For Nick Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, an unexpected twist of fate led to a commitment to reviving and sustaining his ancestral estate. With the help of a merry and talented band of kindred craftsmen and creatives, he continues to transform his family’s house into a home.
When we arrived on a gloriously sunny morning last September, the volunteer librarians were nearly done recording and organizing the thousands of volumes that make up the vast collection of written works in the library at St. Giles House. The bibliophiles were oblivious to the geese on the pond or the mist rising in puffs of vapor off the green lawn outside the library’s floor to ceiling windows, consumed instead with the leather and paperbound parcels stacked in front of them. Or more specifically, consumed with one parcel.
It’s a diary, a commonplace book of notes according to one of the veteran researchers, and while they had been able to date it to the time of William Makepeace Thackeray (the author of the novel Vanity Fair, among other works), this morning found them investigating its origins and authorship with the kind of single-minded concentration more typically associated with forensic scientists. The diary’s author remained a mystery, at least for the moment.
This type of scene is just part of daily life at St. Giles House, a Georgian masterpiece set on the expansive Shaftesbury Estate in the lush, rolling Dorset countryside, roughly two hours by train from London. Constructed circa 1651, with subsequent architectural additions and demolitions over the ensuing centuries, it is a family house filled with secrets and treasures, many of which had languished forgotten or overlooked for decades, centuries even, before Nick Ashley-Cooper, the current and twelfth earl, and our host, embarked upon a massive restoration effort in 2010.
But this is no time capsule. Under the stewardship of Nick and his wife, Dinah—officially Lord and Lady Shaftesbury—St. Giles is now filled with life and vibrancy. Thanks to their forward-looking vision and innovative preservation efforts—not to mention the energetic infusion of three children and a range of domesticated animals—the modern iteration reflects the estate’s past glory without reducing it to a relic and reminds us that change is often a necessary part of survival.
The grotto, an eighteenth-century folly filled with exotic shells arranged in a freestyle pattern, located a short distance from the main house, is a case in point.
Work on the grotto began in the 1740s at a time when budding exploration of the Caribbean and the Americas manifested in shell-lined structures bearing the fruits of those voyages. The unique pattern of the shells, coupled with Easter egg appearances of other oceanic delights, such as the whale vertebrae embedded in the floor, sets St. Giles’ grotto apart, as does its condition. Philip Hughes, the surveyor who has supervised much of the restoration efforts on the estate, called the 2013 rehabilitation of the grotto the most difficult job of his career.
It’s impossible to overstate how emblematic this structure—and, indeed, all of the places we encountered throughout the course of our visit—is of St. Giles and its rarefied presence and place in history. The personalities of previous inhabitants are ever-present, and the structures and the landscape they populate are the connective tissue keeping their contributions alive.
A few days before we arrived, a renowned storyteller, from The Society for Storytelling no less, had come to the grotto to recount with a group of visitors the tale of Alexander Pope, one of the first Englishmen to build a grotto—along the bank of the River Thames. These are the kind of moments Nick relishes sharing with the widening community he’s now cultivating at St. Giles, the past-meets-present experiences that keep him pushing his family’s legacy forward.
Though we had met Nick through various friends and fellow makers, it was during these four goldenrod autumn days together that we came to understand him on a deeper level, as a natural storyteller with a philosopher’s mind, an artist’s heart and an entrepreneur’s spirit.
A once reticent family head who has become its most impressive modern archivist, Nick began his adult years spinning vinyl as an aspiring DJ in New York City. He never envisioned himself taking over the family estate. “To the contrary, I imagined the closest I’d get to the country was a little place in Upstate New York,” he jokes. But fate has a way of making some decisions for us, and he assumed the helm of the family seat in 2005 following the tragic death of his older brother, Anthony.
“Growing up seemed so far away to me when I inherited St. Giles,” Nick says. “There was a coming to terms with the whole thing at first, but actually what made it suddenly seem achievable was getting my teeth into the house and the estate. It was a completely new project and a whole new kind of future.”
That’s where what Nick describes as his “live mission” comes into play. For, in all of his efforts to restore and revive the estate, he also realized something that, while less concrete, was no less vital: The key to the future of St. Giles lay not just in the craft of preservation but also in the preservation of craft. And, as it turned out, the area surrounding St. Giles House and nearby Dorset is an under-the-radar hotbed of artists and makers with the kind of creative community Nick was craving—and needed to mobilize in his efforts to restore St. Giles.
Fortunately, those creatives were feeling the same way, and one by one they have brought their unique, uncompromising talents and exacting standards to bear on the estate—from Jane Hurst, whose landscape design expertise and historical knowledge of local flora and fauna inspired the current vision for the grounds and gardens, to her husband, Edward, whose insight and inroads into the world of antiques and antiquities is unparalleled, to sculptor Stephen Pettifer and rug and textile master Luke Irwin. Friends, admirers and sources of mutual inspiration, they frequently share knowledge, anecdotes and an appreciation of things made well and with intention.
That’s not to say the project has been easy. And, during our visit, as he introduced us to these collaborators—or, as they like to say, co-conspirators—over lunch, drinks, dinner and a late-night trip to the subterranean club (from whence Nick carries on his passion for music from the DJ booth), we heard first-hand how invested they each were in the entire process.
“Making things is like a nasty addiction,” says Francis Russell, a fellow lighting designer, whose studio is housed on the greater Shaftesbury Estate, and the one who first introduced us to Nick. “We’re all obsessed with quality and history and perfection, and that is all-consuming. But Nick is an excellent partner to have for anyone in our business. He’s also a pretty damn good friend and champion. And this project has seized a part of our souls and none of us could ever imagine walking away or being involved any less deeply.”
Connection is truly at the heart of the matter at St. Giles, and as we wrapped the evening with this tight-knit group over multiple courses of an impeccably prepared dinner—including trout raised on the estate—it was clear that they just enjoy and feel inspired by each other.
“This whole endeavor began in the spirit of collaboration—with the esteemed National Trust docents as well with our other partners in restoration and archiving—and has since grown to become an even bigger testament to the power of creativity,” Nick says, “both among individuals and as a collective whole. Without their help, we would be lost.”
From the volunteer librarians to the journeymen storytellers to the people whose daily efforts make St. Giles a viable and accessible destination for the world to visit and appreciate up close, the tireless group works symbiotically, sharing ideas and insights to create something bigger than any of them ever expected. To an outsider, it all appears seamless. But the work here is ongoing, and the story of St. Giles, its past, present and future, continues to reveal itself one day at a time because of everything they are doing now.
As the vision for St. Giles has evolved so, too, has Nick’s approach to the actual running of the estate, where future survival depends on a keen business acumen and the ability to both modernize the existing landscape and disrupt the current model of Downton Abbey-driven tourism for the traveling voyeur.
In addition to hosting scheduled cultural events like the storytelling session in the grotto, he has also opened up a collection of impeccably appointed buildings farther out on the grounds for overnight accommodations: the Riding House, restored seventeenth-century stables with eight bedrooms, a communal living and gathering room and a dining hall; and the Pepperpot Lodges, an intimate pair of stone dwellings. He has also introduced a concert series that speaks to his first love, music.
Other initiatives are sure to follow—in addition to shepherding St. Giles’s public legacy, Nick is constantly coming up with ways to bring the house to life for his own young family, something that was lost on his generation. “My children get to interact with St. Giles in a way that was wholly anathema to my brother and me,” Nick says. “We rarely visited and, when we did, we felt totally and completely alien to the place. We were not at all at home here. My children are. And now, finally, I am too.”