Blenheim Palace. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) .
Artillery Row

The future of Britain’s stately homes

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Britain’s country houses?

In the autumn of 1974, the Victoria & Albert Museum launched a new exhibition. A landmark show, “The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975” charted the loss of thousands of country houses nationwide. It marked a point in the British country house’s history, one which can never again be reached, thanks to the modern listings system. But the pandemic had some asking whether it marked another point for the big house. When so many properties today rely on now-banned large-scale events, and visitors that may be too cautious to come back, what would become of the nation’s best asset? Would the country house survive the pandemic?

Historic Houses represents around 1,600 privately-owned properties of all shapes and sizes. When in March we were told to “stay home”, the great front doors of these big houses closed – or rather, they never opened. For many, open season runs from Easter to Halloween, to allow for maintenance over the winter. This year, that season has been limited to partial opening from July, at best, with the loss of several bank holidays, and the key Easter weekend. It has been tough on everyone, says James Birch, president of Historic Houses and custodian of Doddington Hall, near Lincoln. “We have 320 houses that open to the public, and there are now only about 50 or 60 open,” he explains. Touring footfall was not the business worst hit by the pandemic. “Initially people rolled weddings from May into August, and then into September,” says Birch. “The assumption is that there won’t be any this year. If that was your main business, there’s a real crisis.” Unlike the National Trust, which operates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as one body, members of Historic Houses are independent. “We don’t know many people’s exact situations,” says Birch. “And we won’t really know until it’s almost too late.”

Deer grazing at Powderham Castle in South Devon England UK. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Of the scores of estate owners I have spoken to over the last few months, none said that they felt at all financially prepared for the pandemic. “We’re small businesses like any other,” says Guy Macpherson-Grant, whose family have owned Ballindalloch Castle on the edge of the Cairngorms since 1457. Usually, Ballindalloch is open to the public inside and out, but this year they have only opened the gardens. “We have been absolutely scuppered by Covid,” adds Macpherson-Grant. At the Duke of Rutland’s Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, cancellations up to June totalled £2.5m. In July, the Earl of Derby, a former banker who owns Knowsley Hall in Merseyside, now predominantly an events venue, told me that they were “moving into a zone where there are no facilities left.” At Powderham Castle in Devon, the Earl of Devon, who sits in the House of Lords, also confirms that he has “no cash reserves, as Powderham doesn’t sit on cash”, though its 3,500-acre estate has helped keep things afloat. James Hervey-Bathurst has been at the helm of Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire since 1989. “I’m not optimistic at the moment,” he admits. Usually, Eastnor would host up to 40 weddings a year, but “that business has stopped, and is a big hole for us.” The “staycation” market has helped a bit: “visitor numbers are good – we’ve been able to open the house more”.

Ballindalloch Castle (Photo by David LEFRANC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

All things are relative. But when your house costs £500,000 a year to maintain, a lack of income can cause serious problems. “Those who may end up in trouble now are those who have made a lot of money out of precarious businesses, or what are now precarious businesses,” says architectural historian Matthew Beckett, author of The Country Seat blog. Those estates with significant assets – land, or even better, land in London – will be fine, says Crispin Holborow, deputy chairman of Savills private office. “The London estate is the cash cow that feeds the country estate. It’s those that either never had or have lost London estates that are likely to have less cash.” For most “ordinary” historic house owners running marginal businesses, this is very much the case. Cash is sucked up not just through running costs – James Birch’s insurance bill alone is £35,000 a year – but on succession too. “A generation might through good husband build up some cash reserves, but that will all go in taxes when they pass the property on,” adds Holborow.

There is always the option to sell – houses, art, land. But hereditary custodians are reluctant to hit the auctions if they can help it. “For many houses it will be the people employed there that will first lose their jobs, and the owners will muddle through for a year or two,” says Holborow. “They will do everything they can not to sell up.” He does not believe that the pandemic will force a heap of statelies onto the market. “You would need to see interest rates rising significantly, and taxation rising specifically on that type of property owner to see properties coming to market that weren’t otherwise thinking of doing so.”

There is a big difference between growing up somewhere and being in charge of it

Still, there are a few for sale. One of them is Weston Hall, near Towcester, for 300 years home of the Sitwell family. A year ago, the current Sitwell – the food writer William – decided that enough was enough: Weston could no longer pay its way. “However beautiful the place is, you can’t be ruined by it,” he says. Weston was due on the market in the spring and was finally launched after lockdown. It is now for sale with Knight Frank for £3.25m. It ought to be very appealing, says Sitwell. “I won’t pretend that Weston is a grand house – it’s a bungalow compared to [nearby] Boughton or Althorp. Northamptonshire has some of the grandest houses in the country, but Weston is not one of them.” Still, with ten bedrooms, there is plenty of room. “As a family you huddle into a cosy bit and have to remind yourself to use the dining room,” Sitwell says. “I always made a point of at least going to read the papers in the drawing room on a Sunday.”

Weston Hall – William Sitwell’s historic family home.

Soon Weston will have a new family. “My grandparents [Sacheverell and Georgia Sitwell] would have completely sympathised with me selling it,” Sitwell says. “They wrestled with the house and did a deal whereby they effectively sold it to my grandfather’s brother [Osbert Sitwell] who was much wealthier. They were terrified of the cost.” Still, he will miss the house. “Weston is a woman – I knew her, I got to flirt with her. It’s a privilege to breathe in the air of a place which literally seeps history.” But there is a big difference between growing up somewhere and being in charge of it. “When it’s your responsibility you just see problems everywhere you go.”

Not all of Britain’s big houses can be sold if needed. About 300 are owned by the National Trust, which celebrates its 125th birthday this year. Recently, the Trust found itself in hot water over these houses. In August, details emerged in The Times that the Trust was to “abolish its top tier of art specialists” and is “set on keeping only 20 of its properties continually open to the public”. The headlines poured in. “We expect more from this heritage hiatus” – the Yorkshire Post. “The trendies have destroyed the National Trust” – The Spectator. “Why won’t the people who run the National Trust trust the nation?” – The Telegraph.

The Trust released a statement explaining that the leaked document was “an internal discussion” and “not a strategy”, and that they “remain committed to, and passionate about, the country house”. This has not been entirely convincing. One art world boss dismisses the idea that the plans were anything less than solid. “It’s not a casual document, it’s been done with care. Frankly, it’s a suicide note, completely insane.” Matthew Beckett describes the Trust as a “superpower in terms of country houses. The primacy of the National Trust as an apex country house curator has to be preserved.” Architectural historian Dr Amy Boyington is baffled by the news. “Limiting the number of houses that will be ‘continually open’, even if this is more than the 20 reported, will have a terrible impact on the public’s accessibility to Britain’s heritage,” she says. “How will the Trust decide which houses are worthy of being open?”

At the end of the day, says William Sitwell, “you can’t go bankrupt because you love a house”

The Trust is not immune from the extraordinary running costs that these houses bring. “I think they’ve been looking for a way of making it less expensive,” says art historian Dr Bendor Grosvenor, who has in recent weeks criticised the Trust. The country house, he adds, is not itself so unfashionable that as a nation we have moved away from it, “but I think that’s what some senior parts of the Trust think. Making a positive commitment to things like climate change gives them a seat at the political table in a way that country houses don’t.” Two of the most popular television exports of recent years have been Downton Abbey, and The Crown. “Whether we like it or not, these things are still extremely popular,” says Dr Grosvenor. “It might be an unwelcome reminder of an elitist past, but the point of the National Trust is that it has taken hundreds of places that were for the elite and given them to everybody.” It would be more than doable for the Trust to provide a twenty-first century big house experience, he says. According to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, the stately homes that received the most visitors in 2019 were Longleat (just over 1m), Blenheim (984,000), and Chatsworth (606,000). “These are the poshest houses,” says Dr Grosvenor. “Ones with actual living dukes in them! Of course, it is possible to do.”

Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, circa 1830. Originally the seat of the Marquess of Rockingham, it passed to the Earls Fitzwilliam in the 19th century. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The country house is far from over. The pandemic has merely provided a moment of pause, says Sarah McLeod, the inspiring chief executive of Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham. For 200 years, this beast of a house – 606-foot-wide, with hundreds of rooms – was home to the Fitzwilliam family. When in 1948 the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam (the maternal grandfather of Helena Rees-Mogg, wife of Jacob) was killed – alongside his mistress Kick Kennedy, sister of the future president – its future looked rocky. Eventually, in 1989 it was sold, and then again in 2017 to the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, thanks to a £7.6m government cash injection. One of its trustees is the Duke of Devonshire, whose uncle Billy Hartington was Kick Kennedy’s late husband. Once, Stubbs’s great painting of Whistlejacket (which in the collection of the National Gallery), the Marquess of Rockingham’s chestnut stallion, hung in the eponymous Whistlejacket Room at Wentworth. Today, it is empty, and is being restored as part of a project due to complete in about 2045. Like every other stately in the land, it closed in March, and McLeod decided to open the gardens for the first time: “people couldn’t come into the house, but they could at least experience Wentworth from the outside,” she says. “We never had a family offer before, so it has made us push forward with it.” Other changes are coming. The team are developing Wentworth Woodhouse television, to showcase the house digitally, and when they reopen, tours will be in socially-distanced groups of ten – “though it doesn’t really pay”.

McLeod is alert to the challenge that a post-Covid world will bring to the big house community. “The market for country houses is changing. Everybody under the age of 40 has grown up in the digital age, and in no time those people are going to be retired. We have got to make our offer relevant.” For some, it’s adapt or lose it all. In recent years, a number of big houses have sold – to free up cash, or to reflect a modern lifestyle, in 2012, Dunecht, the Pearson family’s 72,000 sq ft Aberdeenshire pile, sold for just under £2m. In 2016, Lord Walpole sold Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, and in 2018 Viscount Boyd of Merton offloaded Ince Castle in Cornwall. Last year, Credit Suisse economist Giles Keating snapped up Athelhampton Hall in Dorset, where he cheerfully chats to visitors as they walk around the gardens. None of it is for the faint of heart. At the end of the day, says William Sitwell, “you can’t go bankrupt because you love a house.”

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