With his blinding white smile, tanned skin and bleached blond hair, the new American owner of one of the north of England’s most important manor houses does not travel incognito.
“Mr Hopwood, is that you?” The middle-aged women walking their dogs were very excited to encounter Hopwood DePree driving down the crater-filled lane to Hopwood Hall in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.
“How are you finding England?” one asked, giggling. “A bit different from Los Angeles, I bet.” Word has spread quickly in Rochdale that Hopwood Hall, the grandest stately home in the borough and one-time residence of Lord Byron, has a new guardian.
There have been sightings of him all over town, drinking local ale in the pubs and being laughed out of the chippie for trying to pay for a pie with an American Express card.
DePree, a Hollywood impresario who has abandoned his life in the sunshine state to renovate his family seat in the rainy north of England, smiled behind the wheel of his rental car.
It is indeed different in Rochdale compared with California, he conceded. “But this is just one of those places where I instantly feel at home. I have this jacket now,” he said, pointing to his waxed coat, “and I own two umbrellas – brollies, as you call them.”
Hopwood Hall is a once-splendid but now deeply dilapidated Grade II*-listed two-storey brick-and-stone manor, built in a quadrangle around a timber-framed hall that dates back to 1426. Its greatest claim to fame is that it hosted Lord Byron in 1811, when the “mad, bad and dangerous” poet was the 20-year-old Baron of Rochdale.
Byron made himself at home in one of the upstairs bedrooms and spent a week or so putting the finishing touches to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, his first hit poem. He was so grateful for the billet that he gave his hosts, the Hopwoods, an ornate fireplace, which survives today – albeit in a windowless room with a leaky roof and a rubble-filled floor.
DePree, a 47-year-old writer and filmmaker once named by the Hollywood Reporter as one of “20 People to Know”, discovered four years ago that his family had occupied the hall until 1923. By then all of the Hopwoods had either emigrated to the US or died out, and the house was first taken over by the Lancashire Cotton Corporation during the second world war, then the La Salle order of monks and finally the local authority, who left it to rot 30 years ago.
In 2014, he booked a plane ticket and persuaded Rochdale council to let him take a look around. Councillor Janet Emsley did due diligence to check he wasn’t just “some weirdo” – but he really is a direct descendent of the Hopwoods who built the hall, she insists.
Bob Wall, the caretaker, remembers the American’s face as he looked around the ruined house. “I felt a bit sorry for him. He’d flown 5,000 miles to see his ancestral home and it’s a complete tip.”
Last year, DePree sold his LA bungalow and moved to Rochdale to fulfil his dream of restoring his family seat to its former glory. He has just been awarded a grant from Historic England that has been match-funded by Rochdale council to the tune of at least £276,000.
The funding will enable the hall to be stabilised and weather-proofed. Meanwhile, students from the Manchester School of Architecture are undertaking an elective focusing on renovation proposals.
DePree has an exclusive agreement with the council and English Heritage for up to five years to put together a workable plan for the renovations, which he thinks will cost between £6m and £10m – some of which he will fund and the rest he hopes will come from grants.
The deal gives him the right to live in the building, although most of the 60 rooms will be public, available for use by the local community for meetings, weddings or other events. If all goes well, he will be given a lease by the council, as a sort of property guardian.
Having set up a film festival in his birth state of Michigan, DePree hopes Hopwood Hall can be an art and culture hub for the community. Horticulture students from neighbouring Hopwood college are already helping with the garden, and he is in talks with the bricklaying course to use apprentices to redo the boundary walls.
Growing up, DePree hated his unusual first name. “Everyone else was called Tim and Jim and Bob and Tom,” he recalled, explaining why he chose to call himself Todd instead. It was only when he became an actor that he reverted to his birth name: “My agent told me to drop Todd and just become Hopwood DePree.”
He is excited about his new career as a property developer, his sunny American optimism apparently undaunted by the mammoth task ahead. He is hopeful that a reality TV show will be made about the renovation and has begun filming himself just in case. But he insists it is not just a vanity project: “I am primarily doing this for the local community, to bring this wonderful building back to life for local people to enjoy.”