‘Some locals didn’t know it was here’

Rebecca and Will Dobson at Hill Place
Rebecca and Will Dobson at Hill Place
Lloyd and Karen Clewer, the founders of Farm4Life, at Haslar Hospital, Gosport, where they store goods ready to send to Africa  (Picture by Habibur Rahman)

Ghana trip changed Fareham couple’s lives

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Surely it’s everybody’s dream to inherit a lovely old mansion and live the country life?

But when Will and Rebecca Dobson were left Grade II-listed Georgian Hill Place, they struggled to keep the place going.

‘We were under pressure to call an estate agent in to sell it, because the running costs were so high’ admits Rebecca.

‘We were living in the kitchen and a bedroom because the rest of it was too expensive to heat.’

The couple moved to Hill Place in Swanmore in 2007 when Will’s grandmother was still living there. They took over the house and grounds when she died in 2009.

They’d been living in Wiltshire, with 34-year-old Will working as land agent and Rebecca, 33, training as an intellectual property lawyer.

Hill Place was beautiful, with a stunning staircase, open fires, a Georgian painted floral ceiling, a library and views across parkland. But could they afford to keep it going?

There was a long list of expensive and urgent repairs needed, as well as additional yearly running costs of £50,000,

But their salvation was the TV programme Country House Rescue, in which expert Ruth Watson helps people to make their lovely old properties commercially viable.

Now Hill Place, which was built in 1791, is a thriving wedding and party venue and Rebecca and Will are no longer panicking about paying the bills.

Rebecca says: ‘Looking out of the window on a beautiful sunny day, I know we are incredibly privileged to be here. It is an amazing thing that many people must dream of. But the reality is that it’s very hard work. Everything comes at a cost.’

She adds: ‘We both feel we’re only caretakers of the house. We’re here for our lifetime, but the house will continue after we’ve gone.

‘There is a sense of wanting other people to enjoy it. It’s fun to see their reaction when they come here. Some locals didn’t even know the house was here.’

Will, who runs an apple farm while Rebecca manages Hill Place, adds: ‘Rebecca and I are passionate about our home but needed to make it a successful business in order to maintain it. Having held our own wedding reception here, we’d already started work renovating Hill Place and turning it into a wedding venue when we were offered the opportunity to work with Country House Rescue.’

Rebecca explains: ‘We’d watched the first series of the show after a friend told us about it and then got in touch with a consultancy. When the TV production company contacted the consultancy to see if they knew of any country houses that could be featured, they thought of us.

‘We didn’t think we were big enough to be of interest, but the producer, director and Ruth’s husband, who is involved in consultancy, came down to meet us and within two weeks they were starting filming.’

A film crew of 11 people descended between April and October last year and Rebecca says: ‘The first few days were terrifying. There were all these television lights and you’re nervous about talking to camera and how you’ll be perceived.

‘But soon it became quite natural and when they went we missed having them around.’

She adds: ‘Now we’re scared about the programme being shown. But we’ve seen a preview and so we know what to expect. It won’t be that bad.’

The couple are delighted to have featured in the series and have learned a lot. Rebecca explains: ‘Having advice from Ruth and tapping into her wealth of experience has given us unique ideas. Over the course of six months, the film crew visited the house several times to check on our progress.

‘As Hill Place is first and foremost a family home, Ruth has encouraged us to use this as selling point. This house loves a good party and we want others to enjoy it as much as we do. So Ruth helped us develop the idea of hosting domestic goddess weekends for hen-dos and other parties, so guests can enjoy a great party whilst learning skills like cupcake decorating and flower arranging.’

Since the production company finished filming in October, Rebecca and Hill Place have hosted eight weddings and one domestic goddess weekend, with many more booked in this year and in 2012. Not bad for somebody who had no previous experience in the hospitality business.

She says: ‘We’re close to securing our running costs for this year and that is a major step forward from where we were a year ago. The future looks good.’

DISPUTES

Country House Rescue often focuses on disputes that arise when older family members are resistant to change and don’t like seeing homes turned into businesses.

When Ruth Watson went to Hill Place, she found herself playing peacemaker as Will Dobson’s mother and her three siblings were critical of the changes planned for what was once their parents’ home.

During filming, Ruth invited Will’s Aunt Pricilla to Hill Place to discuss some of the family’s misgivings and try to win their support.

Rebecca says: ‘The programme does pick up on conflicts. Nobody likes change, but everybody realised that we couldn’t afford it and that making Hill Place into a business was the only way it could stay in the family. Although they struggled with the idea, they understood it.’

As part of her business plan, Ruth encouraged Will and Rebecca to move out and leave the whole of Hill Place open for money-making ideas. The couple took her advice and now live in a cottage at the end of the drive.

n Country House Rescue is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm

HISTORY

Hill Place has a long and varied history going back to 1753, when the estate was bought by Captain Roger Martin from the neighbouring Midlington estate. He paid for it with money gained from capturing two Spanish galleons.

The estate passed to his niece and then to her son, Richard Goodlad, who, it is thought, built the house in the late 1700s with money made while working for the East India Company.

Later, the estate was broken up and sold, with the house, parkland and model farm being bought by a Gosport property developer in 1916. The house and its park were then bought by Will’s grandparents, in 1977, and they developed what was by then a fruit farm into a thriving business, which today supplies major supermarkets with apples and pears from the Meon Valley.

Hill Place used to have 11 bedrooms, but a top floor of the flat-roofed building was lost because of dry rot.