Mistress of all she surveys.
Margaret Lilly talks to Lady Sheffield, whose family owns one of Yorkshire’s finest stately homes
Photographs: Paul Heaton (Fotocraft Images)
WITH her dark locks and colourful clothes Lady Sheffield cuts a vivacious figure as we chat amid the historic splendour of Sutton Park, one of North Yorkshire’s prettiest stately homes. The mansion is situated in Sutton on the Forest near York, an equally pretty village originally in the Forest of Galtres. An Elizabethan house belonging to her husband’s family once stood in the park and this was replaced by the present house, built in mellow brick in 1730. Owner Sir Reginald Sheffield also has a second stately pile at Normanby Park, Lincolnshire.
Lady Sheffield is mistress of both and torn between the two. Literally so as the couple spend part of the week in each place, so not only is there to-ing and fro-ing with dogs, etc, but she has to keep two wardrobes and personal accoutrements at each home. ‘Actually we live at a farmhouse, Thealby House on the Normanby Estate, and keep a flat in Normanby. It can be a bit disorientating sometimes; I’ll wake up in the night here – we sleep in a very high four-poster – thinking I’m in my ordinary bed at Thealby, and have been known to fall out!’
Lady Sheffield has been married to Sir Reginald for nearly 30 years. They have three children, of which their only son, Robert, will succeed to the baronetcy. He will be the 13th of that name on the family tree. The title issue is a mite complicated as Sir Reginald’s mother, Nancie Sutton, whom many will remember as the matriarch of Sutton Park from 1963 until her death at the age of 90 in 1997, was Mrs Sheffield. This was because her husband was the second son of the 7th baronet of Normanby. Sutton Park came on to the market in 1963 and they bought it, thereby bringing descendants of the Sheffield family back to Yorkshire.
The family tree is of the Barons of Butterwick and includes a Knight Templar in the 14th century, a Recorder of the City of London and the first Duke of Buckingham in the 18th century. The dukes lived at Buckingham House in London and later sold it to the Crown in 1762; we know it now as Buckingham Palace. There is no family link to the royals but there is to the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron. His wife Samantha is Sir Reginald’s daughter by his first marriage to Lady Astor. ‘All the families are great friends. Although I have eight step-grandchildren and their parents we don’t use the word “step”; they are all brothers and sisters and come here frequently.’
How do they get some privacy when visitors are wandering around the house and grounds? ‘It can be a bit difficult sometimes, especially in the summer when they might want to sunbathe, and in the house we only have the kitchen, the orangery and a small sitting room which isn’t warm. There is only central heating downstairs. No, none upstairs (to my look of horror) so we rely on electric heaters.’ There are of course pretty little fireplaces in each bedroom but the days are gone of a skivvy lugging coal scuttles upstairs. Now the staff consists of a housekeeper with part-time help, two gardeners and a maintenance man who is also their chef. ‘We entertain special interest groups so when I re-did the kitchen I installed a sophisticated cooker as well as an Aga. You wouldn’t believe what it was like when my mother-in law was here – no Aga, painted grey and she boarded up the windows!’ Now it is colourful and light: two long windows behind a pine settle, table and old chairs, the walls vermillion and cream tiles within two wide arches, stainless steel cupboards and spotlights. The dog beds belong to a Patterdale terrier, her son, a pattie/border terrier mix, and a spaniel.
An unusual feature is a convex wall, the concave side being in the dining room. Here Sir Reginald appeared, explaining that it had been converted from two pantries by a well-known architect, Francis Johnson, who also designed the orangery. Unbelievably there had been no dining room, only a morning room.
Her Ladyship and I sat in the library, a comfortable room full of family photographs. I asked if the public was allowed in here. ‘Oh yes, apart from those I mentioned earlier, all the rooms are open. It means I have to keep my bedroom tidy! And I have to check and refresh the flowers every time I come back. Time spent here varies, sometime it’s three days in a week, sometimes a long weekend.’ As we went from room to room I noticed the hidden lift in the tea room –‘Mrs Sheffield installed that. She was a marvellous lady and did so much to the house.’ We then went into the Porcelain Room which has a fantastic Meissen china chandelier. Small flower clusters hang from each arm – ‘Can you believe that someone unhooked and took one? It’s minus two at the moment as we’ve sent another to be copied.’
It is not a large house and all the rooms are of comfortable proportions, each having particular attractions, like the rare Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Room, the fabulous crystal chandelier in here from Marlborough House, ornate panelling from Potternewton Hall in Leeds lining the morning room and the glorious plasterwork ceilings in the library and entrance hall by Cortese. The hall opens from the original drive of raked gravel between two magnificent cedars. The south side overlooks the stepped garden, wide lawns and lovely trees. They are award-winning gardens and Lady Sheffield is often to be found working there –‘I’m sure some visitors think I’m the under-gardener’ – and she has made a blue and white arbour and a herb garden. A fernery was made in the old Edwardian rockery and a beautiful timber seat constructed round a huge yew tree. ‘We have opened up the woodland and made a children’s playground because we have a lot of events here. There’s an Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday which our grandchildren love, a lovely old-fashioned country show in the park on 26/27th of July and new this year is a Birds of Prey Centre in the Walled Garden.’
On either side of the house are the Georgian Ice House and the Tea Room. ‘Hilary runs this and serves delicious teas. We’re also licensed for weddings and often get invited.’ These are held in marquees in the floral splendour of the gardens.
Born in Southport, she is one of three girls, all enthusiastic cooks. Did they learn from their mother? ‘No! She couldn’t boil an egg.’ She met her husband in London through mutual friends. They took over Sutton Park in 1997 and had to camp out in the building whilst it was re-roofed. Was it a trial to become chatelaine of not one stately home but two? ‘Not really, I had helped run Normanby and it was a pleasure to take over this delightful house. It’s been lovely to facilitate the improvements in the grounds and last year we won an award from Yorkshire in Bloom for Best Tourist and Visitor Attraction.’
This doesn’t surprise me, any more than the obvious love that her Ladyship has for Sutton Park in all its guises. From the early sixties to the present day, it has given pleasure to not only the Sheffield families but an appreciative public and the present Baronet and his Lady ensure that this continues.
Incidentally, one of Sir Reginald’s daughters is Samantha Cameron, wife of the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron...and the couple’s ancestors once owned what became Buckingham Palace