“You’re brave,” said my younger sister. Younger only by two years, but in marrying a well-off City sort of chap she had out-stripped me massively on the property front – a rather lovely Cotswold manor – and even at 50, you feel the sibling rivalry.
It was 2007, and my wife Anna and I had just sold our three-bed semi in Camberwell in London and bought the dilapidated former home of a Renaissance-era Prince-Bishop of Wroclaw in the village of Piotrowice Nyskie, south-west Poland. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere.
Actually, I like to claim it’s at the centre of everything. We’re equidistant from Berlin, Krakow, Prague, Vienna, on the Czech border, an hour south of Wroclaw, with the Sudety Mountains as a backdrop.
In 2007 it was a characterful but bare shell with not an original feature in sight – except for a huge bath, presumably too massive to pilfer – and 1,100 square metres on two floors.
‘How many rooms?’ is the question we’re constantly asked. It depends how you count them. How do you count a single salon, divided by the communists into two rooms plus toilet with plumbing driven through parquet? Is that three rooms? Or just one? Anyway, we’re now down from 60 to about 50.
Two hectares of ‘park’ were so densely vegetated with nettles and brambles that it was impossible to walk to the back to see what we had acquired. We have subsequently bought seven immense outbuildings – the farmer was just letting them fall down – plus the walled garden, and now we have about five hectares.
A German visitor said: “I was surprised to see that the Partons started with the park, not the roof.” It was not our plan. We’ve never really had a plan, to be honest. You don’t know what surprises a house like this will throw up. So you go with what opportunity offers you.
A local landscape architect, Capability Bronislaw we call him, had appeared, cut down about 30 trees and trimmed others to reveal 150 mature specimens. They are mostly towering oak and lime but there are some rarities, too. He planted some new ones, and opened up vistas. The park is now stunning.
Four years into the adventure, we do finally have a new roof. For this, Anna succeeded with the monstrous paper chase needed to get a Ministry of Culture grant. (In her spare time, she has had three more children, taking the tally to five, the oldest of whom is six.) The facades have been re-plastered, and we’re about to move from the three rooms in which we’ve camped into rooms that merit the term ‘palatial’.
“You must have needed the budget of a small country for all this,” is a common remark (e.g. from my sister’s husband). Not a bit of it. The main cost is labour, and this is Poland. And as everyone knows, a Polish builder does a lot with his hour.
The house has constantly surprised on the upside. (Finding rotten beams wasn’t a bad surprise; we expected them, only not so few.) In the ballroom we uncovered a remarkable painted ceiling, dated 1620 or so. The colours are vivid, and it is of national importance, the best of its kind. There are wall paintings and sgraffito from 1605. And with a little patching, we were able to rescue that toilet-riven parquet. The house is mentioned in a mediaeval manuscript dated 1365, so its origins must be older.
Our London house sale money is running out, so from now on we have to earn a living. Our first event was not a money-spinner, but has put us on the map.
A rugby tournament in a small village in a country where rugby is hardly played is not an obvious idea, but everything went well – even the weather (Poland has 200 more hours sunshine a year than England). Our newly reroofed party barn was filled with 200 male and female rugby players, including the national sides of four countries, and players of 23 different nationalities.
Weddings may be our future – who knows, a rugby playing couple? – and we have tested our ability to put on a great party. We have our first wedding reservation, and a big family reunion booked. But we’re going to try lots of things.
We have self-catering flats in the house – please come and stay! – and we think we can tempt business people for conferences or small corporate bonding events. Also, though it’s unlikely to make us rich, we are starting a classic car restoration business in the quiet winter months (a private obsession, and I have space for a collection).
There is little crime here, the schools are good, local food tastes ten times better than that from a London supermarket, and this is a lovely spot. There is no question that this is one of the finest, most beautiful, family-owned stately homes in Silesia.
In fact, I think my sister is brave to stay in England. In her little tiny house…
Further reading: Relocation: Happy-by-the-Sea