Hollywood producer is rebuilding family’s crumbling English estate

In 2013, Hollywood producer Hopwood Depree was unwinding after work with wine and casual internet scrolling. Scrolling through ancestry websites, he discovered a huge English estate bearing his unusual name: Hopwood Hall. His grandfather had always spoken vaguely of a “Hopwood Castle” in the family past, and apparently it wasn’t just lip service. Depree learned that the 600-year-old, 60-bedroom abandoned mansion on 5,000 acres in Middleton was, in fact, her family’s long-forgotten ancestral home.

Nearing fifty, 40-year-old Depree felt an immediate connection and would soon leave Los Angeles for England with a new purpose: to restore his family estate to its former glory. He gave up his Hollywood career, including pitching shows for the McDonald’s TV channel.

“Even though I loved their McNuggets, I was now off to England to fulfill my destiny,” he wrote in “Downton Shabby: An American’s Ultimate DIY Adventure Restoring His Family’s English Castle” (William Morrow), now available.

Hopwood Hall Estate at the height of its glory, circa 1890

Hopwood Hall had been empty since the two male heirs were killed in World War I and was owned by the town council when Depree found him. The estate – located near Manchester, a few hundred miles north of London – was collapsing. Despite being surrounded by a 13-foot, razor-topped fence dubbed the “scrotum shredder,” the vandals had already smashed many of the 812 windows and removed priceless wooden carvings from the walls. Trees sprouted from the 35 chimneys, the roof was strewn with holes and water leaked through the walls. Rotten floors have crumbled. Much of the mansion was too decrepit to enter, with experts predicting its demise within a decade or a $10 million price tag to restore its former glory. The people of Middleton felt an affinity for the Hall and no one wanted to lose it, but since it was empty, time and Mother Nature showed no mercy.

Lady Susan Hopwood with her dogs and horse on the lawn of Hopwood Hall Estate in the 1880s.
Lady Susan Hopwood with her dogs and horse on the lawn of Hopwood Hall Estate in the 1880s.
The Middleton Collection, care of local studies, Touchstones, Rochdale
Visitors to Hopwood Estates.
Visitors to Hopwood Estates. The author’s branch of the family left for America in the late 1700s.
Courtesy of Hopwood DePree

But the history of Hopwood Hall was impressive. From the 1400s until World War I, it was home to the Hopwood family (the Depree branch of the family tree left for America in the late 1700s), through the Crusades, the Black Death and war roses. Its 60 rooms included a massive reception hall and a “morning room”, whose wall of windows faced the daily sunrise. Elaborate carvings were carved into the walls and intricate paintings covered the ceilings. Well maintained gardens surrounded the house.

Past guests in the room included Lord Byron (who wrote the four-part narrative poem “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage” while there) and Frederic Chopin, who performed in the drawing room. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth visited to attend an opening ceremony for the college. Ozzy Osborne once performed on-site at this college’s “nightclub”, famous for being bombarded on stage with a beer thrown by his future wife, Sharon Osborne.

Hopwood discussing plans with Rochdale council members and the renovation team.
Hopwood discussing plans with Rochdale council members and the renovation team.
Fred Leao Prado

After discovering his ancestral past in 2013, for the next three years Hopwood Depree made numerous trips to Middletown to visit the mansion. In 2017 he moved there, intending to “save Hopwood Hall from ruin”.

Depree was an unlikely choice to lead the renovation: He was impractical, writing that his last visit to a home improvement store ended “in tears in a Home Depot parking lot.” Which is why Middleton natives would later joke that tinkering didn’t mean tinkering to Hopwood, but “inexperienced dim Yank.”

The elegant banquet hall will need a complete overhaul, with its rotting floors and carved wood nicked by vandals.
The once elegant banquet hall will need a complete overhaul, with its rotting floors and wooden carvings nicked by vandals.
The Middleton Collection, Care of Local Studies, Touchstones, Rochdale
The Jacobethan topper in the Oak Parlor at Hopwood Hall Estate.
Jacobethan’s overcoat in the Oak Parlor at Hopwood Hall Estate.
Andy Marshall/Hopwood DePree

While locals were enthusiastic about Depree’s efforts to revive Hopwood Hall – many of their ancestors had worked there as cooks and servants, gardeners and drivers – they weren’t sure the newcomer was the man for the job. .

Most first saw him as a “blonde California jerk with his head in the clouds, teeth whitened, and bronzer all over his face,” Hopwood writes. Which isn’t to say Middleton didn’t welcome Depree. Without Hopwood living in the area for generations, the villagers were delighted with the American presence. When he visited the local pub, the Hopwood Arms, a cheer invariably broke out.

“Hopwood is in the Hopwood!” they would roar.

Much of the fireplace detail remains somewhat intact, surprisingly, despite the rest of the room crumbling.
Much of the fireplace detail remains intact, surprisingly, although the rest of the room is in ruins.
Courtesy of Hopwood Hall Estate; Fred Leao Prado

With funding Depree has secured from organizations such as Historic England and the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, construction crews and heritage experts have been working on Hopwood Hall since 2017. There are had stops and starts, for reasons ranging from a global pandemic to a 500-year-old feud that still simmers in the hearts of the Hopwoods’ closest neighbors. The city council gave him the house as long as he could prove that he cared for it responsibly. (This was a legal agreement between the council and Hopwood, and it was so serious that his attorney explained that Hopwood would literally face jail time if found in breach of the agreement.)

So far, the foundations of the mansion have been shored up and its roof replaced, the whole building has been made wind and water proof. Whenever possible, villagers stepped in to help, sweeping dusty rooms or picking up debris. A local electrician offered his services for free to make his elderly mother proud.

“I was starting to get a taste of how the village mentality worked,” Depree writes.

Downtown Shabby by Hopwood DePree
Hopwood has been working on restoring the home since 2017.

The reno was also a treasure hunt of sorts, with a gas mask found under one set of boards (probably a remnant from a World War) and a pair of cloth shoes under another (probably placed in the Middle Ages for ” keep witches away”). Behind a wall was a “priest hole” (where preachers hid from religious persecution) and inside was an ancient chest worth thousands of English pounds.

While fundraising and project management were Depree’s forte as a producer, no one ever asked him to pick up a hammer. Instead, locals teased, “Hopwood, why don’t you make yourself useful and go film a toothpaste commercial!”

In 2018, restoration efforts led by Hopwood Depree enabled Hopwood Hall to hold its first Christmas party since World War I (in a part of the mansion that was safe enough for guests). Today, the work continues, with up to 30 workers on site daily. This summer, Depree will take visitors through the mansion’s original medieval gates and into the courtyard, showcasing the guardroom, reception hall and family chapel.

As for when this labor of love might finally be “done,” Depree can only laugh. “My magic words for this answer are ‘three years’. But I also said that three years ago!

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