Caretakers: Living-in luxury

No mortgage, no commute, and minimal maintenance costs - these can be just some of the perks if you take a job as a resident caretaker for a historic home. Robert Nurden weighs up the pros and cons
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dave Gibbons lives in a spacious, three-bedroom house with one of Britain's most prestigious postcodes. There's rolling parkland outside the front door, the air is the cleanest for miles around, and the attached art gallery contains famous paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Yet his salary is nothing out of the ordinary and he doesn't own even a fraction of these enviable surroundings in London NW3.

He has access to these riches because, as deputy gardener at Kenwood House, he lives on the job with his wife Vicky and two-year-old daughter Iona. His employer, English Heritage, makes available the east wing of the famous white house on Hampstead Heath.

"It's fantastic being here because we have all the facilities of London in a rural setting," says Gibbons. "Getting to work takes me about a minute. And once the park has closed for the evening, it's quiet and it's safe. Our friends are always happy to come and see us and we can show them around after the crowds have gone home."

The Gibbons's appreciation of their privileged existence - without the hassle of home ownership or mortgage - is echoed by many others in live-in set-ups around the country, both urban and rural.

Adrian Richards has always been a fanatical surfer, so when the job of manager of the youth hostel at Treyarnon Bay in Cornwall came up, he dived straight in. Just yards from the converted 1930s summer house he shares with his partner Joanne, is Padstow beach, widely acknowledged to be the best spot for surfing in Britain.

"It is fantastic for me, a dream come true," says Richards. "My job enables me to live in an area where most houses by the sea cost upwards of £600,000. I don't pay a penny in rent and I don't have a mortgage."

Having your employer as your landlord can often solve the problem of maintenance, at least when it comes to structural repairs. Residents will invariably have to pay for interior decoration and minor DIY jobs.

The appeal of living in - at its best - is based on having the chance to occupy part of a palatial building; or living in an ordinary property but with beautiful scenery nearby.

But there are some downsides. While being free of a home loan sounds, on the surface, like an advantage, it does mean that people who live on the premises never build up equity in a property. Nor do they have the security of a home for their old age. It is, as Richards says, a "blind alley, and the only way is down".

There is, too, the lack of privacy, particularly for the warden of a youth hostel. Just as there are the positive benefits of the journey to work taking only a minute or so, conversely, after hours the job never quite goes away. "I have to be available 24 hours to open up for travellers who arrive after lock-up," said Richards. "It happens about twice a month. The hostellers can sometimes make a lot of noise after lock-up, too, even when it's against the rules. When that sort of thing happens I just have to remind myself of why I'm here - and that's the surfing."

But the sociability of living where you work can be the very element of the job that appeals. That was the case for Callie Saxty. From her bungalow next to Pendennis Castle, perched on the hill overlooking the estuary of the River Fal, she oversees English Heritage's visitor operations for Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. From one side of her house she has a view of the sea and on the other there is her huge lawn and garden, which is maintained for her by a member of staff.

The site has been a military establishment since Henry VIII's day, through the tense times of the Armada, right up until 1956. The place reeks of past derring-do and makes an ideal home for a history-lover like Saxty, who has lived there for 20 years.

Unlike some other tenants, she has to cover both rent and council tax. But it is a small price to pay for the location, which is "brilliant". "This is anything but a remote location because I am meeting visitors all year round. That's the side of the job I like," she says.

Clearly, she has a liking for unusual addresses: a previous one of hers was Tilbury Fort on the Thames Estuary, of which she was the keeper. She admits to "stumbling on" her dream jobs rather than deliberately aiming to get them.

So is it possible to carve out a career path towards a mortgage-free, live-in position? Up to a point, yes. Most Youth Hostel Association managers have started as cleaners or cooks, and been promoted internally. For organisations like English Heritage, a taster period during the summer months is recommended to see if this really is the life for you.