From graveyard cottage to £4.2million VERY Grand Design

From graveyard cottage to £4.2million VERY Grand Design: TV property show’s most costly project ever turned a cemetery wreck into a majestic home with a waterfall and underground pool

Justin Maxwell Stuart had misgivings about appearing on Grand Designs, the popular Channel 4 show which features people pursuing their vision of a dream home by building it themselves.

I think it would be fair to say that he had grave misgivings about the whole thing.

It wasn’t just that his development was situated inside a West London cemetery, cheek-by-trowel with tombstones and crypts. 

Justin was going to have lots of neighbours, as presenter Kevin McCloud pointed out, but they were all going to be dead.

It wasn’t just that he was planning to spend a fortune on converting the dilapidated Victorian Lodge (‘ghastly concrete grouting!’) and adjacent 1960’s toilet block (‘just hideous!’) into a majestic modern home with a mega man-cave playboy basement, complete with outdoor moat, indoor chainmail waterfall, subterranean swimming pool, wine cellar and all mod cons including underfloor heating and a pair of forged steel chandeliers shaped like bursting seed pods.

Justin Maxwell Stuart (above, with fiancee Hideko Kawa) had misgivings about appearing on Grand Designs, the Channel 4 show which features people pursuing their vision of a dream home by building it themselves. I think it would be fair to say he had grave misgivings about the whole thing. It wasn’t just that his development was situated inside a West London cemetery. He was going to have lots of neighbours, as presenter Kevin McCloud pointed out, but they were all going to be dead

The final bill for the five-bedroom home, designed by architect Simon Gill, was £4.2m, making it one of the most expensive projects in Grand Designs’ two-decade history. It also turned into one of their most popular episodes. (Above, excavations for the huge man-cave basement)

‘Yah, lovely acorns,’ says Justin, admiring their dazzling lustre while giving the impression he can’t remember how much they cost (£4,000 each).

No, he was worried about something else, something much closer to home. He clears his throat.

‘I was worried,’ he says, ‘that people would just think I was a posh twit spending money.’

Well, ahem. First, it cannot be denied that he was indeed spending a lot of money. 

The final bill for the five-bedroom home, designed by architect Simon Gill, was £4.2 million, making it one of the most expensive projects in Grand Designs’ two-decade history. It also turned into one of their most popular episodes.

And when it comes to posh, they don’t come much posher than 47-year-old Ampleforth-educated Justin — a former captain in the Scots Guards who now runs a company specialising in adventure fishing expeditions in Russia, Iceland and elsewhere.

Is it extreme fishing, I find myself wondering?

Above, the finished lodge. Justin hails from an aristocratic Scottish family who can trace their lineage directly back to Mary Queen of Scots — yes, he is one of those Stuarts — and he grew up in a 1,000-year-old grand house (‘so I’m used to living in old buildings’) and estate in Peeblesshire

‘Jan, you won’t be expected to wrestle with grizzly bears every morning,’ he says, and I worry that we are digressing too far, but there is no stopping him now.

‘Oh, the thrill of catching a salmon,’ he continues, cradling an imaginary one in his arms. ‘The absolute thrill of achieving something by yourself. It is so satisfying to come back and say this is what I did. On my own.’

He hails from an aristocratic Scottish family who can trace their lineage directly back to Mary Queen of Scots — yes, he is one of those Stuarts — and he grew up in a 1,000-year-old grand house (‘so I’m used to living in old buildings’) and estate in Peeblesshire. 

From an early age, wee Justin became adept at hunting, shooting, fishing and spent boyhood Christmases at the family’s holiday home on Mustique in the Caribbean.

His parents were friends with Mustique’s owner Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner — another Scottish aristo — and in the 1960s were one of the first two families to develop a plot on the private island, along with lifelong Mustique devotee Princess Margaret.

The 13-metre swimming pool in the majestic home. ‘I now own a house in London that is steeped in history and surrounded by 13 acres of green space,’ Justin says and you’ve got to give him credit for that, despite the thunderously busy main road on its western border

The bar in the home’s basement. Justin bought the property for £2.2m in February 2015 when he was a single dad living nearby with his son George, now aged nine. They would take regular walks through the cemetery with their dog, a gorgeous mutt called Thunder

The kitchen contains a pair of forged steel chandeliers shaped like bursting seed pods. ‘Yah, lovely acorns,’ says Justin, admiring their dazzling lustre while giving the impression he can’t remember how much they cost (£4,000 each)

Does he remember her? Of course! He recalls being told by his parents to keep her royal personage supplied with cocktail snacks during pre-dinner drinks when she came over to supper one balmy evening.

‘After my fifth attempt to shove some peanuts down her throat, she said: “Thank you very much, dear boy. But I’ve had enough peanuts and I don’t even like peanuts anyway.” I don’t think she was particularly impressed, to be quite honest. That was the last time Princess Margaret came to supper.’

And there are certainly twittish moments when striding around his building site in his padded gilet or counting up the mounting cost of his project, when Justin gives off an unmistakably upper class, full-on Rupert, Tim-Nice-But-Dim vibe.

‘I was brought up in Scotland where everyone’s houses have so much character,’ he booms onscreen, which suggests a refreshing lack of familiarity with the kind of Scottish council estate where I was brought up, but no umbrage taken because Justin is such a delightful person and about as snobbish as a burst haggis. 

‘I liked the idea,’ he continued, ‘of recreating somewhere like that in London.’

Look at it pragmatically and you can see that neither Justin nor his project are as crazy as they sound. 

‘I now own a house in London that is steeped in history and surrounded by 13 acres of green space,’ he says and you’ve got to give him credit for that, despite the thunderously busy main road on its western border.

He bought the property for £2.2 million in February 2015 when he was a single dad living nearby with his son George, now aged nine. They would take regular walks through the cemetery with their dog, a gorgeous mutt called Thunder. 

He was going through a divorce from his ‘lovely’ Brazilian-born wife Tania, whom he met in 2004 when they were neighbours. Tania, whom friends say is quite a few years older than Justin, now lives in Ibiza.

‘When the for sale sign went up on The Lodge, I pounced. It was a chaotic period in my life, I signed my divorce papers and the contract for the house practically on the same day. It was good for me to have something to focus on.’

One of the property’s plush bathrooms. ‘Mad, beautiful and very funny,’ was one popular viewer’s verdict of the show, while another declared it the ‘best Grand Designs ever’

But in typical Grand Designs fashion, costs and problems escalated. At one point, The Lodge was propped up by steel girders as they excavated underneath for the pool, while Justin was terrified the build would be stopped if they unearthed human bones. ‘One bit of a wife of Henry VIII and it would have been curtains,’ is how he puts it.

It might seem a folly too far, but perhaps not when one considers that a nearby terraced house is on the market for £3.9 million, tragically sans media room, cupola, private courtyard, swimming pool, sauna and bar — unlike Justin’s ring-a-ding-bling palace.

‘If you didn’t live in London, you will think what I spent is a ridiculous amount of money for a house. If you live one kilometre down the road, you will think it is bloody good value,’ he says.

He ‘rattled up the funds’ via a mortgage and a loan from his mother Kirsty, a scion of the wealthy Salvesen shipping family.

She died in 2016, leaving £20 million in her will from which Justin and his older sister Laura are the chief beneficiaries. Yes, I know what you are thinking. It is amazing what you can achieve when you’ve got millions sluicing about in your sporran. Don’t stint on the cushions, Morag!

But Justin says his personal grand design always had to make financial sense and be worth its own value. 

As he strived to achieve this over a testing four-year build, viewers warmed to his gung-ho enthusiasm, his can-do attitude and his honesty. ‘Have I made a terrible mistake?’ he would ask himself in the dead of night.

‘Mad, beautiful and very funny,’ was one popular viewer’s verdict of the show, while another declared it the ‘best Grand Designs ever’.

After the programme was broadcast last week, he has been overwhelmed by the reaction.

‘The Maxwell Stuarts are very understated,’ he says. ‘We don’t like to promote ourselves. I just imagined the show would slip onto daytime TV with no fuss, but the opposite has happened.

‘My publicity estimate was way lower than what transpired but I have had the most marvellous experience. Every time I walk out that gate someone says hello or asks me how Thunder is. It has been fantastic and really uplifting.’

As his dream became a reality, the last scenes of the programme revealed one final twist, as Justin disclosed he had found a special someone to share his new home. Millions of viewers presumed it was going to be a canine pal, a Lightning for his Thunder.

Instead, in walked new girlfriend Hideko Kawa, 42 — an accomplished chef already known to many viewers as a finalist in the 2018 series of Bake Off The Professionals.

From Kanazawa in Japan, Hideko moved to the UK and has worked for Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, running the latter’s celebrated experimental kitchen. She is a world-class pastry chef and now runs her own company.

‘But that’s not all she can do,’ says Justin, explaining that during the first lockdown they were holed up on his 2,500 acre Scottish estate, feeding themselves from a freezer full of game. ‘Pheasant, duck and venison. And she cooked it all superbly. We did not have to buy a single bit of meat for five months,’ he roars.

The couple met at a party three years ago and have been together ever since. Where are these parties where you meet handsome, eligible, ex-army officer aristocratic millionaires? I’d love to know.

Meanwhile, on the night they moved into The Lodge back in November, Justin asked Hideko to marry him. ‘I did think about proposing to her actually on Grand Designs,’ he says.

You did not!

‘I did. But I thought it might be rather too awful.’

After dinner they had a cocktail in the downstairs bar and he gave Hideko a key to the safe he’d built into one of the York stone walls. ‘Inside was a giant oyster shell I recovered from the Seychelles, and inside was the ring,’ he says.

PS… Traquair, the Stuart family’s ancestral seat in Scotland, is an even grander design

‘It was so romantic,’ says Hideko, who shows me the stunning inky sapphire which Justin had commissioned from an ex-girlfriend who happens to be a jeweller.

‘I know!’ he says, with a shrug. When asked if he plans on having any more children, he says: ‘I’m not ruling anything out.’

He is full of surprises and has lived a life that has included three tours of duty in Northern Ireland, one in Iraq and running a salmon fly-tying business in Thailand. ‘We make the best flies in the world,’ says Justin, who knows the lyrics to only one song — Happy Birthday.

Following our socially distanced chat under the exploding acorns in the kitchen, Justin takes me on a tour of The Lodge, which he plans to rent out on short-term Airbnb-type lets once the world is back to normal.

He also rents out the house in Mustique (about £10,000 a week in high season), which he also rebuilt from scratch. 

This suggests he is more hard-nosed property developer than the wide-eyed dreamer who insists a home isn’t really a home unless it has a moat.

Off we go, down to the 13-metre pool, where he has a daily swim of 100 laps before tea and toast with homemade raspberry jam; then into the wine cellar with its ‘everyday bottles’ on the racks and more serious grand cru clarets still being unpacked from their cases.

We tour the nanny flat off the utility room, complete with its mini kitchen and narrow bed, upstairs to the master bedroom where Justin has left a pair of socks balled up on the floor (‘oops’) and into the ensuite with its mirrored bath.

We admire the ginger jars decorated with blue marlin, the paintings by his uncle, the photographs of Mustique discreetly displayed.

Although Justin remembers seeing the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger on the island, his parents always kept a low-key presence. 

When Colin Tennant invited them to his grand costumed 50th birthday party, they did not attend.

‘Not our thing,’ said Justin’s father, who tended to avoid celebrities and ‘didn’t fancy getting dressed up in gold Lycra anyway’.

Oddly enough, when we are saying goodbye at the front door, local celebrities Clare Balding and Alice Arnold are strolling into the cemetery and beam in his direction while someone else shouts ‘Hello Justin!’

Almost overnight, this man and this house have become a huge local attraction but — like father, like son — he does not notice the starry hubbub at all. It is simply not the Maxwell Stuart way, darling.

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