‘We bought our ancestral home back from Kuwaiti royal family’

James and Rowena Nason are lovingly restoring Pitchford Hall. By Eleanor Doughty



Daily Telegraph



On Sept 30 1992, the hammer fell on the last of 1,047 lots sold by Christie’s from a tent outside Pitchford Hall, a once grand estate near Shrewsbury. More than £ 1.3m was raised, but the heartbreak faced by Pitchford’s owners – the Colthurst family – couldn’t be measured in pounds and pence. Oliver Colthurst, for 20 years a partner with stockbrokers de Zoete and Bevan, had put money into a Lloyd’s of London syndicate but lost out in the days when investors had unlimited liability. The result was that Pitchford, the house his wife, Caroline, had inherited in 1972, would have to be sold – and the contents, too. The night before the sale, Oliver and Caroline’s younger daughter, Rowena, rang up the Labour MP Tam Dalyell in desperation. A few days earlier, he had asked in the House of Commons how Pitchford, “an almost unique 16th- century timber-framed house, was allowed to come under Christie’s hammer”. Rowena begged him for help, but there was nothing he could do. “It now seems naive, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do,” remembers James Nason, Rowena’s husband. The following month, a Kuwaiti princess bought the empty house, but never moved in. The Colthursts kept the 1,000-acre estate, and could only watch as the building deteriorated. Angus Stirling, then director- general of the National Trust, described the separation of Pitchford from its contents as a tragedy. Nason swore that they would do everything in their power to get the house back. In the end, the Colthursts moved to France. Neither of them lived to see the much longed-for day in August 2016 when Rowena and James Nason bought Pitchford back from the princess. Since then, they have poured everything they have into bringing Pitchford back to life. In doing so, they have made it a home for their three children, Georgiana, 18, Serena, 12, and Edward, 10. There has been a house on the Pitchford estate since at least 1086. The medieval manor that stood there was, in the 1200s, owned by the De Pykeford family. Its name derives from a naturally occurring “pitch” well in the grounds, which was used to protect the house’s timbers, while opposite the well is a ford across the Row Brook. In 1473, a Thomas Ottley bought Pitchford and a century later his descendant Adam Ottley built the house that stands today. Fast forward 400 years and the house had passed to the Hon Charles Jenkinson, younger son of Charles Jenkinson, 1st Earl of Liverpool. After he died, the house went to his daughter Lady Louisa Cotes’s family and into the Grant family by 1918, landing with Gen Sir Charles Grant and Lady Sybil Primrose, daughter of Lord Rosebery, the former prime minister. Their son Robin Grant had two daughters, Georgina and Caroline, and when Robin died in 1972, he left Pitchford to Caroline. “Very unexpectedly ... I suddenly found myself the proud owner of all of these lovely things,” she recalled in 2002. But by the time James and Rowena got the house back, Pitchford was not quite so lovely. It was rotten and damp, with peeling paint and ivy-covered windows. Since then, the couple have been hard at work: turning the orangery into an events space, beginning restoration of the 17th century treehouse – thought to be the oldest in the world – and, after 16 months of work, opening the west wing as a seven-bedroom holiday let. One of the most interesting projects has been the restoration of the library. This is now in the neo-Tudor- Gothic style, with blue bookcases built by local cabinetmakers. Two giant heraldic panthers sit either side of the fireplace, and around the top of the bookcases are the family coats of arms of each of the families to have owned Pitchford. “We had no remnants of the old library, so we took the view that we could do something new,” says Nason. What emerged was “a bit Harry Potter-esque, a bit playful”. There is still an eye-watering amount to finish. Though Pitchford isn’t huge by country house standards ( it has 42 rooms) a third of it is still derelict. The Nasons initially tried to crowdfund some of the work, but the majority of funding has come not just from their own pockets, but from private individuals in Britain and America, and from the Historic Houses Foundation. Over the years, they have hosted outdoor theatre evenings and paranormal tours, civil war re- enactments and weddings, “pulling every lever to see what works.” Last month they co-hosted the inaugural Marches of Time history festival, which returns next year. The central, ongoing project is to reunite the house with its contents. So far, 50-60 of the items sold in 1992 have returned to Pitchford. A Texan man, to whom Nason gave an online guided tour of the house during the pandemic, bought them back a painting by James Ward, The Jenkinson Barb, a bay horse in a landscape with Pitchford in the background. Others have been less generous. “In most people you see a wonderful side of human nature,” says Nason, “but with a small minority there’s a bit of rent-seeking.” There are various coveted prizes from the old Christie’s catalogue. The study at Pitchford was once home to a rosewood table that had belonged to William Gladstone, the former prime minister, and thought to have been used at Downing Street. The table has not been seen since 1992. “We’ve never tracked it down,” says Nason. Likewise, a pencil sketch of a guardsman on a horse drawn by the future Queen Victoria when she stayed at Pitchford in 1832 and described it as “curious looking but very comfortable ... in the shape of a cottage”. Even after 32 years, Nason still gets a shiver going home to Pitchford. “I remember that smell, that peculiar, not unpleasant, slightly musty smell, because it’s an oak and lime house,” he says. “It takes me back to the first time I came to the hall in 1991.” It is easy to be romantic about Pitchford, but both Nason and his wife are realistic about the challenges ahead. “Like every historic house owner, you look at the house and think it’s wonderful, but you also see the gutter that’s slipping. It’s a complex relationship.” They hope that their project will inspire others, “not just about big Tudor houses, but about historic buildings in general, whether it’s a terraced house or a cottage,” says Nason. “I hope the size of the house doesn’t put people off. The point is that you can restore buildings – it just takes a bit of time and devotion, and a bit of passion.”