When US film-maker Hopwood DePree discovered his family’s derelict English ancestral home a decade ago, he left Hollywood and started a new life near Rochdale to save the crumbling mansion. He has now told the story in a book called Downton Shabby.
Hopwood Hall is perhaps the ultimate home renovation project.
Some of its 60 rooms have big chunks of floor and ceiling missing, and walls have developed strange stained patterns through a combination of time, damp and neglect.
DePree points out a 17th Century fireplace that once belonged to poet Lord Byron, who visited while writing his seminal work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The fireplace is across the other side of a room that has no floor at all, except a single plank for anyone adventurous enough to get a closer look.
But DePree is making progress, slowly. One wing that was at risk of imminent collapse has just been stabilised, and around 25 tonnes of slate have been put on the roof to make the historic building watertight for the first time in years.
“If people looked at it, they would say, oh my gosh, you have so long to go,” says DePree of his long quest to restore the hall. “But I know where we started, and we are getting there.”
DePree first visited the hall in Middleton in Greater Manchester nine years ago, after the deaths of his father and grandfather led him to research his family history. He discovered that stories his grandfather had told him about a family castle were not, as he had thought, simply fairytales.
But the last members of the English branch of the family had left Hopwood Hall the 1920s, and DePree was quickly informed that the building, parts of which date back to the 1420s, would not survive beyond five or 10 more years if someone didn’t step in to save it.
Despite admitting he is “not what you might call handy” (in his book, he recounts being reduced to tears back in LA by some self-adhesive bathroom floor tiles), DePree realised no-one else was likely to step in. So in 2017 he uprooted his life and moved across the Atlantic.
His subsequent efforts in Middleton make endearing and enjoyable material for the book. It is partly a fish-out-of-water story of an American getting to grips with English life, and partly a plucky underdog narrative about a laid-back LA dude who takes on a seemingly monumental task.
In the book, he writes that he might have “slammed my laptop shut and never looked at it again” after his family research if he had known how monumental the task would turn out to be.
“Had I realised how daunting the task was ahead of me, it would have been incredibly intimidating,” the 52-year-old now says. “But I can’t imagine not having lived this part of my life.
“I’ve made lifelong friends of people and it’s expanded my mind. It’s been so much fun and it’s been an incredible adventure.
“We still have a long way to go. But I don’t have any regrets. I believe with all my being that we will get there.”
Goat hair mortar
In his former life, DePree wrote, directed and appeared in the well-received independent rom-com The Last Big Attraction, and produced the 2010 drama Virginia starring Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris.
In truth, his film career was in danger of stalling, but some of his LA friends still “thought I was crazy” to move, he admits. And he does miss friends and family. And the California weather.
Hopwood Hall and the surrounding community have provided a more down-to-earth existence than Hollywood, he says. “It was rooted in some sort of reality that maybe didn’t exist in Los Angeles in the entertainment business.”
Indeed, he was welcomed by local residents who did not want to see a piece of their history reduced to rubble.
Geoff Wellens, a retired undertaker and local historian who has acted as the custodian of the hall, says: “I couldn’t tell you how delighted I was to see Hopwood coming over, who obviously had an interest, who might be the salvation of the hall – and I think we’re heading that way.”
Boyd Taylor, who now volunteers in the house and garden, adds: “I’m sure he didn’t appreciate when he first came how bad it was, but he’s stuck at it. And he’s given up such a lot back in the States to come here and do it.”
Their admiration doesn’t stop them taking the mickey out of DePree’s DIY skills. “He doesn’t know a spade from a hammer,” Mr Taylor laughs. “But that doesn’t matter.”
English humour is one more thing DePree has had to get to grips with. He points out, though, that his practical skills have improved “a little bit”.
“Coming from Los Angeles, I had no concept that you would need to make goat hair mortar and reuse old nails from the 1500s and all of those things that I have a deep appreciation for now.”
Hopwood Hall through the ages
- The Hopwood family is thought to have lived on the site since the 1100s
- The oldest parts of the current hall date from the 1420s
- Lord Byron and Guy Fawkes were among the famous visitors
- Both Hopwood heirs were killed in World War One and the last family members moved out in the 1920s
- The Lancashire Cotton Company moved in to avoid bombing in Manchester in World War Two
- An order of monks used it as a teacher training college from the 1940s to the 90s
DePree is helped by five staff and around 10 volunteers including Mr Taylor and his wife Pam, whose mother worked at Hopwood Hall during World War Two.
“She absolutely loved it,” Mrs Taylor says. “She was just so upset that it had gone into such a state of dereliction.
“I told her Hopwood DePree was mentioned in the local newspapers, and she said, ‘I hope this is it, I hope this is the time it will get renovated properly’. She was already in a care home then. So we immediately wanted to volunteer.”
The skills required to run a major restoration have turned out to be not dissimilar to those needed to produce a movie, DePree says.
“You’re putting together the financing, you’re putting together the scheduling, you’re putting together all these different pieces that take years, just like a film, to bring the project to fruition,” he explains. “So in that way, I feel creative with it.”
A part of the hall – one with floors and ceilings – is being opened to the public for the first time next weekend to coincide with the book’s publication.
His long-term vision is to turn it into a retreat for artists as well as a venue for weddings and conferences. Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah is one of the models he has looked at.
“I love the fact that Lord Byron was here and wrote his poem, and found some kind of creative inspiration here at the hall and in the woods,” DePree says. “I felt the same way coming here. I was totally moved and inspired, and I think other people coming from elsewhere would feel the same thing.”
Some of his initially-sceptical Hollywood friends have now offered to get involved, he says, “whether it’s an actor coming in to talk to other actors who are aspiring, or a screenwriter coming in, or a tech luminary coming in and doing a retreat”.
He adds: “A lot of them have expressed interest in being part of that and said, ‘Sure, I’ll come out for a week and do that’.
“So in that way, it’s exciting to think about bridging that gap between LA and Middleton.”
Downton Shabby by Hopwood DePree is out now. Tours of Hopwood Hall are taking place on 18 June, with more dates to be announced over the summer.
Source: BBC News