Property: Houses you can put your trust in
Saturday 14 September 1996
The previous tenants of the former home of the novelist Henry James, and later E F Benson, gave up after a few months. The work involved in running the house and dealing with the public proved too much. James Cooper, the National Trust land agent for Kent and East Sussex, has the task of weeding out the applications. "A lot of those people will be romantics who imagine that it is an easy job. But the kind of person we want has to be practical, hard-working and full of enthusiasm." After a rigorous selection procedure he hopes to have new tenants in the house by the New Year.
It was just such an advertisement a year ago that stopped Catharine and David Boston in their tracks. Out of the blue they read that tenants were wanted for Quebec House, the childhood home of General Wolfe in Westerham, Kent. A few months later they were ensconced in a house they knew well and had always loved, their home in Blackheath, London, in turn rented out. "The house has the most wonderful atmosphere. Even though there are pictures of Wolfe everywhere it still feels like a family home," says Mrs Boston. Quebec House is open to the public and the National Trust regards them as their representatives - the welcoming face of the Trust.
The Bostons, on a 10 year lease, have strong connections with Canada and are well versed in its history. David Boston is himself a retired museum director and they have more than embraced the spirit of the enterprise by opening the house an extra half day, organising chamber concerts and making it more accessible to local people. What about the public, though? Mrs Boston is diplomatic: "There are those who come because it is included in their itinerary, but the enthusiasts more than make up for them. One of our regular visitors is a 12-year-old boy who is fascinated by Wolfe and his campaign."
In the past year, the trust has introduced a new agreement which entitles tenants to a rebate on the past year's rent if they are doing all that is required of them. In the case of Quebec House it is 30 per cent and for Lamb House half of the pounds 10,000 rent. James Cooper described it as a reward for a good "end of school report". Certainly, anyone aspiring to rent off the trust should have plenty of initiative and enthusiasm. Although a lease is drawn up for each property, generally the trust will be responsible for the structure of the house and the tenant for its day to day running costs and decoration. The level of rent will reflect the state of the house and the obligations of the tenant.
When Carrie and Anthony Weston and their baby Jack moved into Tudor Yeoman's House, Cobham in Kent, it had been empty for a couple of years. The 15th century timber-framed house was, in Carrie Weston's words, a bit of a mess. "We both had jobs but would work on the house at every opportunity. We put in a bathroom (the trust paid for the plumbing), did the decorating and took on the massively overgrown garden. We also opened it to the public for the first time."
Now, two years on they have moved out. "It was a lot of hard work - but wonderful. At Christmas we would have a huge roaring fire in the banqueting hall which went up to the rafters. We decided to move out when our daughter was born. The children slept the other side of the hall and during the night I would have to cross this vast freezing space to see to her. Heating the place was horrendous."
The Westons were also conscious of their costs and the fact that at some time they would want a house of their own. "We were paying pounds 550 a month rent and on top of that pounds 50 a month in insurance and pounds 800 a year to maintain the fire alarm. In winter it cost an extra pounds 200 per month to keep the storage heaters going." Now that they have moved into their own - old but not ancient - house is there anything Carrie Weston misses? The atmosphere, certainly, but not the cold. "The first thing we did was put on all the radiators, just for the hell of it."
National Trust rental enquiries: 0171-222 9251
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