to talk about her home, Rookwood House in Stockcross near Newbury, now a charming Bed and Breakfast, and the two acre garden she has created around it. It’s an interesting story of effort and determination which has culminated in a successful and enterprising business.
“After our marriage 27 years ago, we looked for a substantial family home,” Charlotte recalls. The village location of Rookwood House, a Georgian property with Victorian additions, suited her and husband, Rupert, and the coach house alongside was a potential project. At the time the garden was little more than a sloping, boggy tangle of willow, another project – but one which was going to require both investment and time.
Charlotte comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Her parents bought a mill in Petersfield, and turned it into a successful wooden toy factory. The sudden death of her father, Robert, when she was just 14 had a major impact: “It drove me to achieve,” she admits. Death Duties (as they were then) meant the factory could not continue and her mother turned to cooking, creating a successful catering company.
“She is a formidable woman with great strength of character, hard to live up to,” Charlotte says. But the influence is clear. Charlotte went on to train at the Constance Spry College at Winkfield Place and worked in London for Lehmann Brothers doing directors’ lunches. She also worked for Beefeater as a directors’ cook. Then, at weekends, she went home and helped her mother with catering, providing the food for many major local events. These skills are constantly put to use as she does the catering at Rookwood House.
Refurbishment of the coach house meant the B and B business could start. There are two bedrooms upstairs and a spacious sitting room – called the Games Room – with a large open fire. Guests can enjoy comfort and hospitality in a lovely setting. The furniture here was mostly owned by Charlotte’s Godfather. When he died in 1996, she inherited his money. Many of the artefacts in the Games Room were brought back from Kenya, where he lived, so there is an African feel to the décor. This inheritance allowed Charlotte and Rupert not only to continue to live at Rookwood but to start their B and B business and begin the landscaping of the garden. Today, in addition to the bedrooms in the coach house, there are two guest rooms in the main house.
Garden work begins
While Charlotte’s daughters, Olivia and Arabella, were growing up, work on the garden was put on hold. Running the B and B while also supporting her daughters with their riding – both were able and successful competitors, with Olivia gaining first and second places in British Eventing – meant there was no time left to concentrate on developing the garden.
You have to be realistic, even when an entrepreneurial spirit is itching to get going. “I kept the show on the road,” is how Charlotte describes that period of her life. “But I couldn’t do everything.”
Even so, some work was done: the ‘pentagon’ was created and walls built to allow levelling of the land into terraces, at different levels. But Charlotte’s more ambitious plans had to wait.
The overall concept for the garden is very much her own. She has taken advice from the garden designer, Veronica MacKinnon, regarding choice of plants but the planning and design is very much in Charlotte’s style. The original boggy nature of the garden has been used for bog plantings but most of it has been drained to allow the development of different areas. There is a jungle garden, an arbour and Olivia’s Walk.
A few years ago Charlotte installed a series of ponds and streams – a cascade – surrounded by colourful perennials and grasses that run through the garden, and one of her future projects is a willow tunnel. A memorial to one of their horses, Archie’s Garden, is another feature.
Spring shows the garden at its best when all the bulbs are in flower – crocus, hyacinths, narcissi and tulips, a spectacular display of colour. Summer is no less beautiful with colour-themed herbaceous borders, giant alliums and the delightful arched walkway of clematis, vines and roses. Vegetables are not neglected and the B and B is almost self-sufficient. The parterre vegetable garden, an array of geometrically designed raised beds, is bordered by espalier fruit trees and sweet peas.
The beauty of the garden, still ‘work in progress’ as Charlotte describes it, inspired her to apply for a wedding licence, which she obtained in 2013. After the first successful wedding, she now has further bookings but plans to run no more than six weddings a year, making it an exclusive venue. For major events like this, they can erect a marquee if needed and liaise with local providers for wedding packages. Nevertheless, much is done by the family, with Charlotte, her mother (although she retired in 1996) and the two daughters all lending a hand. Her housekeeper, Marion, is a key person at all such events, together with Marion’s own family.
Popular plant fairs
In 2012 Charlotte decided to hold a Plant Fair in the garden. “No-one was doing anything like this and it seemed a good opportunity,” Charlotte explains. “It was a natural progression for me with my interest in plants.” This is now becoming an annual event and the third fair will take place on Thursday, 24 April. It’s an opportunity for the public to see the garden, whether they are keen gardeners or simply wish to enjoy beautiful surroundings. It is also a charity event, with Charlotte donating a percentage of the takings to the Red Cross.
This year 40 specialist nurseries are coming in, with 27 gift stalls. The range of goods on offer runs from garden accessories to chainsaw sculptures. Denius Parson, the sculptor, creates amazing animals, tree houses, benches and other garden adornments. There will also be a demonstration from the Willowbank company who create willow arches – they will be creating one for Charlotte in the near future.
For those who live in the area, look out for banners and posters advertising the Plant Fair within a 20 mile radius of Rookwood. It is easy to find with ample parking in the field opposite the house. The garden is also open for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday, 25 May and Sunday, 29 June 2014.
The location of Rookwood has proved an unexpected bonus since the advent of ‘Downton Abbey’ on TV. The series filmed at Highclere Castle, eight miles away, draws fans to the area. Many need accommodation and Rookwood is ideally placed. The enterprising Charlotte will provide lunch and Rupert gives a lecture on his own interesting and resourceful family, the Digbys, before timed visits to Highclere.
Charlotte is happy with how her business interests have prospered. ‘I like having people around me, always have. Guests have become friends. You know that’s the case when they sometimes make their own breakfast!’ Guests share in the family life, having a dip in the pool in the summer or reading in the conservatory. The story is not over yet. Charlotte’s housekeeper has – accurately – said: “You never know what’s going to come out of Charlotte’s head next!” Life is hardly ever dull at Rookwood. But that would be expected from a family of entrepreneurs. For more information on Rookwood House, visit www.rookwoodhouse.co.uk.
Round and about Stockcross
The fabulous Vineyard helps to put Stockcross on the map, and it’s within walking distance of Rookwood Farmhouse. Also nearby are two pubs, the Lord Lyons, and The Rising Sun. The 9-hole Deanwood Park Golf Club has a clubhouse welcoming members and non-members, whether playing golf or not.
With Newbury just down the road you can also combine a visit with a trip to the racecourse or entertainment at the Watermill Theatre or Corn Exchange.
That ‘Hon’ title
Rupert is a descendant of the family of the first Baron Digby of Geashill, a title created in 1620 for the governor of part of central Ireland (now Offaly) previously known as King’s County after the then King of Ireland, Philip II of Spain. Perhaps the best known of the Digby family is the late Pamela Harriman, Rupert’s aunt, a socialite whose three marriages included Winton Churchill’s son Randolph as her first spouse. In a life suitable for the raciest novels, the vivacious Pamela became US Ambassador to France.