Delusions of grandeur

What place do historic houses have in the modern world? finds that stately homes have an enduring appeal and are still relevant in today’s society

Castle Howard

Castle Howard

Stately homes are a very British tradition. Wherever you go in the country, you’re bound to be within a stone’s throw of at least a couple of grand houses or castles, acting as monuments to the complicated history of this green and pleasant land.

Indeed, the journalist Sir Simon Jenkins wrote in a 2003 work entitled England’s Thousand Best Houses that “through them we hear the echo of our collective selves – and remember who we are”.

But the future of such grand stately homes has not always been so secure. When reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (which rather predictably provided the inspiration for this piece), it is evident that the story is almost one long tribute to a particular stately home and the lifestyle it has created. Upon Charles Ryder’s return to the house during the Second World War, he laments the advent of an egalitarian and featureless world, with no place for houses like Brideshead. There was a real fear that in post-war Britain such houses could be left to decay.

Still, stately homes have survived, despite the odds. However, to do this, their focus has had to change. No longer can they expect merely to exist as lavish ornaments to a decadent lifestyle. To own a stately home is to belong to an exclusive club; but it is also to enter a unique sector of business, where there is an accepted model for success, just like any other consumer driven activity.

As Waugh himself was forced to add in a 1959 introduction, “Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures rearranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain”.

The Hon. Simon Howard, the current owner of Castle Howard, very much agrees that running a stately home should nowadays be treated like running a business, and that it would be difficult to attract visitors otherwise. “Castle Howard has been open to the public ever since it was built, but commercially since 1932, and certainly we wouldn’t be able to continue unless we did so. We do consciously think about how to promote the house – we listen to what people say about why they come here. I think people visit because it’s an important house architecturally and it’s an attractive place to visit. It’s more about experiencing the house itself than experiencing the history.”

One of the house’s many corridors

But Charles Berkeley, the director of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, takes a different view. “I think the main reason people visit the castle is because it is an authentic Norman castle built in the 12th century. It has a dungeon and a keep, and a lot of the features haven’t changed over the years. History plays a major part.”

This is understandable, given that Berkeley Castle was the location for the murder of King Edward II in 1327 and where barons gathered before signing the Magna Carta in 1215. “It’s unique because it’s been lived in by the same family since Anglo-Saxon times. There’s always been a Berkeley living there uninterrupted for over 900 years.” Indeed, after The Tower of London and Windsor, it is the oldest continuously-occupied castle in England, and the oldest outright to be continually owned and occupied by the same family.

But despite the differences between the buildings, the emphasis on treating them as businesses is still essential. “The castle has been open now for just over 50 years, and my father was told by his father that this was the only way for the family to stay living here. We very much say it’s a business; we have to have commercial ideas both for the castle and the estate to bring in money. We’ve had to be more commercial and tougher. You have to think of major things that will suit that particular place. I think having major events in the grounds and castle in the future will be the only way to survive.”

Given that the focus of stately homes is very much on making money in order to stay open, do the owners consciously promote themselves through being used in TV dramas and films? In today’s celebrity-obsessed world, this is a way to engage with people who might not otherwise be interested in stately homes, and it might be expected that this is a market they could tap in to.

Berkeley states that, “it glamorises the castle a bit [to be used in TV and film] and shows people what life used to be like at the castle. But we don’t overdo it. What you see is what you get, and we don’t really go out of our way to attract filming.” But having said that, he admits, “we have found there have been small increases in numbers – not huge – but small increases when we’ve had TV and drama”.

Castle Howard is irrevocably the Brideshead of Waugh’s novel. The iconic 1981 TV show remains famous, and a 2008 film adaptation was also filmed at the house. Howard explains that in both cases, the film crews approached him rather than the other way round. “As far as we’re concerned, we could never have paid for the advertising that Brideshead gave us.” Walking round the house, it is fascinating to see what parts were restored by the family and what by the film producers. Wooden walls were repainted with a marble effect rather than replacing the stonework, and a guide informed us that, once filming ended, some of the rooms were left with half a wooden floor.

However, Howard points out that any economic benefits come at a cost: “Because of the productions, we don’t have that many people coming to see us as a location. Most producers and directors take one look and immediately associate us as Brideshead, so we’re not in the running for endless TV or location work. Some houses specifically go out into the market for that sort of thing – they don’t want advertising because they want film crews to keep coming back. We, on the other hand, wanted the reverse.

“But it was thanks to both of them that we were able to restore some of the rooms in the house. Not only did we get cash from them, but we also got help with the restoration, so it was doubly efficient from that point of view.”

This is an important point: to remain open and able to show to the public, frequent restoration is needed. Both Berkeley Castle and Castle Howard face ongoing problems with things that need replacing; something part and parcel of owning any house, but a much more difficult problem with such old buildings. But such attempts are crucial if one feels, as both do, that stately homes have a duty to inform and educate the public about the eras they represent.

Howard states: “Education is something that we all strive to assist with in these houses, no matter whether that is to do with the history or the fine art or the gardening or architecture or whatever. We feel we have a place on the curriculum to add further value to people’s aspirations.”

I asked both owners if it feels odd to have their respective family histories so widely known, and to know that they too will be added to guide books for future generations. Both, however, said that they had grown up with the notion and were used to it. “It’s probably much more affecting for my wife, who married into it,” says Howard. He continues tellingly: “She sort of married the house as well as me. It’s much more difficult for her, because you are on duty 24 hours a day and seven days a week – you live on the shop.”

To own such a house is a substantial commitment and such important buildings end up defining you. The house doesn’t belong to you: you belong to the house.

Berkeley goes into more detail. “It certainly was strange as a child, growing up there. It was odd to wake up and then just see people wandering round the castle or film crews just perched on the roof. But now I like the fact that there are people enjoying the castle and hopefully learning from it, and for me it’s a great privilege to live in a castle that’s enjoyed by so many people.”

However, he did not always feel this way. When he was younger, he moved away for a time and questioned whether life at the castle was truly what he wanted. “It felt a bit suffocating to be constantly reminded about the castle wherever I was. I thought, ‘I don’t really want this, it’s stopping me’. But I think that was just a period of change. I wanted to be away from that atmosphere, but then I was refreshed and came back and realised that this was my future and I was very privileged to be the custodian of such a place.”

To own such a house is a substantial commitment – it would be almost impossible to give up and move away, knowing that your ancestors have lived there for centuries. Even if both the owners I spoke to seemed to have accepted this, it wouldn’t suit everyone. Such important buildings end up defining you and can be overpowering. Not everyone would be able to cope knowing that their house will have a much greater impact on people’s lives than they ever will. The house doesn’t belong to you: you belong to the house.

Many houses were always open to the public on a limited scale, including Castle Howard. Standing at the gates of the house, staring down the long drive, it is quite difficult not to be intimidated. The lavish architecture was designed with this in mind; the house was built to show off. But it would be foolish to forget that, however grand and impressive, the houses were usually originally built as homes to live in.

The dining room

But despite Howard’s and Berkeley’s best attempts to convince me that they lead a perfectly normal home life, this statement is somewhat destroyed upon visting Castle Howard. My industrious Muse Editor was so sceptical that she enquired whether they really ate Cheerios in the state dining room. Apparently so. We also made several not particularly subtle inquiries as to the number of parties held at the house. Sadly, we didn’t manage to wrangle an invite.

But what does the future hold for these houses, particularly in the recession? Howard is cautiously optimistic, as Castle Howard had a record number of visitors last year, with 230,000 people coming through the doors. “The recession helps us, in a way – last year, people stayed at home rather than going abroad, therefore they visited attractions in this country. But I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen this year, I don’t think anybody does. I think people are not spending the kind of money they spent before.”

In contrast, things may be harder for Berkeley Castle, perhaps because it trades more off its history than the more high-profile Castle Howard. “It’s going to be a difficult time. Our visitor numbers have gone down over the last few years, even before the recession really hit, partly because there’s so much competition out there for things for people to do and see. We need to do restoration work, and it’s a question of borrowing some of the money and hopefully getting some outside funding, but it’s not easy. It is a wonderful place with wonderful history around it, but there’s no instant cure; there won’t suddenly be a cheque coming out of nowhere to do everything. But as long as we can keep on top of things, I think the future is good for the castle.”

Stately homes act as symbols for British history. They are a tangible way of accessing the past; a house will be there long after the lives of colourful characters who populate them have passed away into the words of history.

In Blenheim Palace near Oxford, there is an inscription on the organ in the library, which states “in memory of happy days, as a tribute to this glorious home, we leave thy voice to speak within these walls in years to come when ours are still”. ­­And this is why they are so important.

Yes, they can be beautiful to look at but these buildings provide a link with the past that can perhaps not be replicated elsewhere. Whilst we still have such a link, we should not be able to, and should not want to, forget all that has gone before in our history.

Photographs by Justyn Hardcastle

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