When home really is a castle

The Marquess of Cholmondeley is hosting a car-boot sale. Lord Hesketh is selling his family seat. Are such drastic measures the only means of survival for our aristocracy? Here's how the other half make ends meet
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The Independent Online


Lord Montagu, owner of the Beaulieu Estate, which has been in the family since 1538 and derives its name from the Latin 'bellus lucus', meaning 'beautiful place'. Incorporating Beaulieu Abbey, Palace and a motor museum, the estate is one of Britain's most-visited stately homes

"Opening one's house to the public in fact goes back 200 years. Many of the major houses, including Blenheim and Chatsworth, were open two centuries ago. What happened was that, after the Second World War, the owners who used to allow the butler to open the house, took over the running themselves and became quite commercially minded. I've been open to the public for 50 years now. The majority of great houses have been saved in this way - in Britain, they attract something like 50 million visitors per year. It's difficult to know what went wrong for Lord Hesketh without looking at his accounts. We don't open our houses to make money; we do it to preserve them for future generations and our family. We sacrifice our privacy for this. People don't always realise when they look round a lovely house that the owners will have been working their guts out."


Lord Saye and Sele owns Broughton Castle, Banbury, Oxfordshire. The property has been in the family's continuous ownership since 1377, and featured in the film 'Shakespeare in Love'. The film's star, Joseph Fiennes, is a fourth cousin of Lord Saye and Sele

"It is a constant struggle to keep the place going. We always need more money to keep it up, but the films do help. Shakespeare in Love, The Madness of King George and Three Men and a Little Lady all had scenes that were filmed here. I've got Stephen Poliakoff coming tomorrow. We did major restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, and we're greatly indebted to film companies for that. My favourite so far has certainly been Shakespeare in Love - nothing could have beaten that. It was just a wonderfully good film. And no, I haven't appeared in any of the films myself. I wouldn't want to."


Martha Lytton Cobbold, managing director of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. The house has been in the Lytton family for 500 years, and guests have included Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill

"From day one, it has been difficult to keep the house going. We have large-scale rock concerts, of course, and also public events and filming. We've had everything from The Shooting Party to Batman to Agent Cody Banks 2. It's exceedingly busy when filming is going on, but that's what enables us to keep going. It's more than a full-time job - it's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We live in the house and perhaps the biggest negative is that you're always looking out of the window to make sure that everything is as it should be. It's a busman's holiday in that respect. You never really relax. But there are big positives: I think the Robbie Williams concert has been my favourite so far."


Aubyn de Lisle lives in Quenby Hall, Leicestershire, which was built in 1627. Set in 1,400 acres, the Grade I-listed building is also known for being the birthplace of Stilton cheese

"Before I married, I was European marketing manager for Mattel Toys. Now I run Quenby Hall, and it's just as hard, if not harder than my previous job. It's a much tighter budget. We do weddings, conferences and private parties. We also do sporting activities such as off-road driving, clay-pigeon shooting and archery - you name it, it can be arranged. But we limit the amount that we do and that makes life bearable. It's terribly tempting to be drawn into making the maximum amount of money out of your house. And a painful number of people we know have ended up moving out in order to turn the big house into a cash cow."


Lord Henry Mount Charles, owner of Slane Castle, near Dublin. Set in 1,500 acres in the Boyne Valley, the parkland of which was laid out by Capability Brown. The family has lived there since it was built in 1785

"It ain't easy. One can no longer rely on traditional sources of income such as agriculture to support a great house - and certainly not two. I now also own Beau Parc, which I inherited in 1986. It was owned by my kinsman, Sir Oliver Lambart, and he didn't tell me he was going to leave it to me - it was a shock, I can tell you. I've had various ventures over the years to bring in money. At one point, I had a nightclub in Slane Castle. It hasn't been easy. In 1991, a third of the castle was destroyed by a fire and the rest was badly damaged. Unfortunately, it turned out that I'd insured the wrong building - Beau Parc - which was a little embarrassing. It took us 10 years to restore it, through various means: borrowing, income from Lloyd's, and various events such as our annual rock concerts. For me, the most dramatic and emotional of all the concerts were the U2 ones in 2001 and 2004. They supported Thin Lizzy at our first ever concert at the castle in 1981, so it was wonderful to have them back."


Longleat, in Wiltshire, is set in more than 900 acres of Capability Brown-landscaped garden. Lord Bath claims that Longleat was the first stately home in Britain to open its doors to the public, and that it was the first place outside Africa to open a safari park

"The important thing is to delegate wisely in order to identify the different areas that need to be run, make sure you have a good person there, and that they have a good team under them. The most dangerous thing is to try to run it all yourself. It's not impossible, but problems are liable to arise. I've delegated and the various portions of the estate are in good hands. You also have to be yourself and let that through so that your personality is reflected. It's not hard running a stately home - as far as businesses go, I think it's an easy one. I paint and write, and the rest takes care of itself, but I do need to have the occasional meeting to see that everything is in the shape intended. The business is going well and I put that down to the fact that there's a good team in place and we co-operate together."


Newnham Paddox in Warwickshire has been the seat of the Earls of Denbigh from the 15th century to 1952

"The stately home was demolished in 1952 in order to preserve the land and the estate. It was costing more every year just to keep it ticking over. The original elevation was by Capability Brown in 1753, and it had been added on to by successive generations and ended up as a 365-room monstrosity. The Fielding family, which I married into, considered it a drain on the estate, and while it was considered drastic at the time, knocking it down enabled the preservation of the farms, woodlands and parkland. All the Earls of Denbigh have believed that it is land that is the heritage of future generations, rather than the large house. We live in a five-bedroom wooden house built in the 1970s, which occupies the site of the forecourt of the old house. A lot of the 3,000-acre estate is used for agriculture, and we have tenant farmers on the hereditary tenancy system. We run the gardens as a sculpture park, open to the public at a charge of £4. We also run a shooting estate. The estate is working, as in, we're not drowning, but it's hard work. You have to think decades in advance. The estate has been placed in trust to prevent either my husband or any of our descendants deciding to take all the money, live the life of Riley and the estate having to be sold."


The 15th-century Athelhampton House, in Dorset, is one of the finest examples of Tudor architecture, and is said to be home to the ghosts of an ape, the grey lady and a cooper

"We're a 15th-century manor house, with about 10 acres of garden and one cottage. Our family moved here in 1957 when my grandfather bought the house. During the 1970s and 1980s, daily visitors were our primary income. Over the last five to 10 years, the numbers of places open to the public have increased hugely, so daily visitors have been eroded considerably. We had 60,000 when we were the Christie's Historic Houses Association Garden of the Year in 1997. It has dropped down to around 40,000 now. We have moved into other things, particularly weddings and private functions, which make up about 70 per cent of our income. There's always something that needs to be done to the house. It's like a hamster wheel."


James Hervey-Bathurst took Eastnor Castle, Ledbury, Herefordshire over from his parents in 1988, and is president of the Historic Houses Association

"If your house is big enough, and you haven't got huge sums, you do have to consider areas of commercialisation. Of the Historic Houses Association membership, at least a third give quite a high degree of public access. Of the big houses, almost all are now open.The reason that we are, and it doesn't suit everybody, is because the house is too big for a normal family to live in, so we have a family section and a public or business section. We're fortunate, it has been a white elephant for a long time, but now, because we have been able to use the big rooms again, it's beginning to pay for itself. If your family are used to it, they learn to enjoy the good bits, but not everybody enjoys having people round their house. I do. Like any job, it's miserable if you fail and it can ruin your family life. If you have to sell things to maintain a roof, it's very depressing. Success brings its problems, failure brings other problems."


Highclere Castle, near Newbury, Berkshire, was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1838 for the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon. It houses an invaluable collection of paintings by Van Dyck and other great masters

"You draw up budgets, like any other business, for each year. But there are constraints - you don't want to build up an ever-increasing amount of business because you are always placing stress on the house in terms of furniture removal, having loads of people through it, and wine spilt everywhere. Again like any other business, it's always feast or famine. You would like one wedding every week, but they come in clusters or they don't come at all. You are always networking to businesses in the City and chatting people up for conferences. You never miss an opportunity. You have to have a passion for a house. Sometimes I can feel slightly swamped, but I remain forever optimistic.

All stately homes go in cycles - there'll be a wave of enthusiasm because something has happened and you get lots of wonderful public coming through. There is quite a lot of competition between stately homes because we're all up to the same thing of trying to keep the roof on. You have moments of feeling confident and moments of feeling incredibly worried. We live behind the castle in a five-bedroom house, as there's no space in the castle if there is a conference or a wedding. I don't mind in the least opening to the public. I think it's an amazing thing to share."