Make or break as lords learn to live in real world

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SIR CHARLES Wolseley and Nathaniel Fiennes, the 21st Lord Saye and Sele, are the two faces of modern British aristocracy. Both men are living on honours of the past. One can trace his roots back to 1281, the other 1377. And both are chartered surveyors by trade.

For hundreds of years, their ancient families have ridden the wave of fortune. Today is no different: one is a bankrupt, while the other has just played host to movie stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Colin Firth.

Sir Charles, the 11th baronet, says he has reached the bottom of fortune's lot. His 1,300-acre Staffordshire estate, granted to the Wolseleys in 975 by King Edgar, was seized by creditors two years ago. He and his American- born wife, Lady Jeannie, face the humiliating prospect of being evicted from their stately Georgian home, Park House. To make matters worse, the 54-year-old aristocrat is on the dole.

At the opposite end of England, in the gentle Oxfordshire countryside, Lord and Lady Saye and Sele live in their medieval manor house. Unlike Sir Charles, the 77-year-old Lord Saye, third cousin of Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, has managed to balance his aristocratic heritage with modern life.

Lord Saye inherited Broughton Castle, its idyllic 1,800-acre estate and pounds 3,000 from his father in 1962, along with the Herculean task of maintaining the 16th-century stone facade.

In the early 1980s, Lord Saye, like Sir Charles, faced financial ruin when a pounds 1m restoration bill landed on his desk. The family, who received a 40 per cent grant from English Heritage, needed to raise pounds 600,000 to initiate the 10-year restoration programme.

"It was a real sink or swim time," admits Lord Saye. "It was a struggle making the books balance."

But balance they did. Money from farming, tourists and film companies paid for the repairs and has kept the family's head above water ever since.

Sir Charles, who has accepted free potatoes from a former tenant in the past, has not been so lucky. A plan to transform part of his ancestral pile into a garden and leisure centre misfired so badly that he now survives on job-seeker's allowance from the DSS. Despite spending pounds 1.73m turning 45 acres of the family estate into Wolseley Garden Park, Sir Charles took just pounds 30,000 in gate receipts in the first year.

"We were going to do something this country had never seen before," explains Sir Charles. "We planned to make an ornamental and botanic garden from a wilderness. We didn't need the money at the time because I had a successful career with the country's largest firm of chartered surveyors. But no one foresaw the recession. We had to open unfinished because the bank withdrew their support."

With more than 100 creditors beating at his door, Sir Charles could be forced out of his home.

"One manages to get by on a pounds 140 giro cheque the best one can, but it is rather difficult," he says. "I've got no money at all to my name. It is all tied up with the trustees of my bankruptcy."

When Sir Charles walks through his former estate today, he sees a scene of dereliction. Broken branches hang from trees and stone obelisks in the former garden park have been smashed by vandals. He still manages to dine on trout and pheasant caught on the land, but these are among the last privileges of his grand ancestral past.

It is a rather different scene at Lord Saye's ancestral home. Rather than ramshackle dereliction, Broughton Castle is an idealised vision of rural England.

"I wouldn't say we are exactly swimming in money," he says carefully, "but we are comfortable now because the house is in a secure state and there are no major bills in the foreseeable future."

The 15,000 visitors, paying a maximum of pounds 3.90 each, meet the cost of maintaining the house and the beautiful gardens. Arable and dairy farming help to pay for the expansive estate, while film companies on location meet any surplus running costs.

"We've just had Gwyneth Paltrow here filming Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love," says the peer. "I gather she's quite a big star. We get around pounds 2,000 a day from a film company, although you can't rely on that as yearly income because you never know when they are going to choose your home for a shoot."

Lord Saye remains realistic about being an aristocrat in the late 20th century. He does not attend the Lords, believes it is right to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and is not above transforming himself into a rather dignified car park attendant on busy visitor days.

"Of course my wife and I love living here," he says, "but if it all becomes too much for us, we would happily move to a little bungalow."