Francis Beckett

Press trips are a trap for a freelance. You get to go to nice or interesting places, and it costs you nothing, but if you can’t write about them, or you don’t want to, you’ve wasted precious working hours, and your hosts think you’re just another freeloader.

So I turn them down unless there’s something a bit different about them.  What this weekend’s trip to Somerset had to offer was a hotel with a “history concierge.”

 The general manager of the Ston Eaton Park country house hotel, Ian Jupp, has turned himself into a real expert on the history of the building he manages. He regularly visits the last of the Hippisleys, 89-year-old Lady Hippisley.  The family owned the house for generations, and Lady Hippisley now lives nearby with her 101-year-old former governess Kitty and an army of horses, geese and other farm animals. 

Ian Jupp sits at her feet and listens to her stories of the house, and tries to put it all in some sort of order for the historic tours he offers to guests.

He can tell you the grisly fate of the two women in a spectacular seventeenth century painting that takes up a whole wall of the dining room.

He can tell you the clever way in which the family ingratiated themselves with Henry VIII. He can tell you about the house’s sad decline after 1945, when the family failed to look after it properly, until in 1956 the great staircase in the centre became known as the “salmon run” because water poured down it whenever there was rain, and they sold the whole magnificent pile for just £650.

Eight years later Times editor William Rees-Mogg bought it and started to restore it, but the job was beyond even his means. It’s only in recent years, under the ownership of millionaire Andrew Davies, who has turned it into a luxury country hotel, that serious work has been done on it.

Davies has gone around buying up such houses for his Von Essen chain of country house hotels.  In each one he proposes to have a “history concierge” – a member of staff who is keen to immerse him or herself in the history of the place. He’s bought houses as rich in history as Cliveden – the “history concierge” there will show you, among other things, the swimming pool in which Christine Keeler cavorted with John Profumo, as well as much older treasures.

History has been in sad decline recently.  To the New Labour politicians and the management gurus of the last part of the twentieth century, history was just a burden.  To Ian Jupp, it is the context and texture of his working life.