For the stars of the DIY SOS host’s latest restoration show, an Englishman’s home is, quite literally, his castle
For fans of DIY and home improvement, Nick Knowles will need little by way of introduction. The host of shows like DIY SOS and Nick Knowles’ Big House Clearout has been a mainstay of on-screen home improvement programming since the late nineties.
For his latest project, Nick Knowles Heritage Rescue, the presenter’s ambition has grown a little larger. Rather than helping bemused homeowners to make the most of their new flat in Cheshire, or fit an en-suite in their Warwick new build, Knowles will be assisting with the restoration of some of the UK’s best-known historic buildings, from Yorkshire’s Castle Howard, home to the Howard family for over three centuries, to Brighton’s grand Pavilion, formerly a holiday home for royalty and now an icon of the South Coast town.
Most of us probably won’t be looking at buying a castle to live in any time soon, but we can dream, so I ask Knowles which of the properties he visited for his latest TV adventure would be his own dream home: “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think I can pick out a favourite and I’m not even sure that I can pick out a least favourite,” he admits. “I thought maybe if I attacked it from the other way, which would be the least favourite, that might help, but it really doesn’t. I mean, on the surface of it places like Castle Howard and Wentworth Woodhouse are completely different but they’re actually the same in a way. One is still owned by the Howard family and Wentworth Woodhouse is now owned by the community because it was pretty much destroyed. The Labour government in the 40s fell out with the earl because [energy minister who oversaw the nationalisation of coal] Manny Shinwell literally dug up their back garden right up to the back steps and undermined the house, but actually there are a lot of similarities between the two.”
For Knowles, what unites every building maintenance show he presents, is the people in the show, and their relationship with the buildings. With this in mind, he says, a giant restoration project is actually remarkably similar to a facelift on a family home.
“The television is always about the people. Top Gear isn’t really about cars, it’s about the relationships between the three guys. DIY SOS isn’t about buildings, it’s about the fortitude of the people who are dealing with whatever situation they are in, and the generosity of the people that come along to help them and why they do. For me, these buildings only really come to life when you learn about the people who built them and the people who inhabit them and the stories that go with them,” Knowles explains. “When I’m talking to a lead worker up on the roof, we’re talking about the fact that the guys that were up there when it was built were up to the top of wooden scaffolding, in the howling wind, dragging up half-tonne blocks of stone to put into place on scaffolding that really can only barely support them. The people even left little notes in the rooftop. There was one where three roofers had put their names and one of them, Matt, wrote a little poem saying basically it was freezing wet and cold. They weren’t paid very much and couldn’t wait to get off the roof. It’s those small insights into the people that really make the show.”
Of course, for this particular show, there’s no denying that some of the buildings we learn about are a little more impressive than your average DIY SOS candidate. Despite his firm belief that it’s the stories of people that make the show, Knowles does concede that the buildings play their part too: “When you go to somewhere like Exeter Cathedral which is isn’t even a home - well, I suppose it’s the home of God as far as people were concerned when they built it, but you’d think there would be less there,” he says. “But the stories are just as amazing, and the sheer scale of the ambition. I mean, that extraordinary roof running all the way off in the distance behind it. It’s slightly longer than a football pitch. And this is four-storeys high, it’s monstrously huge, made of stone and beautiful in a city that was predominantly wattle and daub. It would have looked as unlikely as a spaceship the size of Wembley Stadium landing in London now. It was just epic. There are all these extraordinary artisans and craftsmen. Some come from quite posh backgrounds, but some come from the kind of background I come from. One of the nice things about doing this has been that these programmes are done not by very academic people where you feel like you’re being lectured by your history teachers. Whereas I’m, you know? I was decent in school but I didn’t go on to university. My love of architecture has come out of reading history. And I love these buildings, and now I’m in love with these faces and the people, the restorers who come from my kind of backgrounds as well. I think it’s fascinating.”
Knowles may be keen to emphasise the more grounded elements of the show and its impressive subjects, but the reality remains that, for most of us, the likelihood of living in a castle or a cathedral anytime soon is slim. Finally, after all the talk of his working-class credentials and the real human stories that have gone into the creation and restoration of these buildings, Knowles admits that there is another appeal to the show – the desire to have a nosey at what we clearly can’t afford: “A lot of property programmes are actually about having a nose around somebody else’s house,” the presenter concedes. “People watched Dallas because it was an insight into this grand lifestyle where everybody was drinking scotch every five minutes, all day. There is a sort of a sort of nosey quality about these things. Like when people go to see houses, when they look through the windows of estate agents, they don’t just look at the houses that they know they can afford because we all like to have a bit of a nosey at houses that we can’t afford. We’re all a little bit interested in excess, in houses that were built to say ‘hey, we are powerful. We are rich.’”
One of the finest examples of this to feature in the show, says Knowles, was Eastnor Castle on the Herefordshire/Welsh border. Here, when the new money of the Cocks Bidduph banking family required a home in the area, it was clear that they’d have to build one to rival the actual castles that the local landed gentry called home. Thanks to the build commencing in the 19th century, however, there was no need to build an actual castle to defend against the Welsh aggressors.
The result is dramatic, as Knowles explains: “They could build the ultimate, romantic, Disney Castle. It’s spectacularly beautiful, and built in proportions that are absolutely stunning, probably the prettiest castle I’ve ever seen internally,” he says. “It’s got rooms by Pugin, who designed the Houses of Parliament. It’s really interesting, I mean you just don’t get rooms by Pugin your two-up, two-down in Liverpool.”
*Nick Knowles Heritage Rescue is available to stream on Discovery+ now.