Britain's sale of the centuries: Recession is devastating the nation's stately homes, but some owners are learning how to ride it out

The property pages of Country Life have begun to read like a road-accident report. Last week it was the turn of Ven in Somerset, an early-18th-century pile noted for its finely turned balusters and elegant columned gallery. Somewhere between the swan-necked pediments and the very reasonable pounds 1.1m asking price, you may spot the wreckage of the English country house.

The Medlycott family have been at Ven since it was built in about 1725. At Pitchford Hall, in Shropshire, the Colthursts had been in residence since 1473. Up on a 3,200-acre estate in the rolling hills of Northumberland, the Mitfords have dwelt since the Norman Conquest. It is up for sale at pounds 2.85m.

Pitchford, one of the country's finest Elizabethan half-timbered manor houses, was sold last week for more than pounds 750,000. Not far from Ven, Brympton d'Evercy, the Somerset home of the Clive- Ponsonby-Fanes for more than 200 years, went for pounds 850,000-plus in August. The list seems endless: Hinwick House in Bedfordshire; Heveningham Hall, Suffolk; Burley on the Hill, near Oakham, Leicestershire; Groombridge Place, Sussex.

In the wake of the heritage boom of the Seventies and Eighties, Britain has never had so many accessible stately homes. The Historic Houses Association has 1,300 members, of which perhaps 300 open regularly and another 100-150 occasionally.

More than 11 million people visit them each year. Over half of Britain's overseas tourists come here for our heritage.

In the past three years, however, the success story has turned sour. Listed buildings have always been abnormally expensive to maintain: about four times as much as ordinary houses. On top of this have now been added recession, the woes of farming, the debacle on the Lloyd's insurance market and a dramatic fall in government conservation aid.

English Heritage grants, nearly pounds 4m annually three years ago, are now below pounds 2m. Income from farms and estates is reckoned to have dropped by half in real terms in the past 10 years. The recession has kept visitors away - income is 20 per cent down this year.

Many owners have thus been pushed into insolvency. Things are not yet as bad as in 1952, when at least 34 country houses were demolished, but they are getting worse. Last week, the National Trust weighed in, its director-general, Angus Stirling, speaking stirringly of the 'shame' of Pitchford.

Mr Stirling's intervention was ironic, given that some owners blame the Trust, in part, for their parlous state. It manages 235 houses, insists on large (tax-free) endowments before it will take them on - it wanted pounds 11m for Pitchford - does not pay VAT on building repairs, and operates to standards which individual owners cannot emulate.

Both the Trust and owners agree, however, that the best, and cheapest, solution is to enable owners of houses to go on living in them. The argument goes as follows. The British country house, with its history, family and contents intact, represents a living work of art that no other country can rival. It is already endangered: of the country's 440,000 listed buildings, only 1,450 with an estate attached have been occupied by the same family for two generations or more, and only perhaps a quarter of these - say 300 - have the paintings and furniture preserved.

Even in the Eighties, now being viewed as a golden age for the country house, 25 were sold each year. In most private sales, house and contents are separated - at Pitchford they fetched pounds 1.3m.

According to Lord Shelburne, president of the Historic Houses Association, support for heritage cost the taxpayer pounds 7.7m a year in the Eighties, roughly 1,000th of revenue from overseas tourists, who bring in pounds 8bn annually. Tax relief on maintenance funds, which would keep many houses afloat, would cost another pounds 3.7m - 'peanuts', relatively speaking, the association argues.

Mr Stirling says that what may initially seem a large sum to rescue a house turns out, in retrospect, to be a bargain.

(Photograph omitted)

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