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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Support Engineer

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Support Engi...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence