In recent years, possibly the dominant image of British travellers held by Latvians has been of lager-fuelled stag parties leering at the ladies and peeing on monuments. But in stark contrast, earlier generations of visitors from Albion have brought a touch of class.
Those earlier arrivals have left behind architectural monuments, such as Riga’s Anglican Church, and Jaunmoku Castle, a magnificent hunting lodge erected by early-20th-century Riga Mayor George Armitstead, the grandson of an English merchant who made his fortune in the Baltics.
Padure Manor near Kuldīga, 160 west of the capital, is a less known but equally charming example. Built by a 19thcentury Scottish grandee, it is gradually being restored by a native of Kurzeme who loves his history and wants to create a place filled with joie de vivre.
“I grew up in Valdgale near Talsi, where there’s an impressive windmill left over from an old baronial estate,” says Jānis Lazdāns. “And I guess it was a childhood dream that I always wanted a manor.”
Padure was inhabited by ancient Curonians, then in 1404 the Master of the Livonian Order gave the land to one Hermann Grundys. The house gained its elegant neo-classical form in 1837 after Scottish merchant John Lewis Balfour (a relation of British statesman Arthur Balfour and Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson) acquired it from some bankrupted minor nobles.
When Jānis bought it at auction in 2007 for 300,000 euros, it was in reasonably good shape despite serving as a German army hospital in the Second World War and an apartment building for Soviet collective farm workers. Under the purchase agreement, a family living in the house was allowed to stay on for a few more years, which Jānis says was positive as they helped to keep the place in order.
Jānis is sceptical about some Latvian manorial restorations, which have produced flawless yet dull period pieces, and is happy with Padure’s current “shabby chic” appearance. Restoration is a gradual process. Funding from the Culture Capital Foundation and individual benefactors have given various parts of the property a new sheen. A crowd funding campaign to fix up the garden terrace was recently launched, and Jānis wants to rejuvenate delicate murals hidden beneath inches of wallpaper.
Original staircases, stoves, interior doors and window frames with latches have survived. A pair of inbuilt wardrobes which defied even the most brazen looters also remain from the old days, as does a buzzer to summon the help in the basement servants’ quarters. Some extra furniture was donated by a blue-blooded German friend downsizing his own estate.
A small, broken windowpane on the top floor will never be fixed. In 1912, John Balfour’s grandson Adolf was murdered on the Ventspils-Kuldīga highway. It is rumoured that his soul wants to come into the house, and whenever the said glass is repaired, a pigeon comes along and knocks it out again.
Come one, come all
The estate generates income by offering accommodation via Airbnb, and as a venue for special events and concerts. As soon as Covid restrictions were eased in June, Padure hosted a gig by veteran Latvian rocker Igo Fomins.
“You can’t go wrong hosting weddings or funerals for Latvians – where would we be without those?” Jānis jokes.
Jānis says that business has been excellent during the pandemic, as Baltic tourists discover their backyard rather than jaunting off abroad. However, during the week he works as a property manager in Rīga, then tends to the manor on weekends. The venture doesn’t pay enough yet to give up his day job (he is a single dad with two kids), and a solitary country life doesn’t suit him.
“One summer I decided to be here full time,” he recalls. “Spending 14 hours a day, waiting for some guests to maybe show up - I almost had a nervous breakdown. I need people around me.”
So, when he’s in residence, business and pleasure inevitably mingle. One August Saturday night, Jānis invited a few dozen friends and supporters over for a garden party. Pancakes were cooked on a field stove, an elderly accordion duo and a talented young saxophonist played tunes, and the revellers had a great time without worrying about using the silver cutlery properly or crooking their little fingers while sipping tea.
The host did don a rakish top hat, but only in good fun. This landed gent has his feet firmly on the ground.