Lady Willoughby de Eresby: A Lady of Substance

After 30 or more years Lady Willoughby de Eresby is standing down as President of the Men of the Stones. Here, in a farewell interview, she talks to editor Mel Russ about her time as head of the charity.

The Lady Willoughby de Eresby and I are in the spectacular Vanbrugh Hall, the glory of Grimsthorpe Castle. A black as ink January evening has shut out any natural light, and a number of candelabra hang from the high ceiling struggling to illuminate a celebration of architectural art. There are grisaille paintings of English sovereigns that look like statues and a massive fireplace supporting a scrolled shield bearing the monogram of George I topped by the ducal coronet of the Willoughby de Eresby family, who have lived at the castle for almost 500 years.

We find a brighter corner right by the fireplace and as Her Ladyship makes herself comfortable I fuss around with my camera worrying about the light. I can see that Her Ladyship is ill at ease so I ask, “I expect you are used to having your photograph taken?” Her reply is sharp and direct, “I don’t do it very often because I am not keen on having my picture taken.” No pressure, then!

I ask Her Ladyship how she likes to be addressed, and with a little mischief in her eyes she says, “I am a Baroness you know.” I acknowledge the fact, and she adds, “but some people call me Lady Jane.” I’ll find that a lot easier.

The title of Baron stretches right back to the day William the Conqueror first stepped on English soil. After William conquered England he had to persuade six Norman knights to leave their homes and help him control the country by offering titles that could be passed through the female line.
One of these titles was given to Beck of Eresby and through a daughter’s marriage the title in due course became Willoughby de Eresby. Since then the family line, through daughters and Royal patronage, has flourished and today Lady Jane is an English peer, the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby.

The photo shoot goes well. Lady Jane helps style the pictures and as I show her a range of shots she suggests various poses, flicking her hair onto her shoulders. “I think that will look better,” she suggests. She is obviously aware of what makes a good picture.

I am no Cecil Beaton, the famous Royal photographer, but with ample pictures in the can Her Ladyship heads for the cosy and warmer library to talk about her retirement as President of the Men of the Stones, a position she has held for the past 32 years.

“I took over the presidency when my father died”

I ask, as she pours the tea and cuts the cake, how she became involved in Men of the Stones, and she explains, “My father was one of the first members of the charity, which was founded in Stamford on May 26, 1947, and I was asked to become President after he died in 1983. As President you have no executive power, I wish though, I could have done more for the Collyweston slaterers.

“The original driving force of the charity,” explains Lady Jane, “was Archibald Ireson, a Master Mason who fully understood how to work stone with many years of experience behind him when he co-founded Men of the Stones with Edmund Esdaile. It was a great loss to us when Archibald Ireson retired. He was the last in the line of Master Masons known from written records to have stretched back 400 years but thought to have been masons for generations earlier – maybe back to William the Conqueror. Mr Ireson told me his work for his father was shaping the stones for the wall around Burghley Park, an interminable job that taught him a lot.

“I first met Mr Ireson at Grimsthorpe, and I remember his and my father’s surprise when forming a new door in the riding school wall when they found it built partly from carved facing stone and rubble, the remains of the Cistercian Abbey that once stood in the Park, all loosely held together with field clay. Mr Ireson’s skills as a stone carver can be admired in a notable piece of work in the escutcheon in the centre of the old riding school. Another example of his carving is the tomb of my father in the cemetery at St Michael and All Angels Church in Edenham.

“I have found the work of the charity interesting, especially the Committee Meetings at Mr and Mrs Ireson’s house where Archibald would describe the problems of stone sent in from around the world and explain how he would recommend dealing with them. Unfortunately I never managed the popular summer walks he lead around Stamford but I always enjoyed the winter lectures and I think they are both an important part of widening the knowledge of members and those with an interest in stone and its use by masons.

I asked Lady Jane if she got involved in building projects at her two homes, which includes Drummond Castle in Perthshire, Scotland and cheekily enquired if she ever fancied a go with a hammer and chisel? “I have always been interested in the architectural side of stone masonry, and if major work is being carried out I always get on site to check out what’s going on. And have I ever been tempted to pick up a chisel? No!

“Having lived in stone buildings you get to know the different characteristics of stone varieties and the ground they stand on. Grimsthorpe was built as a late 13th century watch tower with an adjacent 16th century front built in a hurry with no foundation, both sitting on clay in a puddle of water when it rains and settlement over the centuries has caused endless problems. Whereas the 18th century Vanbrugh front sits higher on extensive foundations based on a rubble core, and despite the movement of the clay and an occasional tremor has shown no movement or cracks unlike the earlier parts of the building.
“Heritage houses need skilled masons and whilst we are lucky to have skilled masons of long standing who know the history of houses there just aren’t enough of them. So I think the key role for Men of the Stones is to support and further the training of masons and encourage the groups and companies that train them.”

Now a spritely 80, Lady Jane is now cutting back on her workload as she finds it impossible to be fully involved in all of them. “I have no regrets about standing down,” she says, “Mr Ireson was Men of the Stones and it was difficult for a period after him to move forward but we have a focussed leadership and welcome a new President. I have enjoyed working with those who have the same interest in stone and I look forward to being an ordinary member. The charity needs an active as well as an interested membership and I hope they can continue to attract those who can help further the aims of Men of the Stones.”

Mel Russ