How to turn a period property’s working kitchen in to a social space for a modern family

Birdsall House in North Yorkshire was laid out perfectly for a family with a host of staff. When Lady Cara and her husband Lord Willoughby moved in, they decided that they would work a different way. Freya Hardman discovered how they achieved their dream kitchen.

When Lady Cara Willoughby moved into her husband’s family’s Grade II*-listed house in 2017, more than 70 years had passed since the last time the keys had been handed over to a new custodian – a period that has seen vast changes in the way that country houses are lived in and managed.

With three children and without an army of domestic help, there was plenty of work to do to reorganise the house to make it suitable for the young family. ‘My grandparents-in-law had lived here with plenty of staff, but that wasn’t what we were going to do,’ explains Lady Cara.

Finalists in the Historic Houses Kitchen Award 2019. The kitchen at Birdsall House, North Yorkshire – the home of Lord and Lady Willoughby. Photograph: Simon Brown/Country Life

As with many unrestored historic houses, the layout offered up no obvious live-in kitchen/breakfast room. ‘We looked at every configuration, but nothing really worked without altering the existing footprint of the house.’ Instead, the couple approached planners with the idea of knocking the six small rooms that made up the kitchen and domestic offices into one room, with the benefit of a west-facing aspect over the garden.

‘Items such as the Lacanche range were sourced secondhand and the whole scheme came in under budget’

The result is a vast space measuring more than 1,000 square feet – ‘It has more metalwork than the Forth Road Bridge,’ quips Lady Cara. Armed with an art degree and a sound knowledge of design and proportion, she set to work on a design using cardboard cutouts to lay out the cabinetry, which would have period details appropriate to the Georgian origins of the house.

Finalists in the Historic Houses Kitchen Award 2019. The kitchen at Birdsall House, North Yorkshire – the home of Lord and Lady Willoughby. Photograph: Simon Brown/Country Life

‘The challenge was that quotes for a bespoke build came in too high and standard units wouldn’t work.’ By chance, a tenant on the farm was a talented joiner, whom she commissioned to make the cupboards from tulip wood, to Lady Cara’s designs. They are painted in Farrow & Ball Green Blue and Pigeon. Items such as the Lacanche range were sourced secondhand and the whole scheme came in under budget – of which Lady Cara is understandably very proud.