Sunday, 31 July 2022

Book Review: Downton Shabby

With my ear to the ground for other infeasibly overambitious restoration projects, the case of the imperilled Hopwood Hall outside Rochdale and its eponymous saviour Hopwood DePree cannot have failed to make it onto my radar. As soon as it did, I immediately sent a message of support. This was in 2017.

The story behind Hopwood's involvement in saving the building, as an Hollywood producer resident in LA, is a remarkable one. So remarkable in fact, that as the plot of a Hollywood movie, it would stretch credibility. Growing up in the U.S., Hopwood's grandfather told him tales of a family castle in England. Hopwood, took these just as stories, but later in life after his grandfather, and indeed father had passed away, some late-night wine-fuelled web-surfing revealed the reality of the rapidly disintegrating Hopwood Hall. This was the long lost family castle, dating from 1420.

On Hopwood's first visit, he realised he would be changed by the building and made a commitment to do what he could to save it. Hopwood's account of the story "Downton Shabby" has just been published, and I realised it was a "must read" for me. I finished the book last night.

Downton Shabby - The Book

This blog article is purely a book review, in the context of my own restoration project. Previous blog book reviews may be found here.

There are endless resources on the Web if you want to find out more about Hopwood and "his" Hall. Naturally, Hopwood is not publicity shy: there is a vlog; a comedy stand-up tour (not joking!); a website and now this book, which has in turn caused a minor media storm. Here's a good starting place for web-surfing, wine-fueled or otherwise:

"Downton Shabby" is written with a light touch, and is very much an "entertainment". There is not a great amount of self-reveal, but enough to ground the book in reality. Hopwood starts to look into surrogacy as a way of having children as he gets older, but then withdraws for the present as the hall demands his full attention. He is drawn back into the Hollywood-life every now and again, and clearly still wants to have relevancy there amongst his crazy circle of friends, but ultimately realises where his soul is more nourished, despite the damp and cold of Salford. It is a compelling tale of self-discovery.

The best and funniest parts of the book are the accounts of his clashes with British culture. You can't help but fall in love with his builder Bob, who is forever making jokes at Hopwood's expense - and Hopwood comes to realise that this "culture of insult" is very much the British way and even learns to love it himself.  Hopwood is embraced by the British aristocracy and British establishment, themselves encumbered by crumbling stately piles. They generously provide help, advice and friendship. While Hopwood often feels out of place and not worthy in their company, it is a tribute to the quality of the man that he is open and non-prejudicial, in a way that perhaps only a foreigner can be.

There were many resonances with Balintore Castle: the cold, the discomfort, the despair, the scale of works required. I found reading anything on dry-rot intensely uncomfortable, and had to speed read these passages. I related to Hopwood's heartache when vandals destroyed historic fabric: during my tenure at Balintore historic fabric has been destroyed too, and I also cried.

In particular, I related to the life-changing journey. His total involvement with the building has spanned almost 10 years now. This ramped up in 2017 when he took responsibility for the building from Rochdale Council. Continuing with a restoration in the longer term can be more difficult than starting off, particularly when light cannot be seen at the end of the tunnel. It took 12 years before there was a single habitable room at Balintore Castle. This was not the way I had planned things to go at all, but there were Council prohibitions, and the despair this caused was huge.

Anyhow, it looks like Hopwood really is in it for the long term, and his persistence has turned around many of the doubters that appear in the book. Hopwood insists throughout that the restoration is not an individual effort, and even guiltily confesses to claiming the use of the word "we" even though the only thing he is "hands on" with, a lot of the time, is the keyboard. Anyhow, I wish him and his team the best of luck.

And if it is in any doubt, "Downton Shabby" is heartily recommended. It is far better than it has any right to be. :-)

Hopwood Hall as first spotted by Hopwood on the Internet

a current Hopwood Hall interior

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Hitting The Wall

Four times in my life I have had to clear out a freezer that has been switched off. On each of these occasions, the power had been off for such a long time that the process was traumatising. And, as if this wasn't bad enough, on each of these occasions I was not the one had switched the freezer off in the first place.

Three years ago, my builders switched off my freezer at the castle, while I was away at my house in Oxfordshire. I returned and was extremely upset because this was the third time they had done the freezer switch-off while I was away. On each previous occasion the contents were ruined and the appliance was a write-off.

I told my builders that this time they would have to empty the fridge, because it was not my fault i.e. whoever switches the fridge off must take the responsibility of emptying it. However, the builders did not empty the freezer, instead they simply taped it shut with duck-tape.

Roll 3 years forward to May of this year. When I returned to the Balintore after attending a funeral, the fridge was standing in front of the castle. Some American students were helping out with the restoration, and clearly my builders had instructed them to take the freezer out of the building.

There it stayed like a grey Neolithic monolith from your worst nightmares, until two days before the Open Day in June. I felt obliged to comment to Gregor: "This is not a good look for the Open Day". When I next passed the front of the castle, the fridge was on its back lying on the flat bed of my pick-up truck, and Gregor commented "You can just take it to the tip like that". "You cannot possibly do that to another human being, Gregor, you have to empty it", I replied. Gregor said he was not able to do it and left the scene. It is true that he has an overpowering gag reflex in response to smell. We have cleared blocked drains together in the past, and Gregor was retching throughout.

There was no alternative. I mounted the truck and removed the duck tape. The smell was indescribable. I started removing the slimy contents item by item and placing them in either  a plastic bag or a food bin (if biodegradable).  I have an exceptionally strong stomach, but even I was retching. In fact it was so appalling I went to fetch Gregor to help me, but he refused. I had started by climbing up to the fridge, removing an item, and the climbing down again to bin it. However, I realised that I had to somehow speed up the process otherwise I would not last the course. I placed a large sheet of polythene on the ground, which allowed me to throw the contents from the back of the truck.

There were the remains of around 12 brown trout, sections of the rear end of a Roe Deer, a chicken, some kind of game bird, a joint of beef and mince. Many of the items were simply unidentifiable. Oddly, I realised that a surprising number of the items were not as decomposed as you might think after three years, because the fridge had been sealed and this had stopped quite a lot of micro-organisms and larvae from doing their work. So the fish were still intact and strangely firm but had a revolting slimy surface. So there was structure, but the smell of death and decay was overpowering.

I would have rinsed the fridge out, left to my own devices, but as it was flat on its back, water would have just stayed in the appliance, so I guiltily realised I has no strength physically or mentally to move the freezer to the upright position again and rinse it out. Emptying the fridge and disposing of the remains in the forest had taken a long time and it was getting late in the day.

Gregor drove me to Forfar tip so he could man-handle the freezer off my pick-up for me. This was much appreciated, given my bad back.

As Gregor was doing this, an employee of the tip came rushing up and challenged "Is there anything in that freezer?". Gregor was able to say, in all honesty "No there isn't". The employee was not convinced, "Tape is generally a warning sign that there is food still in there". He started approaching the unit. I was in the passenger seat muttering over and over again under my breath: "Don't open the door! Don't open the door!", but of course I could not say anything out loud and admit our guilt.

The employee opened the door. The wall of putrefaction hit instantly, he recoiled backwards six feet, and from the depth of his soul exclaiming loudly "Oh, my God!". He had just enough composure to slam the door closed again, but was obviously in too much of a state of shock to do or say anything else, and Gregor and I drove off taking this window of opportunity to leave the scene of the crime.

If there had been any food in the unit, then it clearly would not have been accepted, so I was right to go against Gregor's exhortations of just dumping it contents and all from a practical point of view, let alone the moral one of course.

So my apologies go out to the Forfar employee, I did the best I could. The morale of this story, kiddies, is that if you switch a freezer off, then you have to empty and clean it yourself. I can assure you that if you had to go through what I went through, then you will never, ever do it again.

I have some graphic images of the fridge contents, but I will spare you with this single photograph taken at the least traumatising angle.


disposing of the bodies