Downton Abbey has got nothing on MY love life: Baronet advertises on Facebook for new Lady of the Manor after last one ran off with the handyman
15:32 GMT, 14 April 2012
For the discerning bride and groom planning the quintessential English wedding, it is hard to imagine a more perfect venue than Maunsel House in Somerset.
The medieval country pile of Sir Benjamin Slade, which is available for hire, boasts a 13th‑century, ivy-clad great hall, not to mention a 2,000-acre estate complete with peacocks, orchards, fishing lakes and walnut groves. Geoffrey Chaucer is said to have penned part of his Canterbury Tales here.
But beneath the ancient eaves of Maunsel, Sir Benjamin’s own affairs of the heart are not quite so peachy-perfect.
This week, the 65-year-old multi-millionaire baronet was lamenting the loss of his long-term partner Kirsten Hughes after claiming that the 49-year-old actress, who helped him run his country pile, had run off with his rugged 39-year-old handyman Jason Biddiscombe.
All change: Sir Benjamin with his ex-partner Kirsten Hughes at Maunsel House in Somerset – he says she ran off with the handyman
‘Downton Abbey is nothing compared to what’s been going on here,’ he told me this week. ‘It’s been a complete nightmare. I’ve had to deal with some very bad behaviour indeed.’
On the face of it, then, poor Sir Ben — who suffers from chronic arthritis, sleep apnoea and memory loss — has had a very rough time.
While battling to ensure the long-term financial survival of his ancient family seat via his flourishing wedding venue business, the aristocrat, who is childless, is once again apparently alone in the world.
‘It looks like I’m going to have to go back to dancing in Annabel’s twice a week,’ he says, referring to the exclusive private members club in London’s Berkeley Square he frequented during his days as a London stockbroker.
In an act of desperation, Sir Ben — who can trace his family tree back to Alfred the Great — has placed an advertisement on Facebook, looking for a ‘young lady’ companion and offering a 50,000 salary plus bonus, car, house, expenses, food and holidays.
It reads: ‘You must have a shotgun certificate, be able to run two castles, an estate and a grouse moor. MUST be able to breed two sons (don’t mind if she has bred before and is proven). A little private capital and income would be helpful. A large fortune would be more helpful.’
Trusting: Sir Benjamin trusts his housekeeper Jane Blackmore completely – which is more than can be said for his ex-partner
To liven matters up even further, the eccentric Right-wing aristocrat is starring in a new Sky documentary series which begins this week, visiting four ‘modern-day Downtons’ and examining how their owners have adapted to ensure their financial survival.
While Kirsten and Jason quit Maunsel halfway through the filming of The Guest Wing, Sir Ben hopes the programme, which will feature day-to-day life at his country home and show him rubbing shoulders with his staff and paying guests, will bring in new business.
‘I’m hoping it’s going to be a great success. We’re already doing a lot of weddings — 82 a year — but we’re planning to double in size.’
But according to some of Sir Ben’s former staff, the full story of the colourful shenanigans going on at Maunsel, and neighbouring Woodlands Castle which he also owns, is more eye-opening than anything television viewers will see in coming weeks.
Aside from being abandoned by his lady, Sir Ben has lost several employees, including his chief wedding planner who walked out and then successfully sued him for constructive dismissal last year.
He is currently being sued by another former member of staff. ‘A lot of poison has been spread,’ he says in reference to his ‘staff problems’.
On top of all this, Sir Ben is due at Taunton Magistrates Court next month where he will stand trial after being charged with two counts of possessing a firearm without a certificate and two counts of failing to comply with the conditions of a shotgun certificate. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges which carry a possible five-year jail sentence.
‘There’s a court case pending and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say he’s had some sort of breakdown worrying about it,’ says an ex‑employee at Maunsel.
Quite a to-do then. And yet, until he was abandoned by the woman who has been lady of the manor for the past 16 years, Sir Ben’s union with Kirsten had seemed like a match made in heaven.
Indeed, the Maunsel House website still carries a message from the couple for those considering getting married there: ‘We hope you love and enjoy being at Maunsel as much as we do.’
They met in the 1990s in London where Sir Ben was making a fortune as a stockbroker and Kirsten, who studied at RADA, was a successful actress linked to Prince Edward after meeting him at a film premiere.
Sir Ben was already divorced from Pauline Myburgh, the younger daughter of English cricketer and British Army major Claude Myburgh whom he had married in 1977. Their divorce in 1991 took six years and cost him 1.5 million.
Similar: The cast of Downton Abbey – Sir Benjamin Slade believes his story tells of similar dramas
Kirsten, the daughter of a BP businessman and raised in Fleet, Hampshire, first found fame aged 22, as a flying ‘Superwoman’ air stewardess in a 1986 British Airways TV commercial set in Paris.
A year later, in 1987, her blonde hair and enviable curves landed her the role of the famous wartime cartoon-strip heroine Jane in the racy film comedy Jane And The Lost City, in which Kirsten was seen gallivanting around in silk stockings and suspenders.
She was 34 when she met Sir Ben at a London dinner party in early 1997 and playing the role of the mother, Allison Mannering, in the Channel 5 children’s television series The Enid Blyton Adventures. And when Sir Ben, who was rumoured to be worth 20million, decided to decamp from his London house to his country seat in Somerset, she happily went with him.
For the past 16 years, the couple have worked side-by-side, tirelessly transforming Maunsel House and neighbouring Woodlands Castle into a successful wedding venue.
But last August, both Kirsten and handyman Jason, who had worked for Sir Ben for the past five years, left Maunsel. So what went wrong
According to Sir Ben, he first discovered he had been betrayed, Lady-Chatterley-style, last summer after being informed by one of his housekeeping staff.
‘It was going on for about three-and-a-half years apparently,’ he says. ‘I was the last to know. I don’t know what she saw in him. He’s not very good-looking. But I fear this kind of thing goes on at all country houses.’
Popular: Hugh Bonneville, pictured in a dramatic scene from Downton Abbey
Flashback: Just like the in-fighting in Downton Abbey, there appears to have been similar disagreements at Sir Benjamin's Maunsel estate
Speaking from his three-bedroom council house in North Petherton near Bridgwater, Somerset, handyman Jason, who is currently out of work, admitted his affair with Kirsten but insisted that while they had been ‘close friends’ at Maunsel, their relationship only began after he’d left Sir Benjamin’s employ.
He said that he and Kirsten mutually decided to split before Christmas because of their vastly different backgrounds.
Dressed in tattered slippers and tight drainpipe trousers, he added: ‘It’s nothing like it’s been portrayed by Benjamin and I don’t know why he’s saying these things now.
‘I worked for him for five years until last September. I did a good job and I’m very sad at the way things ended.’
A former member of Sir Ben’s staff who spoke to the Mail this week said: ‘It was a real surprise to everyone when we heard about Kirsten and Jason getting together. I think she had just had such a miserable time, he showed her some kindness and was a support at a difficult time.
‘Afterwards, I think they just both realised they were incompatible in the nicest possible way. They are from different walks of life and realised it was never going to work.’
Kirsten, who now works as a weddings co-ordinator at nearby Dillington House, a 16th-century manor house owned by Somerset Council, also admitted the relationship, but told the Mail: ‘I really don’t want to talk. I’m still desperately fond of Ben. I was with him for 16 years and I wouldn’t want to do anything which might hurt him or Maunsel.’
According to one of her friends: ‘She had a bit of a fling with Jason but she’s single again now and has thrown herself into her new job with gusto.
‘She still has a lot of her belongings at Maunsel, but she has no idea how or when she is going to recover them. It’s sad because she put her heart and soul into restoring that place. Without her it wouldn’t be half the success it became.’
Looker: Sir Benjamin's ex-Lady of the Manor, Kirsten Hughes, pictured in her acting days
While Sir Ben has hit out at his former lady and her lover, he managed to set tongues wagging again this week when he was photographed at Cheltenham Races with a new woman on his arm.
She is Sir Ben’s former 8-an-hour cleaner and, more recently, housekeeper, 45-year-old mother-of-two Jane Blackmore. Observers have noted that with her blonde hair and vivacious personality, Jane bears an uncanny resemblance to Kirsten. While those in Kirsten’s circle insist that Ms Blackmore is, in effect, the new Lady of Maunsel, Sir Ben insists that she is nothing more than his trusted aide. So trusted, in fact, that he made her sole director of one of his companies, Maunsel Weddings Ltd, last October. At the same time, he also made her a director of another seven of his companies.
‘The staff situation was a complete shambles,’ he says. ‘The only loyal ones have been my gardener and housekeeper, Miss Blackmore.
‘She’s now my head of recruitment, she’s my chauffeur and my carer,’ he adds. ‘She takes me to the doctors and takes me shooting in winter. She loads my gun for me and drives me back home afterwards because I can’t drive when it’s dark.
‘It’s made every nob in the country jealous and it’s set tongues wagging because they’ve got a load of ugly old gamekeepers and I’ve got a switched-on lady as my loader.’
After all his recent staff problems, Sir Ben has handed over responsibility for hiring and firing to Miss Blackmore who has worked for him since 2009.
‘I said to Miss Blackmore: “Why don’t you do it You interview everyone. You hire them and you fire them.” That’s what she does. It was a complete shambles here for a while, but she’s turned it around.
People watch programmes like Downton Abbey and think it must be so romantic running a country house, but this is real life. It’s a business and it’s tough managing people.’
For the time being then, Sir Ben insists he is still single and looking for love. While readily admitting a tendency towards flippancy, he says that he has booked his own estate for a July 28 wedding reception in the hope that he will find the right lady in time. ‘If someone comes along with a shed load of money on that day,’ he says, ‘I’ll be available. The annual heating bill alone is 40,000.’
‘I’ve held two singles parties in the last two months, but the ladies take one look at the house and run off down the drive. They’re overwhelmed by the size of it and the number of staff they’d have to manage. I can’t find a woman up to the job.’
His greatest concern is that he has no heir to inherit the estate which has been in his family since 1772.
The first owner of the house, General Sir John Slade, once danced with Marie Antoinette. The doomed Queen of France also gave him a snuff box.
Another ancestor, Sir Thomas Slade, designed Nelson’s ship, Victory. And yet another relative, Madeleine Slade, was a longstanding disciple and personal assistant of Gandhi.
Sir Benjamin was privately educated at Millfield School in Somerset, and his early life was marred by tragedy. He was 14 when his older brother Robert was killed in a car crash. Both parents also died a couple of years later.
Slade was raised by his Aunt Freda, and after making his own fortune by founding a container transport company, Shirlstar Container Transport Ltd, bought Maunsel House from her for 25,000 in 1978.
But his failure to provide an heir for the estate has worried him for years.
Past attempts to find a worthy successor to his empire have come to nothing, including one proposal, made by Sir Ben in 2005, to bequeath his estate to whichever stranger could most closely match his family’s DNA — so long as they weren’t Guardian readers, drug users or communists. He says his other relatives, cousins and the like, are ‘too bloody rich’ to be interested in inheriting.
A close DNA match was found in Isaac Slade, an American singer with Denver-based band The Fray, but he has shown no interest in taking on the estate.
Sir Ben’s life, as the documentary makers behind The Guest Wing have undoubtedly realised, has always been on the dramatic side. Given the material they have on their hands, they could be forgiven for commissioning a second series and basing it on Maunsel House alone.
It seems fair to say that the saga of Sir Ben, his lady and the handyman, not to mention the housekeeper, is far from over yet.
Additional reporting: Simon Trump.