Inheriting a castle might indeed be the stuff of dreams – but for Jason and Demetra Lindsay it was a reality. They’ve since restored Hedingham Castle into a real fantasy travel escape for guests, finds Jane Knight.
It’s the stuff of dreams: when you’re 12, your father unexpectedly inherits a Norman castle in Essex and your passion for the place means that you end up taking it over even though you have older siblings.
It could also be the stuff of nightmares, especially considering the rundown state of Hedingham Castle when Jason Lindsay moved there in 2004 with his wife, Demetra, and baby daughter.
Restoring Hedingham Castle
A grand affair in Tudor times, the castle complex had fallen into ruin, leaving little more than the Norman keep – a burned-out shell following a fire in 1918 – across a Tudor bridge from a dilapidated 18th-century mansion.
Years of restoration and renovation later, the Lindsays have just added a bedroom at the very top of the keep, the only one in the five-floor castle. Up some 106 steps, the Royal Chamber is a majestic affair, with an ornately carved four-poster on a raised wooden platform, a bath for two secreted in a large cabinet and deep window recesses in 12ft walls.
It’s a unique chance to bed down with history, in a castle besieged by King John in 1216, which Henry VII visited for a week in 1496, and where Matilda, wife of Stephen (who ruled England from 1135 to 1154), died in 1151.
‘Like the rest of the castle, it was a never-ending project,’ says Jason, a distant relative of the de Vere family, the earls of Oxford who built Hedingham in 1140 on land William the Conqueror gave to Aubrey de Vere. ‘The knock-ons were hilarious: heating, insulation, bathroom…’
An art dealer by profession, he carries out much of the work himself, both in the extensive grounds and within the castle. Meanwhile, Demetra, an architect, is responsible for getting all the necessary consents to work on such a historic building.
‘We giggle about the fact that I am an architect and that is why Jason chose me to be his wife,’ she says. ‘You do have to be absolutely passionate about it. It’s a bit of a vocation.’
The painstaking restoration would not have been possible without grants. Money in 2012 from the Historic Houses Foundation enabled them to tackle the keep’s electrics, plumbing and banqueting room, which, with its enormous 28ft by 20ft arch and minstrels’ gallery, makes a superb wedding venue. When Covid came and the wedding business disappeared overnight, another grant and the gift of time meant they could give what Demetra calls a ‘massive injection of love’ to the keep.
Stonework was repaired, windows and doors replaced, and an escape room game added at the top of the castle on the same floor as the Royal Chamber. Although artisans were employed, the Lindsays also proved extremely adept at castle DIY, incorporating bargain finds and upcycling furniture.
That ornate bed in the Royal Chamber? ‘We found it on eBay,’ says Jason. He made the raised platform beneath it using wood salvaged from Essex’s Southend pier following a tip-off from the chef Jamie Oliver that it was available. The pier’s timber also provided the door to the banqueting hall below.
Oliver isn’t the only celebrity guest to have helped indirectly with the restoration. ‘It’s a bit of a name drop but Matt LeBlanc [the Friends actor] was here and noticed a crack in the beam,’ says Demetra, pointing to the roof of the castle’s basement. The beam now has a steel joist in it, supporting the floor above.
Back in the bedroom, if you look closely at the cabinet holding the bath at the foot of the bed, you can pick out the profile of a lady who looks a bit like Cleopatra staring at a gentleman who could be from the Georgian era.
‘Jason carved what was supposed to be my profile on a piece of partially carved furniture he used to make the cabinet,’ Demetra says with a laugh. She adds that it was the hardest item to get up all those spiral stairs – it was carried by ‘very grumpy men who needed lots of chocolate afterwards’.
As in the castle, the Lindsays used a variety of resources to restore the nearby 18th-century mansion in which they live – some of which is also available for hire – and the grounds outside. Demetra made some of the curtains and they hung the yellow silk on the walls in one of the public rooms themselves. The drawing room was given a makeover by a textile company that needed a showcase for its materials. And the garden’s restoration was sponsored by a production company; the steps leading down to the lake were recycled from London’s Liverpool Street station.
Everywhere you go, you can see the couple’s devotion to the estate and their creativity in caring for it, as well as an enormous amount of hard work.
‘Living here is very much like living with a great aunt – a very demanding great aunt,’ says Demetra. ‘We absolutely love it.’
Book it: The Royal Chamber is £595 B&B, including a bottle of champagne. With dinner for two, the price is £1,195. hedinghamcastle.co.uk