Joshua Dugdale on restoration projects at Wasing Estate and his love for filmmaking
PUBLISHED: 12:01 14 September 2015 | UPDATED: 12:01 14 September 2015
Estate management takes a lot of time and commitment: Claire Pitcher meets Joshua Dugdale, the filmmaker now overseeing a West Berkshire idyll
When the owner of a historic Berkshire estate, who’s also a grandson of one of the county’s high Sheriffs and first cousin of Prime Minister David Cameron admits: “I can easily slip back into a Brummy accent”, you know it’s going to be an interesting time with a member of the supposed ‘landed gentry’.
We are with Joshua Dugdale, 40-year-old head of the peaceful and scenic Wasing Estate, near Aldermaston. His estate office there feels a world away from Birmingham and soccer shenanigans, but Joshua is the younger son of the late Sir William Dugdale, Chairman of Aston Villa FC from 1975 to 1982.
Joshua admits that he was ‘quite bored’ at matches as a small child, but there’s no taking away from Sir William’s success at the helm of the club: “he helped get the team from the Third to First Division. The year he left they won the league and, the year after, the European Cup.” however, according to Joshua, behind closed doors things weren’t going so well, and there was no love lost between Sir William and the chairman who both preceded and followed him, Doug Ellis, who came to be known as ‘Deadly Doug’ for the number of managers he sacked.
After his stint at Villa, Sir William enjoyed continued success as chairman of Severn Trent Water Authority and then, in 1983, became head of the national Water Council. He was understandably a busy man and balancing work success and family was a challenge. Joshua admits they didn’t see him enough, “But we had a lovely existence; we had a plane and dad flew us to different countries for our holidays.”
Falling for film
Joshua can relate to the struggle to find that infamous work life balance. He inherited Wasing from his father last year and has spent the past 12 months running the 660-acre estate. However, it’s fair to say that becoming an estate owner with all its responsibilities didn’t really feature in his future plans at the age of 20.
After finishing his time at Eton he went to Manchester University to study economics. Following his graduation Joshua wasn’t sure which direction to take: “I had an interest in how other countries work thanks to my study, so I thought that before I went to get a serious job I would try and make a film on my own.”
Joshua chose Cuba as his first muse and spent six months there, learning Spanish at the same time: “I fell in love with Cuba. It’s interesting because it’s such a throwback to a different era.”
His idea was to make a film about Fidel Castro: “It was all undercover, I wasn’t supposed to be there really, I wasn’t even a student, I was a tourist. I developed my interviewing skills and found it very interesting speaking to so many different characters. I got the film bug, it was so exciting.”
The film was called ‘Pepe and his Cuban Heels’ and was spotted at a documentary fair by a BBC producer, who snapped it up.
Joshua continued with his newfound passion, creating many kinds of documentaries; but also decided to undertake a law and property law degree alongside. He explains: “Dad tried to get me involved in his property business. I was juggling many things, doing films freelance too. I knew that Wasing was there and that someone was going to have to take it on.”
He kept adding to his show reel with a number of films on gangs and police forces including a BBC film called ‘LAPD Blues’ in 2002. Perhaps his most memorable experience though was making another BBC film, celebrating the Dalai Lama: “I ended up following and filming him for three years. I went with Joanna Lumley. I’m one of the few people who can say they’ve slept with Joanna Lumley,” he jokes.
Back to Berkshire
Spending time recording his holiness was very inspiring, which helped with a few ideas he was considering for Wasing. “The estate was becoming more of a thing for me. I went to the festival Burning Man, in the desert in Nevada, a gift economy event (where items are not sold, but freely given or exchanged) and the child of Woodstock. I started to think we could do something similar here.
“It’s peculiar owning an estate, in the sense you have this enormous amount of land… what do you do with it? I wanted to justify the film-making and escapism part of my life with what was being forced down my throat, so I thought I would start an events business. A lot of what I have been doing, very semi-successfully, is to develop Wasing as a place where we hold interesting events.”
Having taken over the running of the estate full time last year, the filmmaking has had to take a back seat and although Joshua clearly misses it, the focus is on making the business sustainable: “We need to create an income. We’ve held over 800 weddings now and numerous festivals, but there is still a lot of work to do.” Like so many UK country estates, the upkeep of the land and buildings is a challenge to say the least, and the generations of owners before him have had mixed success.
Wasing was originally purchased by John Mount in 1759. “They were map makers,” Joshua explains. “They provided navigational charts at the peak of the British empire and its rise to power. Seafaring was critical, as was discovering the world, and they had an amazing role in that.”
John Mount owned a shop in Tower Hill with a man called Thomas Page and they were the largest map sellers in the country. John Mount bought the estate with the money they made. Following him, there were two MPs in the family at Wasing. It’s fair to say the Mounts were good, solid players in the county scene and Wasing was also a strong part of the community. “That’s what I’m still trying to do, too,” says Joshua. “When I took it over from mum and dad, they were very much absent, it was run on a shoestring. The farm would make money one year in three, so there was very little income and a lot of maintenance.” Indeed, Joshua points out that there may be a lot of restoration now happening at the main site, but they are also stewarding the land. “I’m so lucky to be able to do it, but I don’t see myself as someone having a huge asset. I’m here to look after it, improve it, love it and make it better. This is why I think very few landowners sell their land, they feel responsible for it.”
And it’s not just the land estate owners have an obligation towards, for Joshua in particular it’s about something much bigger: “Some estate owners are progressive, others are less so, but I think for those who are there’s a tremendous reward in the area when you have a thriving estate. However, clashes with some local residents are inevitable, he suspects: “Peoples’ interests aren’t always shared. We held an electronic music festival here for five years but because it kept growing it was becoming upsetting for some residents, so we stopped it.”
Recently, Joshua and the estate team have managed to complete the restoration of various buildings at Wasing, primarily to accommodate wedding parties and corporate days.
“I think we have a great thing going here now, we have lots of events happening, that means interesting times ahead. There’s a lot more to do. The vision is to try to keep growing the events business; we want to increase our rooms from the 26 we have now, plus exploit the potential for camping. Perhaps we’ll open a restaurant at some point, maybe even a hotel.”
Grand plans then, but for Joshua, his new life at Wasing has not been without huge sacrifices: “Doing this has compromised my career, in a big way. It takes me away from my wife Diana and children, but it’s also been a wonderful experience. You have to remember the joy of life is the journey, not being able to fulfil everything.”
• The wonders of Woolhampton - editor Janice Raycroft on why the village deserves more recognition - Don’t just slow down as you pass through this village between Reading and Newbury, it’s a place to stop and enjoy, says Jan Raycroft