Leading Article: Hooked on stately homes

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The Independent Online
ONCE again the cry goes up: save our great country houses] Or, more specifically, save their contents from being sold off. The plea comes - and he is only doing his job - from Angus Stirling, director-general of the National Trust. A 'flood' of stately homes is likely to come on to the market, he warns, thanks to the recession, falling rents and losses on the Lloyd's insurance market. The perennial lament has been renewed by the case of Pitchford Hall, a Grade I-listed timbered hall in Shropshire that had been in the Colthurst family since being built in the 16th century. The contents were recently auctioned for pounds 1.3m and the house sold for more than pounds 750,000 to an overseas buyer. Why is that deplorable?

Losses at Lloyd's contributed to the Colthurst family's decision to sell. Mr Stirling went so far as to describe the splitting of house and contents as 'just as much a matter for national shame' as the loss (in 1977) of Mentmore, the Earl of Rosebery's pile in Buckinghamshire, now the headquarters of the Natural Law Party. Why shame? What does the nation owe the humdrum owners of historic homes who, for one reason or another, find themselves obliged to sell?

We may owe their forebears a measure of gratitude for building, buying and looking after their stately homes - though their descendants often altered them for the worse, especially in the Victorian era. But there is no case for subsidising the present owners.

It is a natural part of the economic and social life of this country that fortunes are made and lost. Those who make them will tend to build, or more often in these times buy, big houses. Those that lose their money, however gradually, are obliged to sell. That process has been going on for centuries. It would be wrong, even perverse, to use public funds to interrupt it.

Owners' difficulties do not generally occur in the big league of dukes and earls. They tend to restrict themselves to selling the family silver or pictures - and no harm done: why should so much be concentrated in so few hands? It is in the second league that the struggles take place, with the National Trust sometimes stepping in to 'save' the property for the nation. It owns about 100 such houses, which attract some 10 million visitors a year.

Those battles have been fought and, from the heritage lobby's viewpoint, won. Stimulating and agreeable though it is to join the crowds, the result is not all pure gain. The houses are often magnificent, their gardens even more so. But they feed the nation's preoccupation with its historical heritage. Come to theme park Britain and see its wonderful stately homes] The British invented this form of historical voyeurism, and were themselves the first to succumb to it. The effect has been to feed the excessive respect the British pay to wealth and rank.

That combination of forelock-touching and snobbery has in turn reinforced the rural dream, with its concomitant, a certain scorn for industry. Even industrialists seem to want nothing more keenly than to buy a country house, ride with the local hunt and become part of the landed gentry. There is a pervasive fear of living in the present, exemplified by the Europhobe wing of the Tory party. Where this country is going is a far more important and interesting question than where it has come from.