How Canvas & Stone founders turned their estates into businesses

Inheriting a country estate sounds like one of the most ridiculous privileges that could be bestowed upon a 30-something in modern Britain. In reality, it’s a bit like being told to look after a dying relative in the middle of nowhere who keeps stealing from your wallet when you’re not looking.

When five friends suddenly found themselves reluctant custodians of country piles, they decided to band together under the name Canvas & Stone to share tips on how to turn them into viable venues. They left the city to take over the running of their estates full-time and together they’ve hosted over 1,500 events on their estates, from dance music festivals to major corporate conferences.

Godsal-Family1

Iscoyd Park, Shropshire

Owner Phil Godsal was a contemporary art dealer with an impressive collection of works. He took over the Georgian house, built in 1846 and set in 700 acres of 18th century parkland and he’s been renovating since 2009. He lives in the attic with his wife and two children.

When my father inherited the house, it was left empty for three years and it was in very bad nick. Like all these places, a lot of it had been sold off due to its inability to keep itself going and we had to think of something new to do. Trying to turn it into a viable business seemed preferable to waiting for someone to come along and buy all the grounds.

In a weird way, it was quite liberating because it was an all-or-nothing situation. It’s quite high risk and we had to put a lot of money in.

It’s a Grade II* Listed building so our approach at the beginning was very important. Once we’d got our plan sorted, we worked with a conservation architect and it was a collaborative effort with them and all the other bodies we had to convince like Cadw Properties, which is like English Heritage for Wales.

Looking at all the archives, Iscoyd used to have such an important place in the community. During the war, it was a 1,500-bed German prisoner of war hospital. Then during the 80s, these houses were just so unfashionable and the only people that came into them were the family or our friends. Now it’s being regenerated and the life and energy is coming back into it.

We’ve now got 14 double bedrooms and, after we finish the last library, then it’s all done top to bottom. There was a section that hadn’t been used since 1926 and it was completely trashed; the library above was practically being propped up with a stick, it was in a terrible state. We started off with weddings because we had to get the business going. The lead time is roughly six to eight months so it meant that I could drag them here and convince them that this pile of bricks was going to be their dream wedding. Some people just laughed at me, but others got it and we managed to get 26 bookings before we’d finished the work.

The point is that it’s a blank canvas and we tailor-make every single bit so it makes people feel like it’s their home.

This case study first appeared in London newspaper City A.M on 29 June 2016