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Many of the stately homes we love to visit are in crisis as public tours are banned

Nov 22, 2020
While owners of stately homes might not receive nor expect much sympathy for their plight in a pandemic that has affected so many, the financial impact of the lockdown has been substantial.
Many of the stately homes we love to visit are in crisis as public tours are banned

Noel Coward may have sung ‘The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, to prove the upper classes have still the upper hand’ – but that was in 1938, and today they are yet another casualty of coronavirus.

While the landed owners of such magnificent historic piles might not receive – nor expect – much sympathy for their plight in a pandemic that has affected so many, the financial impact of the lockdown has been substantial.

Public tours have been banned and essential revenues from the use of the properties as wedding venues or film sets has all-but dried up.

Typical of those badly hit is the Casterne Hall estate in the Peak District. The house, with 182 acres, has been put on the market by Charles Hurt

Matters have been exacerbated by the fall-out from revelations that some estates were built on proceeds from the slave trade.

‘This year has been a total washout,’ says James Probert of the Historic Houses Association, which represents 1,500 properties, around half of which normally operate public commercial ventures from gift shops to holiday accommodation.

As a result of the crisis, many properties have been put up for sale.

Typical of those badly hit is the Casterne Hall estate in the Peak District. The house, with 182 acres, has been put on the market by Charles Hurt, who says: ‘My family has owned the estate since the 1400s but it’s no longer financially viable to keep the place going. The coronavirus restrictions were the final nail in the coffin.’

Caroline and Charles Hurt try to stay ‘unsentimental’ over the sale of a property that’s been in the family for six centuries

He and his wife Caroline had been dependent on the income generated from special events and from renting the house out for weekend parties. The Grade II*-listed 18th Century property high above the Manifold Valley has been used for several TV period dramas, including Peaky Blinders and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

With most of the art and land sold by previous generations, all that was left for the Hurts was to sell the house itself. ‘We’re trying to remain unsentimental,’ says Charles. ‘These things are part and parcel of life.’

Other country estates for sale include the Bowden Park estate, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, on the market for £35 million. The Grade I-listed 18th Century house is in nearly 1,500 acres of park and farmland, with eight farmhouses and 12 cottages.

Then t’s Leasam House in East Sussex, on offer at £8.9 million with 56 acres, and Nazeing Park, an Grade II-listed 18th Century estate with 68 acres on the Essex/Hertfordshire border, for sale at £6.5 million.

Since the first nationwide lockdown, estate agent Savills has been involved in the sale of 21 estates in the £15 million-plus price range. This compares with just one equivalent property sold in the whole of 2019.

All this suggests that one effect of the pandemic is to disprove Noel Coward: economically, the upper classes are having less of an ‘upper hand’.

Even Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which benefited hugely from being the setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, has suffered. Its chatelaine, Lady Carnarvon, said earlier this year: ‘Coronavirus was devastating, catastrophic, challenging and very abrupt.

‘We weren’t at half-mast, we were running at zero-mast.’

Those estates not fortunate to get filming revenue have, in the past, often relied on hiring out their buildings for weddings.

Even Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which benefited hugely from being the setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, has suffered

This has been the main source of income for Sir Richard FitzHerbert’s Jacobean Tissington Hall in the Peak District. 

But, of course, the lockdown means weddings are banned. Sir Richard says: ‘It’s been very difficult, although we know t are many people in far worse situations than us. The weddings market has been decimated.’

He has received £20,000 from the Government’s £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund, but says: ‘While I’m extremely grateful, it is nothing compared to the income we would have generated from weddings.’

Highclere Castle's chatelaine, Lady Carnarvon, said earlier this year: ‘Coronavirus was devastating, catastrophic, challenging and very abrupt. ‘We weren’t at half-mast, we were running at zero-mast'

Tissington had 35 weddings planned this year, with between 100 and 150 guests invited to each. All were postponed, with new dates set for 2021.

As a result, four staff have been made redundant and one of its main caterers has closed down. What’s more, Sir Richard says: ‘Some brides are getting itchy feet as their life situations are changing and they want their money back.’

The Countess Bathurst, of Cirencester Park in the Cotswolds, has also cancelled weddings on her estate.

She says: ‘The 21st Century is catching up with us. These houses are extraordinarily expensive to maintain and run. While we believe that we are custodians, not owners, we have to be creative in how we raise income.’

As well as being national treasures, such estates are businesses supporting thousands of livelihoods. Inevitably, tenants have been badly affected.

At Cirencester Park, Lord and Lady Bathurst gave pubs on their estate a rent amnesty during the last lockdown.

‘T are an awful lot of people worse off than us, and we have to cut our coat according to our cloth and wait for the storm to pass,’ says the countess.

‘We are all in the same storm, but we are in our different little boats, and as each wave crashes over the bow, it can either sink us or we cling on and hope the next one’s not going to be too bad.

‘We are very aware of the extreme hardship and I don’t think we should be complaining.’ James Birch, president of the Historic Houses Association, says: ‘What is scary is not the scale but the suddenness of the situation.

‘Even the larger and more famous estates are having significant cash flow problems.’

The Vanbrugh-designed Castle Howard, in North Yorkshire, w Brideshead Revisited was filmed, was among those affected, although it received a significant grant from the Cultural Recovery Fund which went towards roof repairs.

The fact is that country house owners are asset rich but cash poor. And with assets tied up in art and land, it’s not easy to release equity when the going gets tough. Historically, t have been three rescue routes: sell farmland, artwork or, at worst, the house itself.

But such solutions are tricky in a short timescale and, in any case, says Birch, who is custodian of Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire, the market for artworks and land is also depressed.

An estimated 15 per cent of Historic Houses Association members have sold art to finance an urgent repair in the past six years.

With lockdown expected to be extended into 2021, t will undoubtedly be many more fire-sales and many more country houses going the way of Casterne Hall.

Sir Richard FitzHerbert’s Jacobean Tissington Hall in the Peak District had 35 weddings planned this year, with between 100 and 150 guests invited to each. All were postponed, with new dates set for 2021

The Countess Bathurst, of Cirencester Park in the Cotswolds, has also cancelled weddings on her estate. She says: ‘The 21st Century is catching up with us. These houses are extraordinarily expensive to maintain and run. While we believe that we are custodians, not owners, we have to be creative in how we raise income'

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