MIDDLETON, England – It’s a rousing tale about a lavish, sprawling English estate on the verge of disappearing forever. There are scandals and setbacks and heartbreak. A distinguished cast provides glamour, passion, wit. And Hopwood DePree stars as the stoic, unflappable Lord Crawley; well, no, he stars as himself.
Americans fell in love with British TV period dramas such as “Downton Abbey,” the fictional series (2010-2015) and an upcoming September movie that follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in an Edwardian mansion in Yorkshire, England.
Michigan-born actor, screenwriter and producer DePree, who has a Hollywood resume, deep tan and the kind of blond highlights rarely seen in these rural parts, is one of them. DePree has spent a lot of time at his own version of Highclere Castle of late.
A year ago, DePree swapped glitzy Los Angeles for a countryside setting just outside Manchester, about 166 miles northwest of London, to rescue his family’s 600-year-old ancestral home. Hopwood Hall is 50,000 square feet and 60-plus rooms of charming but dilapidated stately pile. It’s a far cry from the world DePree came to know well, and more umbrellas and drafty hallways than Tinseltown, sunglasses and the beach.
Hall history: Lord Byron stayed there in 1811
DePree’s movie credits include “Rhinoskin” (1995), about the myriad obstacles to success in Hollywood; “The Last Big Attraction” (1999), a coming-of-age story; and “Tug” (2010), a romantic comedy. One of his first acting roles was as a defendant in an episode of “Doogie Howser, M.D,” the popular comedy-drama TV series (1989-1993).
He has helped establish a film festival in his birth state of Michigan and worked with authorities there to make it a more financially attractive place to make movies.
But Hopwood Hall may be DePree’s biggest and most important production yet.
Visitors to Hopwood Hall need to tread carefully on the floors (where there are floors). Coarse debris is a constant obstacle, the roof leaks, damp plaster easily peels off the walls, and using the main staircase means stepping ever so carefully on one side. What hasn’t been destroyed by weather or neglect has been stolen.
“What I’m doing is more like ‘Downton Shabby,'” DePree, 48, said recently as he gave USA TODAY a tour of the brick-and-stone manor house that dates to the 15th century.
Hopwood Hall isn’t as in-your-face grand or classically majestic as Highclere Castle, the 5,000-acre estate where “Downton Abbey” was filmed. It sits behind a high steel-and-wire security fence that gives the grounds the feeling of inner-city dereliction.
Once-resplendent gardens that were staffed by more than two dozen workers and a half-mile driveway surrounded by light woodland are overgrown, full of mud and, in places, littered with bits of discarded rusting machinery and other detritus.
Hopwood Hall is the ultimate fixer-upper and calls to mind the “The Money Pit” (1986) and “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948), two movies about couples who decide to buy and renovate a country estate. Dream houses.
It’s a lot more trouble, and expensive, than they think.
But like the numerous historic houses, castles and gardens that have fascinated American audiences while acting as backdrops to British mini-series from “Howards End” (2017-2018) to “The Crown,” (2016-), from “Midsomer Murders” (1997-) to Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” (1989-2013), Hopwood Hall is a conduit to a special place: the past.
The roof leaks, the floors are unstable and dry rot has caused many of the building’s original features to crumble, but dark and moody wooden paneling still adorns quite a few of the rooms while intricate, Jacobean-era stonework and carvings around fireplaces provide an intriguing glimpse of what the estate may have looked like in its heyday. Hopwood Hall has been recognized for its collection of carved, lion’s head detailing so old they were carved before many in England had ever seen a lion.
Around 1750, the number of staff at Hopwood Hall was greater than the entire population of Middleton, the village in which it sits. This included butlers, maids, cooks, cleaners, attendants, carriage drivers, farmers, beekeepers, blacksmiths, butchers, weavers, wood cutters, carpenters, stablehands, horsemen and ice keepers. It had its own own farm, mill, brewery, buttery, cheesery, icehouse and orangery for fresh fruit.
Today, some of Hopwood Hall’s ancient doors may be struggling to hang on their hinges, but they are hanging nonetheless. “This is history you just don’t see in America,” DePree said as he stood in Hopwood Hall’s “morning room,” a high-ceilinged room with ornate cornices where breakfast was often served. It deserved a chandelier.
DePree intends to restore Hopwood Hall and turn it into a community center for education and the arts, an effort he estimates will cost up to $15 million. Some of the money is coming from local authorities and public grants. DePree has put his own money into the project, but the majority of investment still needs to be raised privately.
He has an exclusive option to acquire ownership of Hopwood Hall once he proves he has a viable plan to secure its future. DePree hopes to achieve that within three years.
“I was told if we let the house go for another 10 years it would probably be lost,” said DePree, who lives nearby in a rented house but is building an apartment in a downstairs wing of Hopwood Hall that will also double as office space. “And if I happen to be the one person who could do something to save it, then I feel like I have to do it.
“It’s been around for centuries. It deserves many more.”
DePree’s direct descendants lost touch with Hopwood Hall, best known in heritage circles for once hosting the flamboyant Romantic poet Lord Byron, after World War I. Of the estimated 30 people, staff and family, who left the hall to serve in the war that lasted from 1914-1918, four returned. Both Hopwood sons, Edward and Robert, were killed. The bereaved parents abandoned the estate and moved to London, marking the end of 500 years of continuous occupation by the Hopwood family.
For a while Hopwood Hall was taken over by a cotton company that owned dozens of mills around the country. Then, an order of French monks moved in. For a period in the 1960s, its basement was used as a makeshift bar and disco. Graffiti that reads “Get down and boogie” is still visible on a wall in the basement.
Finally, the estate was all but forsaken to enterprising wildlife, vandals who breached the security fence and a part-time caretaker and restorations expert named Bob Wall.
Timeline: Family and history challenged American to take on the ultimate fixer-upper
“I let Hopwood get involved when there’s a dirty toilet that needs cleaning,” Wall joked of DePree, who acknowledged that he does not often know how to make a practical contribution to the many things that need doing around the site. “He’s all right – a bit tall and his teeth are too white,” Wall added, a reference to DePree’s all-American good looks. Still, the Californian appeared to enjoy Wall’s dry sense of humor.
When USA TODAY visited, the pair had a friendly disagreement about how historically accurate Hopwood Hall’s restoration should be. DePree said he wanted the house to have a medieval “look and feel” but also have modern conveniences that could be operated by an iPad. “There was no Wi-Fi in the 15th-century,” Wall countered.
Later, they shared a joke about whether DePree would one day become a “lord” for his efforts to help restore a piece of Britain’s heritage.
“You’re crazy if you think I’m ever going to call him that,” Wall said, laughing.
What’s in a name?
DePree – who was given the first name “Hopwood” after the Hopwoods on his mother’s side of the family and who is also a descendent of the John Hopwood who was a trusted aide to George Washington and founded Hopwood, Pennsylvania – discovered his connection to Hopwood Hall after doing some online research.
He fired off emails to local government offices in England and didn’t really expect to hear back. But he did. The next day. From a local historian named Geoff Wellens.
At that point, Hopwood Hall had been empty for 30 years.
“I was delighted,” Wellens said over a pint of beer at the Hopwood Arms pub in Middleton. The town is also home to Hopwood Hall College. Everyone USA TODAY spoke with in the area seemed to know DePree, or know what he’s doing.
“Anything that brings interest into Middleton is right up my street,” Wellens added, a reference to the fact that Middleton sits in the borough of Rochdale, one of England’s most socially deprived areas, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.
“If we were going to lose another historically important building in this place, it would have been Hopwood Hall,” Wellens said. He said the entire town and its people were grateful to DePree for his commitment to the project.
“Hopwood’s the man, a local hero,” said Ian Kilby, a retired factory worker from nearby Rochdale, a city in its own right. “He’s brave to take this project on.”
Janet Emsley, a local government official for Rochdale, said, “We are thrilled to see that Hopwood is so passionate about bringing (the hall) back into use.”
In England, most country houses like Hopwood Hall remain in private hands, and in some cases the same family has lived in the house for more than 800 years. But they are very expensive to own and maintain – the case for hundreds of years.
In fact, more than 300 British aristocrats married wealthy American women between 1870 and 1914, according to Britain’s National Trust, a group that helps preserve historic buildings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The reason? Mostly for their money, which they needed to pay for their large houses.
“The country house is one of the U.K.’s greatest cultural achievements,” said Ben Cowell, director general of Historic Houses, a homeowner group. “But they only survive because of the hard work of their owners, who fight a constant battle to keep up to date with all the necessary repairs and maintenance.”
Historic Houses estimates its members own houses with a backlog of repairs, urgent and routine, valued at $1.8 billion.
Some have sought to raise money by turning to cottage-industry-type businesses.
At Goodwood Estate, a 12,000-acre domain owned by the Earl of March in southwestern England, you can golf, fly, purchase a hamper full of Goodwood-made organic produce, take in some midweek horse racing, challenge your classic race car handling skills on the track, get married in a Regency-era house, renew your zeal for running or weights, look at the art, buy the postcard, have it framed and more.
“Owners have striven hard to raise funds to do what they can, and sadly, inevitably, this has necessitated sales of land, works of art or other buildings to help ensure the necessary maintenance can be carried out,” said the Earl of Derby, also known as Lord Derby. There are five ranks of nobility in Britain: duke, marquess, earl, viscount and baron. Marquesses, earls and viscounts are commonly addressed as Lord.
Lord Derby has turned parts of Knowsley Hall, his family’s 2,500 acres of private walled estate near Liverpool that dates to 1495, into a venue for weddings, corporate events, and “shoot parties” (pheasant and partridge). Its gardens and lakes have been used as a filming location for several British television series, including “Young Dracula.”
“These buildings need their families connected with them to pour the love and the passion back in to help keep them alive,” he said, referring to DePree.
Knowsley Hall also has a safari park where visitors can pay to see elephants and lions.
To raise his project’s profile, DePree is producing regular video blogs, or vlogs, about his experiences that he hopes will later become a documentary. A book might be in the works. In the spring, he will appear in a one-man comedy show in Britain that tells the story of his decision to move 5,000 miles from L.A. to save Hopwood Hall. He is also exploring other ways for Hopwood Hall to make money. One idea is to host workshops for aspiring filmmakers. Another is for it to be a retreat for creative types.
But DePree also is still coming to terms with the nature of his own story.
“It just freaks me out. This is where people would have been born,” he said as he stood in the middle of Hopwood Hall’s “birthing room,” an oak-paneled antechamber full of history and atmosphere. It’s where DePree’s 14th great-grandfather was born.
Wall, the restorations expert, chimed in: “Not only born, but conceived as well.”
Selected resources for researching your family tree: Ancestry, My Heritage, 23andMe