The idea that a casual act can change the course of personal fate has always been useful to film scriptwriters. If anyone ever makes a biopic about me although I can’t imagine why they would it would have to begin with the moment, 20 years ago, when I bought a copy of Country Life.
It was 6pm on Thursday, June 29, 1989. I was in Hong Kong’s cramped old city-centre airport, Kai Tak, about to board a flight to Taipei, when I paused at the newsstand. The magazine’s cover caught my eye. I was not a regular reader. But after six years as an itinerant banker in Asia, I had developed an in-flight habit of fantasising about where I might buy a house when I came home: Scotland and Tuscany featured regularly, and sometimes my native Yorkshire. Shortly after take-off, the property ad that struck me with the force of a sudden bout of air turbulence was for ‘a most impressive and unusual Grade II-listed country house standing in beautiful grounds and overlooking Helmsley Castle’ in North Yorkshire.
With its classical single-storey frontage, it looked like a Georgian bungalow. Sunlight on the mellow stone of the gable end suggested elevated views. It wasn’t big (three bedrooms plus ‘extensive roof space for conversion’), but it clearly wasn’t small. It was in the lovely little market town where we used to spend family holidays. No price was given, but who cared: somehow I knew, right there over the South China Sea, it was the one for me.
As soon as I saw the house, I knew I was right. Built as a school by the Lord Feversham of the 1820s, it sat handsomely in the view from the drive of his mansion, Duncombe Park. When it was converted to a house in the 1950s by the architect-baronet Sir Martyn Beckett (a Feversham relation), the schoolroom became a drawing room with tall windows looking across the park. It
was very special and in an absolutely terrible state of repair.
But, again, who cared? I consulted my solicitor as to tactics in sealed tenders: bid an odd number that’s a bit more than the guide price, he said. So I did, and Feversham chose me, although I learned later I may not have been the highest bidder; by the end of August, the house was mine.
And it has set my path ever since. Building work took three years, off and on, but I never regretted the project for a second; on the contrary, I longed to spend more time there. I gradually lost interest in the City job to which I returned, until the dramatic point in early 1992 when my employer completely lost interest in me. Instead, I became a freelance journalist just about the only occupation I could pursue from my new study, with its view of the church tower and, eventually, a Spectator columnist.
I helped build the local arts centre and became a keen amateur actor, as well as a town councillor and a churchwarden. I walked my dog every day across his lordship’s parkland. I acquired not just a home that still startles me at the thought of my good luck every time I come home, but a curriculum vitae, a complete persona that might never otherwise have been. And I found it in Country Life.
Martin Vander Weyer is business editor and ‘Any Other Business’ columnist for ‘The Spectator’ and a ‘Daily Telegraph’ contributor
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