Milliner, society girl and tea-maker, Lady Laura Cathcart has many hats to wear.
Remote is not a word you might associate with the glitzy, never-ending engagements of high society, but nothing could better describe society milliner Laura Cathcart’s new studio in Shropshire. A world away from her Pimlico Road shop, her new premises come with their own Elizabethan manor, gatehouse and Norman church.
Upton Cressett Hall has been the family home of her new husband, founder and editor-in-chief of Spear’s Magazine – and son of Tory MP Bill Cash – William, since the 1970s. She moved to join him in December before they wed in February and brought her studio with her. No stranger to country life – as the daughter of the seventh Earl of Cathcart, she grew up in rural Norfolk – she has slipped straight back into the social whirl of aristocratic rustic living; dogs, afternoon tea, dinner parties…
In a converted coach house, neat rows of shelves are crammed with sequins, feathers, stacked hat blocks and her latest creations; huge mother of the bride affairs, coy fascinators and cute cloches. On a hook hangs her favourite, a chic beret – one of her first designs. ‘I have clients who come back to buy it in three different colours, and then one for their mothers, too,’ says Laura.
With Ascot and the wedding season on the horizon, Laura and her assistant, Lucy, have their work cut out. She travels to London twice a week to meet clients at her Belgravia shop. ‘I seem to spend my life on the M40, juggling hat boxes,’ she says. With a series of lessons at Debrett’s on hat etiquette and a book on the way, it’s hard to believe that she set out just three years ago after learning her craft under Gina Foster’s instruction.
Her clientele is surprisingly diverse. ‘Twenty-somethings come to me for two smaller hats that they can alternate throughout the wedding season. That way they don’t blow their budget on one huge piece.’ They opt for fascinators (banned from Royal Ascot’s Royal Enclosure in 2012 when they clamped down on the dress code) because ‘they are pretty and feminine and work just as well with a floaty Zara dress as with couture. Although, it really does depend on the individual. I always encourage clients to come and meet me, I can tell almost instantly if someone has the personality for a real head-turner.’
Her most crazy creation to date? An all-singing, all- dancing hat covered with LED lights for a surrealist ball in Saint Moritz. She’s also working on a replica of the Dowager Countess’ hat in Downton Abbey, for this year’s forties-themed Shrewsbury Flower Show.
When she’s not making hats, there’s the small matter of running the estate. A mish-mash of medieval and Elizabethan architecture, the manor is somewhat unusual for its absence of Victorian or Edwardian tampering and is crammed with original furniture, tapestries and paintings. Laura picks out the Upton Cressett cradle for which William ‘paid through the nose’, wondering whether a long-lost relative was bidding against him. ‘It turned out to be someone trying to buy it for his cat to sleep in,’ says Laura.
The brushwork of Jerwood Prize winner, Adam Dant, graces most walls, with interlaced cartouches that are personal to the couple, featuring family, friends and their labrador, Cressie. The dining room fireplace is large enough to spit roast an entire hog – which is probably what it was used for originally – and here guests feast under the watchful gaze of original portraits, including Sir Francis Cressett, who failed to help Charles I to escape from the Isle of Wight, having overlooked the size of the king’s waistline.
The estate is guarded by an impressive gatehouse which they rent out and use to accommodate writers, free of charge. The Thatcher Suite played host to the Iron Lady herself, who used to stay in the room back when William’s father owned the property. Previous visitors also include Prince Rupert, who stayed during the English Civil War.
The principal rooms are open to the public every weekend (2pm–5pm). For a tenner visitors get an enthusiastic tour from William and Laura lays on afternoon tea and cake which is served out of their very own medieval tent on the lawn.
She seems used to the strangers wandering through the garden to visit the Norman church. The building has real significance for the couple; William proposed to her by hiding the ring in the font which he had wreathed with thistles (a nod to her Scottish heritage). The church will soon host her 30th birthday party, a medieval-themed banquet. ‘I suppose I will have to make a fair few hats for that one,’ she jokes. When pressed as to who will play court jester she insisted it wouldn’t be William. ‘No, he wants to go as Henry VIII.’ That particular role then is yet to be filled.