What is it really like to be 'lady of the manor' in the 21st century? Maxine Gordon finds out over a coffee with Alice Wombwell of Newburgh Priory in North Yorkshire

We Brits love to peek through the keyhole of the nation's grand houses. Whether that's from the sofa, binging episodes of Downton Abbey, or in person, on a weekend visit to a stately home.

But what is it really like to live in a country pile today?

Alice Wombwell ponders the question as she takes a sip of coffee ('strong and very milky, please', she instructs husband Steve).

The couple live at Newburgh Priory - a former 12th century Augustinian Priory near Coxwold just half an hour's drive from York - with their five children aged between 12 and 16; two dogs, Zephyr and Penny; two rabbits, and a handful of chickens.

If you hear them talk about Stanley and Karen, they are the estate's two robotic mowers who are outside keeping the lawns in shape 24/7 - saving the expense of one full-time grounds person.

Alice is an artist and cuts a cool, Bohemian dash with her navy blue nails, over-sized hoop earrings and dark, flared denims.

She is super friendly, chatty and self-deprecating, confessing to having 'Superglued a few things back together' that she has broken over the years.

Sitting cross-legged on a squidgy yellow sofa in a grand drawing room that boasts portraits by Van Dyck and Gainsborough on the walls, she expresses fake fury at how the eyes of the woman in the Gainsborough work seem to follow her around the room, disapprovingly.

She describes how the whole family pitch in with running the Priory, especially ahead of spring and summer, when the estate opens to the public on select days.

'Well, Hoovering a little room is like Hoovering a lawn!' she says, admitting the days of having hundreds of staff are long gone. This week, family members have been cleaning and polishing the woodwork. Ahead of plant sale events, mum-in-law Jane (Lady Wombwell) bakes, her coffee cake being the best-seller.

Alice Wombwell of Newburgh Priory, who is a talented artist herself. Image: SuppliedAlice Wombwell of Newburgh Priory, who is a talented artist herself. Image: Supplied

When the house is open to the public (on Wednesdays and Sundays from 2pm-6pm from April to June) 'supergran' Helen (Steve's granny) room sits, greeting visitors and sharing the building's incredible history. 'There is no stopping her,' says Steve with a smile.

At first glance, daily life at the Priory seems pretty standard for a family of five. There's talk of GCSE revision, school runs, the weekly shop at Aldi ('I used to shop at Tesco before the pandemic,' says Steve, who does most of the cooking).

But not quite. We are sitting in a stunning room with exquisite decorative plaster work by 18th-century master Giuseppe Cortese on the ceiling and walls (you can see more of his fabulous Stucco work at Fairfax House in York).

In this very same room, a collection of Barbie dolls are laid out on the floor, next to a Girl's World hairdressing model kit. Board games Trivial Pursuit, Articulate and Herd Immunity sit in a pile in front of an enormous open fireplace.

Next door, is the snug - at least twice the size of a standard living room - where Alice and Steve relax after a busy day working on the estate and juggling domestic chores. 'We watch some TV,' she says. 'We love a crime drama.'

Again, art adorns the walls - with paintings hung in rows. Some are by Malcolm Wombwell, who lived in the house before Steve's parents, Sir George Wombwell, 7th Baronet, and Lady Jane Wombwell.

Alice, 47, and Steve, 46, first met as children, when Alice would visit the estate with her grandmother.

'I met Steve aged six because my grandmother was great friends with his great uncle Malcolm who used to own the Priory before his parents. They were fellow artists and used to paint together. I used to come and play and swim in the pool - when there was one.'

Alice studied fine art at Cardiff University and now runs art workshops and retreats from Newburgh as well as carrying out her own work, including commissions, from a ground-floor studio in the house.

The art events started three years ago and are part of a diversification drive to raise money to keep the Priory going.

'The big thing is getting this house to wash its own face,' begins Steve. 'Every penny the estate makes gets sucked into a big black hole,' Alice finishes.

Alice Wombwell at Newburgh Priory. Photo suppliedAlice Wombwell at Newburgh Priory. Photo supplied

An example is the house boiler. When it blew up three years ago ('We had fire engines out', says Steve) it cost £56,000 to repair.

And he recalls the time he sat down with his dad about 20 years ago and tried to estimate how much they needed to spend on the property: 'You'd probably need £40 million and and there would still be repairs the next day'.

Other revenue-raising initiatives include renting out part of the Georgian section of the home for weddings, and growing and selling Christmas trees.

In fact, Newburgh is gaining a reputation as a special place to pick up a Christmas tree, not least because Alice and her best friend Lizzie Standeven also run a pop-up shop from the Priory selling festive decorations and homewares.

Alice Wombwell getting ready for a family Christmas at Newburgh PrioryAlice Wombwell getting ready for a family Christmas at Newburgh Priory

Bigger plans are in the pipeline to develop some rundown buildings, including the former stables block, into a venue with rooms to enable them to cater for weddings all year round.

Another revenue stream is filming. Netflix came a calling three years ago when parts of the Priory were turned into sets for a movie with the working title Recipe For Love.

'The story was about a Cuban immigrant in America who came to Britain after winning a place in the final of a cookery competition, falls in love with a local farm boy - and they solve a mystery,' explains Steve. Up and coming actor Kit Connor - from Netflix hit Heartstopper - was one of the stars. The couple have yet to hear about a release date for the film.

The production left its mark - the crew renovated the former kitchen of the house, decorating its giant walls in a colourful, bespoke, floral wallpaper. It is now used as a painting room during art workshops and doubles as a tea room when the house is open to the public.

The Wombwells would love to have the lights, camera and action return. 'We have a meeting with Screen Yorkshire tomorrow,' says Alice, a hopeful note in her voice. 'We are desperate for filming!,' she says. 'I want it to be like Downton Abbey - that is the dream!'

Financially, the trials of maintaining an historic property appear never ending, but the couple love life on the estate.

'We are very privileged to live here,' says Alice. 'It is amazing. It is predominately a family home where people are very happy.'

Steve adds: 'There is no better place to bring up children. I was raised here as a child from day dot - and they could not keep me inside!'

The family make the most of the rural location today. 'We love to go out in the off-road buggy to camp, have barbecues,' says Alice. 'We can swim in the ponds - the dogs like that too!'

It sounds idyllic, but a tour of the Priory brings the challenges facing the family into sharp focus.

Outside of the main family living area, there is no heating or running water. A section of the house destroyed by fire in 1947 remains derelict. A grant was awarded for it to be repaired - but then got spent on more urgent matters: stopping dry rot in its tracks.

The long gallery - beloved of the house's occupants in Georgian times - is now a ruin, and used as the retail space to sell Christmas trees every December.

With a history dating back to 1145, and reported to be the resting place of Oliver Cromwell's body (in the building's eaves), and having undergone many renovations over the intervening years, Newburgh Priory's history is one of survival and change.

And with Alice and Steve at the helm, that guiding ethos looks set to continue into the future.

Find out more: www.newburghpriory.co.uk

Art retreats at Newburgh Priory

Newburgh Priory in Coxwold, near Easingwold, is hosting a series of one-day retreats tutored by award-winning Yorkshire artist Patrick Smith Image: SuppliedNewburgh Priory in Coxwold, near Easingwold, is hosting a series of one-day retreats tutored by award-winning Yorkshire artist Patrick Smith Image: Supplied

Newburgh Priory offers a variety of art retreats throughout the year under the guidance of tutor and  award-winning local artist Patrick Smith.

Patrick is the holder of the William Tier memorial award for landscape and the John Purcell London paper prize.

Upcoming retreats:

Thursday, June 27 - Abstract painting 

Visiting the birth of modernism in painting; exploring how visual artists moved towards the content of their painting being about the materiality of media and a navigation of the edge.

Sunday 7 and Monday 8 July - 'En Plein Air' landscape painting and life drawing. A two day residential 

Over two days, learn how to draw and paint the stunning surrounding landscape of Newburgh Priory and enjoy a morning of life drawing. Following in the footsteps of the great French impressionists who ignited the fashion for painting outdoors a la prima,  En Plein Air!

What is included in the day:

  • Classroom-based (sometimes in the gardens depending on the nature of the subject) with tutoring from artist Patrick Smith at Newburgh Priory
  • A tour of the house and unlimited access to the beautiful grounds for inspiration
  • A hot lunch with wine provided in the private dining room
  • A piece of art crafted by you to take home.

All abilities welcome.

To book a place or for information about local accommodation please email Alice at:  artretreats@newburghpriory.co.uk 

*This article first appeared in Yorkshire Life magazine. The latest edition of Yorkshire Life is out now, available from newsagents and supermarkets across Yorkshire and magsdirect.co.uk.  Subscribe at greatbritishlife.co.uk/subscribe/yorkshire/