Luton Hoo Mansion and Estate

A talk to the Society by Len Fowler on 28th January 2014.

Report by Joyce Bunting

Photo:Luton Hoo Mansion

Luton Hoo Mansion

During WW2 Luton Hoo was HQ of Eastern Command. Prisoners of War from the Batford camp came to work on the estate farm. One who worked in the kitchens made 'little Lennie' a birthday cake.

Len remembers the day in 1948 when Winston Churchill visited Luton Hoo to receive the freedom of Luton and  110,000 sightseers swarmed the gardens. Being a lad of eight, he was more fascinated by a miniature railway which had been constructed in the grounds for the event. 

Len’s father worked at the Luton Hoo Mansion and his family lived in a cottage on the estate. Len himself has worked at Luton Hoo for 60 years. He started in 1955 aged 15, first as a painter and then a carpenter. 

But like all staff in the house and on the estate, he had to turn his hand to many jobs, especially in the time of Lady Zia, when a grand party was being held for Royalty. Then Len sometimes had to man the ‘dumb waiter’ – a manually operated lift which raised food from the kitchens to the banqueting hall. On one occasion Mrs Allen, the cook, had baked a huge soufflé. She wouldn’t allow it to go up on the dumb waiter in case it wobbled and fell apart. So Len had to carry it very carefully up stairs and round corridors without jogging it. He said his heart was in his mouth, but he delivered the soufflé intact.

Attached to Luton Hoo in those days was a chapel dedicated in the Russian Orthodox faith. The chapel was cold in winter, so every autumn Len and his colleagues had to move three very large religious paintings to drier rooms and re-hang them when the weather warmed up. One of those paintings was Saint Michael Triumphant over the Devil, by Bartolome Bermejo, later sold to the National Gallery for about £10 million.

In the gardens stood magnificently ornate glasshouses, dating from 1911. Each year Len and his team would renovate two of them, taking out all the plants and removing the glass. After repainting and renewing, the houses had to be re-glazed.

Breakup of the estate…

Luton Hoo was purchased by Sir Julian Wernher, a diamond magnate, in 1903.  At that time, hundreds of staff lived on site, tending the farm and gardens and herds of livestock. Luton Hoo passed to Sir Julian’s grandson Mr Nicholas Phillips in 1977. 

In the late 1980s he embarked on developing a business park called 'Capability Green', on land he owned near the access road between the M1 motorway and Luton Airport. This resulted in considerable debt against the Luton Hoo estate when the property market crashed.

Mr. Phillips died in 1991. Luton Hoo Mansion was sold with surrounding parkland and in 2007 it opened as ‘Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf and Spa’ with 144 bedrooms and suites. It is approached from the A1081.

The remainder of the estate – including the farm and walled garden - remains in the hands of the Phillips family. Quite separate from the Hotel, the Luton Hoo Estate is approached via West Hyde Road through gates into Limetree Avenue. This magnificent avenue is nearly a mile long and passes the spooky ruin of Lady Bute’s Lodge - which Len and his childhood friends called ‘the Witches House’.

Present and Future…

The farm buildings and glass houses had for a while fallen into disrepair, but Luton Hoo Estate is now a commercial undertaking with diverse income strands. The current owner is Mrs. Lucy Phillips. Her son Edward runs the estate, and her daughter Charlotte is renovating the octagonal Walled Garden, with help from enthusiastic volunteers. It is an elegant setting for art exhibitions, wedding receptions etc.

Photo:The Walled Garden c.1950

The Walled Garden c.1950

Luton Hoo Mansion, gardens and farm have featured on film and TV.  In particular, Len remembers Oliver. An overhead corridor was constructed to ‘Fagin’s kitchen’ amongst the farm outbuildings. Other titles include: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Never say Never Again, The Secret Garden, A Shot in the Dark and many more. The most recent was Stanley Kubrick’s War Horse, when the closing scenes were filmed at the farm.

If funding can be sourced, there are hopes that the glass houses, where once a palm tree flourished, will eventually be restored.

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 29/04/2014.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.