26th February 2014 Sofia, Bulgaria

Living in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Sofia

by Jonathan Allen

Ambassador Jonathan Allen and his family are the current, temporary tenants of the British Residence in Sofia. The Residence has been their home since February 2012 (December 2013 for their young son). Ambassador Allen has many stories about the Residence and filling it with life; its calmness, the different perspective and the sense of belonging to one big idea that the “wonderful building” gives you.

100 Years UK in BG starts. We will share two new stories every week. Please enjoy!

“Our daughter has grown up here, running around the house and garden, up and down the stairs. Our son was born in Sofia, and came to live at the house aged just two days old. We have adopted a street cat called Molly.” – HMA Jonathan Allen

The Residence small Dining Room with family's personal belongings and Lucy's toys
The Residence small Dining Room with family’s personal belongings and Lucy’s toys

I remember the first night we spent as a family here, my wife and I with our five month old daughter, alone in a huge building that was unfamiliar to us. Back then, it felt a daunting task; that we were living in a museum piece or a workplace, far from the comfortable home we had left in London. This after all is a building in which in the last year, we have welcomed over 3000 guests to events and had over 200 visitors to stay the night. However, as we have lived our lives in Bulgaria, and spread our personal belongings through the house, so we have made it feel as much of a family home as a working building.

Our daughter has grown up here, running around the house and garden, up and down the stairs. Our son was born in Sofia, and came to live at the house aged just two days old. We have adopted a street cat called Molly, whose favourite pastime is to sit on the window-sill gazing smugly at her former feline friends in the cold outside. Visitors who come for events often remark on the tiny coats and snowsuits hanging next to theirs in the Cloakroom; the kids’ toys at the end of the Hall; the family photographs in the Ballroom; the playstation and romcoms in the Sitting Room. And what’s a Ballroom for anyway, if not to learn to ride your first bike in?

The Residence is a traditional looking British country house. The main difference between it and the sort of house you might see in the UK from the same period is in the larger windows, crucial in the hot Bulgarian summers. Although work started on the Residence in 1912, it took a further two years until 1914 before it was completed. The Balkan Wars interrupted the progress of the building. It was not occupied for long before it was evacuated in a rush, following Bulgaria’s entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers, of course on the opposite side to the UK. A watercolour still hangs in the Hall, painted at that time, and recovered from the Legation’s baggage in which two bombs were placed as they left the country, killing two members of the staff. Britain of course found itself again on the opposite side to Bulgaria in a major conflict during the Second World War, and there followed the hostilities of the Cold War.

A sense of history fills the building. It is a beautiful place, house and garden widely acknowledged to be among the best in Sofia. It feels like an oasis of calm at times. It is a good place to do some thinking, away from the hustle and bustle of daily priorities, political crises, and urgent tasks. You can reflect on the number of occupants of this house who themselves have been caught up in some crisis moment that felt at that time to be crucial, but which we barely remember now. It helps you realise that the same will no doubt be true of your own problems and worries. It helps you re-focus on the big picture, the long game, and ask yourself what small steps you are taking to help achieve those bigger goals that you and your predecessors have pursued over the years.

Fully a quarter of this building’s lifespan have been since the end of communism and the birth of a modern, democratic Bulgaria in 1989. For all that many Bulgarians would wish for faster and greater progress down the road to democracy, stability and prosperity, I am sure that these stones would reflect on a country moving firmly in the right direction, making progress and with the potential to achieve far more. These common interests, whether political, security or commercial, are what I and my predecessors have worked for. We have lived here for a hundred years; we will continue to live here; and the relationship and friendship will strengthen and deepen with each temporary tenant of this wonderful building.

2 comments on “Living in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Sofia

  1. When it comes to eulogies, it seems to me that some readers might have missed the point. I have never met Mr. Allen, but I have followed his progress with great interest. His story about the residence is not about actual bricks and mortar, but the character and use to which this imposing building has been used during his time as Ambassador.

    Others in the past have been rather more preoccupied with their own comfort and entertainment and events have either been restricted to The Queens Official Birthday, or other casual events; no doubt reluctantly arranged to appease certain of their masters at the CFO.

    Mr. Allen, on the other hand, has seen fit to open the doors to ordinary people and to try hard to present the UK as a friendly and hospitable nation, despite the rubbish published in the UK press, about Bulgaria in general.

    I hope that his successor has the same view, because some of his predecessors were not so thoughtful, and must have regarded Sofia as a hardship posting, or even as a form of punishment!

  2. Mr. Allen,

    It seems you may not be aware that the Residence was internally rebuilt in 1994-5 & basically only the floors & main staircase remain of the original structure. Many of the original fittings were sent to the U.K. to be restored & the wall panelling was remade to copy the original where appropriate. The roof & the internal electrical, heating & ventilating system were completely renewed & basically only the outside walls remained as most of the internal walls were also rebuilt to fit a new architectural scheme. This was at the time that Guy Short was the Ambassador who was tragically killed in a terrorist attack when he was moved to Ankara just before the Residence was completed.

    I was one of the small management team on this venture & I later married our Bulgarian secretary at the time & have lived here ever since.

    I hope you will include this episode in your intended celebration & also a tribute to Guy Short. I would be pleased to give you further details if you wish.

    I have tried to write this on your quoted Gvt. e-mail about this event but cannot open the required site.

    I look forward to hearing from you.


    Bruce Roberts.

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