It was a drizzly, autumnal day, and William Cash was winding up the final tour of the season at Upton Cressett Hall. He was just clearing away the teacups when he noticed that one man seemed reluctant to leave.
“This place has certainly changed,” said the man, in his 60s, with a grey beard and glasses, wearing waterproof clothing.
“You see, I very nearly lived here. I nearly took the lease in 1970.”
Mr Cash could barely believe his ears. The country pile, six miles from Bridgnorth had loomed large for most of his life. He was just four years old when his parents, Stone MP Sir Bill Cash and his wife Biddy bought the property in 1970. It was where he lived an idyllic childhood playing with his Action Man and building sandcastles among the building works as his parents turned the ramshackle wreck into a family home.
And it was where William Jr spent great chunks of his adult life – and not an inconsiderable amount of money – restoring the 16th century manor house into a popular visitor attraction. The strain of renovating the house would contribute to the failure of one marriage, but would also lead to another. But none of this would have happened if his guest had seen through his plan to turn the estate into a hippie commune.
The visitor was Peter Lea, who in 1969 was a 21-year-old freelance photographer from Wolverhampton who specialised in selling pictures of rundown historic houses to the press.
In May that year he was dispatched to Upton Cressett after a story had appeared in the Star’s sister paper, the Bridgnorth Journal, highlighting the hall’s dereliction following a recent vandal attack. But for Lea this was no ordinary job.
So captivated was he by the ramshackle property in the middle of nowhere – “The absolute desolation and tranquility was wonderful, I was hooked” – that he returned two or three times, eventually showing his friends the ‘lost medieval mansion’.
“This was the end of 1969, and the beginning of the 70s, which would see the age of hippies and their flower power communes,” he wrote in a letter to Mr Cash.
“I gathered a few friends together one weekend, and suggested we should approach the owner, and offer to rent the hall where we could create a commune of artisans.”
Lea quickly discovered that a rundown mansion with an intermittent electrical supply located two miles from the nearest telephone line was not the ideal base for a press photographer, particularly one supplying pictures to a number of London-based newspapers including Rupert Murdoch’s newly revamped Sun.
“It made living at Upton Cressett impossible,” he said. So as the dream ended for Peter Lea and his friends, it was just beginning for the Cash family.
William Cash, whose life at Upton Cressett is recorded in his new memoir Restoration Heart, was stunned when he contemplated how different his life would have been had Lea succeeded in his dreams.
“I felt a strange rush of emotions,” he says in the book.
“How would my life have turned out had I not been brought up at Upton Cressett? Would I ever have met Laura if the house had remained a derelict wreck.”
‘Laura’ is Lady Laura Cathcart-Cash, William’s third and present wife who was working at George Spencer Designs when he started buying wallpaper and textiles for the restoration.
William took over the the hall from his parents in 2007, and it is fair to say the restoration – like William’s personal life – had seen its share of ups and downs.
At the start of the project, William took out a hefty mortgage – “home improvements, I had written on the form” – but finding a builder to take on the work was easier said than done. One actually ran away after being shown the scale of the work needed in just one bedroom.
But while one builder was overawed by the scale of the project, there was another who got a little carried away when he was asked to strip out the interior of the house while William was away visiting a music festival in Nevada.
“While I was in the Black Rock desert, a van-load of axes, sledgehammers, iron bars and pneumatic drills had turned my former family home into a wasteland,” he says.
With hindsight, William says his instruction to the builder to gut the house was symptomatic of his own personal despair following his first divorce, and he admits to suffering something of a ‘mid-life crisis’.
He recalls how his father, who had renovated the house in the 1970s, advised him to carry out the work one room at a time, with a strict budget. He had told him to never spend more than a few hundred pounds on a room, and to always be on site to oversee the work.
But there were also plenty of highs, and he particularly enjoyed working with celebrated artist Adam Dant whose murals became the signature piece of the renovation.
William was just three years old when he saw Upton Cressett for the first time.
His father, Sir Bill, was a 30-year-old solicitor bringing up a young family in a terraced house in Islington when he spotted the advertisement for a rundown manor house requiring ‘considerable renovation’.
He recalls being packed into the family’s old Citroen for the long journey, in the days before the M40, and being circled by cows while they stopped for a picnic.
“I can still remember the fetid animal smell of the place,” he says.
“The last resident had been a tenant pig farmer called Mr Flood, he had lived in a few rooms without electricity or mains water.”
For all its decay, there was something about Upton Cressett that persuaded Bill and Biddy Cash to sell their London terrace, and escape to the country, despite scepticism from their friends.
“Many of our friends thought we were mad,” says Sir Bill, who was knighted in 2014 for services to politics.
“Neither of us told our parents about Upton Cressett for two years after we had moved in.
“We just didn’t dare. They would have thought we were crazy and irresponsible.”
To ensure that the house earned its keep, the Cashes opened the house up to guests, and in his early teens William would dress up in a blue velvet jacket from C & A and clip-on bow tie to attend to the guests.
William’s four-year restoration of Upton Cressett Hall was completed in 2011, and the following year the house was upgraded to Grade I listed status. It also earned the ‘Best Hidden Gem’ title in the prestigious 2011 Hudson’s Heritage Awards, also making the final for the Best Renovation and Best Accommodation categories.
While that was unquestionably a proud moment, it was not the stand out moment by any means. That came in 2014 when he married Lady Laura, and they returned to Upton Cressett Hall as man and wife.