“It’s been quite a journey.”
Nicholas Edmund Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, smiles as he looks up at the place he calls home.
We are standing outside the almost fully refurbished, immensely impressive St Giles House, which Lord Shaftesbury, who prefers to be known as Nick, has spent the last three-and-a-half years bringing back to its former glory.
He inherited the estate following the sudden death of his brother in 2005. It was something of a tragic time for Lord Shaftesbury, whose father Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, was murdered in November 2004 by the brother of his third wife.
Lord Shaftesbury gradually involved himself in the running of the estate and came up with a plan to save the Grade One listed building, which had been untouched for the last 30 years after his father ran out of money while trying to downsize.
“It was quite daunting,” he admits.
“When you come from a family like mine, with all of these amazing ancestors, I couldn’t get rid of the house and the heart of the family.”
Lord Shaftesbury moved into the house with his wife and young family, and began working on the worst parts of the building.
“The whole thing has completely snowballed,” he said.
“We’ve been surprised and happy at the progress we’ve managed to make in a relatively short period.”
St Giles House now hosts weddings and corporate events, as well as community activities such as food festivals and runs.
“It has to pay for itself and it gives it a reason to exist,” explained Lord Shaftesbury.
“These are incredible buildings that were built in a time that has long gone. The land and the house is such a beautiful combination which is nice to share with people.”
The building still has rooms which are without floorboards or walls, and those in which experts are painstakingly restoring 100-year-old wallpaper. Scaffolding still covers the main entrance, which is being rebuilt after time spent sourcing matching bricks and even mortar.
But in other parts of the house, original tapestries, restored in ‘a giant Jacuzzi in Belgium’, have been proudly re-hung. Oil paintings of Lord Shaftesbury’s ancestors look down on workmen putting the finishing touches to authentic casings which hide modern radiators.
Dusty, leather-jacketed books, belonging to the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, who was something of a keen philosopher, sit opposite biographies on Guns ’N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash and novels by Jeffrey Archer. The walls are hung with damask silk fabric and the incredibly ornate ceiling in one room, which dates back to the 1650s when the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury built the house, has been given a fresh lick of paint.
To say the finished rooms are impressive is a massive understatement.
“We really want to create a feeling at St Giles that you’ve come somewhere special and unique,” explained Lord Shaftesbury. “That takes time to develop. It was painstaking getting the right brick and the right mortar, but all these things matter so much and you can’t really rush it.
“There are certain elements that we wanted to keep, so we look at the age and we look at the feel. The temptation is to go in and rip everything out and put in everything new.
“You become more sensitive to the character of the building as you go through.
“A lot of things got sold in the 1980s but some of the really key things we’ve been able to keep hold of, so the rooms have not lost their feel.”
Equal attention has been paid to the outside space, where pathways have been created around an imposing replica of Eros, one of only ten made from the same mould as the famous Piccadilly Circus statue, which has a very special place in the family’s heart.
“The statue in Piccadilly Circus is a commemoration to the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury for all his philanthropic work. It’s a huge symbol for the family, something we are incredibly proud of.”
Lord Shaftesbury is, understandably, incredibly proud of the refurbishment, and is hoping it will be completed by next month.
He added: “It felt sad to see the history of the house not being cared for properly, but it looks magnificent now.”
To find out about forthcoming events at St Giles House, including the Great Shaftesbury Run on May 18, visit shaftesburyestates.com