The Country House Cumbria has all the Georgian tick boxes. A symmetrical facade, grand porticoed entrance, attractively proportioned rooms… But this historic property, in the North Pennines, has been transformed by its custodians, who have seamlessly merged its original features with contemporary-luxury interiors. The result is a six-bedroom country house that offers every modern comfort imaginable while still retaining all the charm of its past.
It’s hard to believe that just two years ago The Country House Cumbria, in the village of Castle Carrock in the foothills of the North Pennines, was a wreck, riddled with dry rot. Today, it’s quite a different story. The six-bedroom Georgian pile, which is available as a luxury holiday rental, is a masterclass in contemporary style and comfort. And yet it still retains the original period features that define its 160-year heritage.
The renovation has been a labour of love for the house’s custodians, actor Ben Forster and his property developer partner Paul Longman. They have meticulously restored it to its former glory in just over 24 months. Yet, this story begins much further back. “I’m from Sunderland and we’d come to Castle Carrock on holidays when I was a young boy,” says Ben, whose career spans two decades in musical theatre. “I used to ask my mum and dad to lift me up so I could see over the wall and I’d dream about living there.”
Many years later, Ben and Paul bought a holiday cottage in Castle Carrock. They were attracted by the surrounding countryside, with its dramatic fells, waterfalls and rivers, and the village itself with its excellent local pub and welcoming community. Then, serendipitously, the big house, which had gradually been falling into decline, came on the market in 2017.
Built in 1862 by a merchant who made his fortune in the cloth trade in India, it has all the hallmarks of classic Georgian architecture, with a symmetrical facade and a grand porticoed entrance. An orangery, added in 1914, adds to the footprint. The couple felt it would make an incredible holiday home. “We love the village and the surrounding area – the walks are just phenomenal,” says Paul. “Plus the house had this rich history and its energy was amazing.”
After four years of conveyancing, they finally got their hands on the keys in 2021. Although Ben and Paul started developing properties thirteen years ago and have a sizable portfolio between them, neither has any formal design training. Nor did they commission an architect for the considerable renovation they were about to undertake. “We just did it all on paper to start with. We pictured ourselves in each room and how we wanted it to work,” explains Paul.
Much to their surprise and delight, the house still had many of its original features. “When we first came to look around, we pulled back the carpet and could see these amazing floor tiles underneath,” continues Paul. “And we were blessed with the original stone stairs, shutters, bannisters and fireplaces – so many things in such good condition.” The Lincrusta wallpaper in the hallway was another feature they inherited. The deeply embossed wall covering made of putty, popular in the late 19th century for its intricate patterns, was painstakingly restored and is now painted a stone colour.
With design ideas swimming around their heads, Ben and Paul set about ripping everything, except the period features, out. Though they reckon they filled at least 50 skips, anything they could reuse or recycle they did. About three weeks into the work, however, they came upon every developer’s nightmare: dry rot, which would eat into their budget.
It was around this time that they hit upon the idea of starting an Instagram account to chart their renovation journey of The Country House Cumbria. This was mainly for inquisitive friends who were saying “send us pictures, send us pictures”. And so @thecountryhousediaries was born, with followers increasing by their thousands in a matter of days.
“It was quite exciting,” says Paul. “Plus with things going wrong with the house, such as an unexpected leak causing the drawing room ceiling, its plasterwork and newly renovated ceiling rose, to fall in, Instagram was a light relief. There were so many people being really supportive.” They now have 96.5k followers and counting. Their grid isn’t contrived – it’s honest, relatable and, above all, useful. “We realised people love seeing videos of before and after content,” says Ben.
As their Instagram account gained traction, it started catching the attention of design brands, many looking to collaborate with Ben and Paul on the project. But not before careful consideration from the pair. “We always ask ourselves can we honestly look someone in the eye and genuinely say, ‘that’s an amazing brand, it’s really beautiful and the quality is brilliant.’ And if we don’t feel comfortable doing that, then it’s a no.”
Amongst the brands they worked with on The Country House Cumbria are Mylands. The London-based paint manufacturer’s richly pigmented, jewel-toned paints adorn the walls throughout the expansive house. “The paint was so important. Once we chose a colour for each room it really set the tone. It’s so much easier to style a room once you’ve decided on a colour,’ says Ben.
“In a lot of the rooms, we enveloped the space so all the flat surfaces from the skirting to the ceiling are in that colour. I think it gives it a more contemporary feel,” continues Paul. Their dark green and marble Shaker-style Olive & Barr-designed kitchen has won numerous awards. Little surprise, with its handcrafted artisan cabinetry, Original BTC lighting and cutting-edge appliances, including a top-of-the-range cooker by Italian company Ilve.
Other successful collaborations include with Castrad Radiators, whose custom-made cast-iron radiators heat the house; Burlington Bathrooms; Crucial Trading, for all the runners and rugs; Johnson’s Tiles; and Johnson’s of Elgin, who make fabrics for luxury fashion houses and who created all the bespoke curtains and throws for the beds. “We had an amazing trip to their factory in Scotland, to watch all the fabric and curtains being made, a process that blew our minds,” says Paul.
“I don’t think we would have been able to finish the project if it wasn’t for Instagram and the collaborations that came with it,” says Ben. “Not to the high standard we wanted and it would have taken us a lot longer. We’ve had massive support from so many different companies. It’s been great working with some of our favourite British heritage brands, known for their skilled craftsmanship and in-depth knowledge.”
The couple – who favour Art Deco and mid-20th century style – say that one of their strongest design references is the Soho House Group. “We love the way they blend all the different eras together. Part of our thing is that we are obsessed with furniture, so we buy it along the way and then it might sit in storage for a couple of years. And then when you bring that piece into a room you love, you can build around it,” says Paul.
Antique and vintage pieces – such as the walnut wood wardrobes and the second-hand lamps in the individually-designed bedrooms – they found on Facebook marketplace and Vinterior. “We love a bargain. Our motto used to be, ‘if it’s not 70% off, we’re not buying it’,” smiles Ben. And they bought a lot at trade showrooms – “the Conran Shop used to be amazing. You could buy sofas that were originally five grand for like 400 quid” – and eBay for ex-display items.
The art on the walls is from Shoreditch Market. “We’ve also got some massive paintings that one of my fans sent me,” says Ben. “In the games room, there’s a picture of me as Jesus Christ Superstar, and Melanie C as Mary, and Tim Minchin as Judas, which is a musical show I did back in 2012.”
Guests renting The Country House Cumbria won’t fail to have a memorable stay. The six ensuite bedrooms include a dormitory style room for children or adults alike, with three bunk beds, so you can book it for up to 16 people, making it an ideal place for big family and friend get-togethers. All the beds come with Hypnos mattresses and toppers, while bathrooms feature products by local brand, The Sedbergh Soap Company.
No detail has been overlooked downstairs either. The elegantly proportioned living spaces are deliciously inviting, whether you’re curling up in front of a crackling fire in the snug or drinking cocktails at the bar in the orangery. Or shooting pool in the games room or sitting down for a meal in the vast kitchen. But what’s so lovely is the little touches, such as the freshly baked cakes and scones that the friendly housekeeper Agnes lays on.
Outside, the three acres of gardens incorporate lawn and meadows, and there’s a jacuzzi, firepit and, best of all, hens, so you can go and collect your own eggs every morning. Castle Carrock is a two-minute walk from the house and the fells beyond are a hiker’s paradise. The Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall are a short drive, so too Scotland, just over the border.
Seeing as Ben and Paul have done such a wonderful job on The Country House Cumbria, can they share any decorating tips? Number one rule, they suggest, is don’t follow trends. “It’s obvious, but buy what you love,” says Paul. “If it’s your house, it doesn’t have to appeal to everybody. If you walk into a shop and some tacky ornament makes you go ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so cute. I love it’ then that’s what you should be buying.”
Layering textures is also key. “Mixing your fabrics like velvets, linens and wool. And we love a cushion. We have so many on every sofa, chair and bed.” They also recommend getting dimmers put in any room that’s being rewired because it changes the mood dramatically. And invest in lots of plants. “We are both obsessed with plants – there’s probably 60 throughout the house,” continues Ben. “Don’t buy big, expensive ones. Instead look for £5 or £10 plants – and if you look after them, they’ll be big in a year. The ferns in the dining room cost £3 each, but they would be £100 now.”
Now that The Country House Cumbria is finished, and the rental bookings are coming in thick and fast, what’s next for Paul and Ben? “We are planning on doing one or two projects a year,” says Paul. “I can’t imagine us not having somewhere to style and develop and think about and obsess over.”
But it’s obvious this little slice of heaven in Cumbria will always have their heart – and the pride in their voices is palpable. “It looked quite dark and scary when we first bought it,” smiles Ben. “And then one day it just suddenly became this, like, golden house. And it just looked and felt so happy.”
The Country House Cumbria, Castle Carrock, Cumbria