The best treatment for stately piles
You’ve bought your country house. Now, discover how to make it pay. Caroline McGhie reports
Down a long, rutted drive in a forgotten corner of Norfolk, behind an avenue of pollarded trees and box hedging, Roy Kent admires the crenellated façade of his Elizabethan manor house. He swapped his five-storey, Victorian townhouse in Kentish Town, north London, for this pile in 1993. “It was a huge gamble, because we were cutting ourselves off from all our contacts in London. But I had always wanted an early English house, and Norfolk was so unspoilt. Everywhere else felt overgentrified.”
When he bought Felmingham Hall, near Aylsham, it was a run-down, 12bedroom hotel, but he turned it back into the manor house it was supposed to be, described by Pevsner as one of the earliest Elizabethan houses in the county. Roy revelled in the space. “I remember just walking around from room to room and laughing.” He was the new lord of the manor. He threw country-house parties, held fashion shoots, and relished restoring it.
But, like so many historic homeowners caught in the hinge of history – balancing pleasure with responsibility, past with future, and fine architecture with maintenance bills – he rapidly realised that the house needed to earn its keep. He restored the two derelict barns, one for his parents to live in and the other to let through the upmarket lettings company Rural Retreats. As new landed gentry, he soon came to sound like the old: “Every penny I have earned has gone into this house.”
Felmingham was built in 1569 so, for four and a half centuries, its owners have worried about the cost of keeping it warm in winter. Through the heavy, oak doors, the smell of woodsmoke permeates the sumptuous wood-panelled rooms, each hung with exquisite early portraits and furnished with carefully chosen 17th-century pieces. The dining-room table, set before a stone fireplace flanked by worn terracotta lions, seats 14.
“It is not a stately home,” says Roy, who runs a contract publishing company, Wildwood, and a replica vintage car firm, The Old Racing Car Company, from home. “It is not grand enough to open to the public. And it lost its estates in the 1920s. To keep it going, I have to make it wash its face.”
So he and his partner, Vicky, their baby, Isadora, and their deerhounds Molly and Monty have retreated into the service wing at the back in order to let the seven-bedroom house for the giltedged price of £2,000 for two nights for 14 people during the low season, up to £4,750 for seven nights in the high season. They are, perhaps, pioneers in a new craze for the historic home-owner – the upper-crust holiday-cumcorporate-let.
Many owners of such properties find their finances are often as leaky as the lead flashings on their roofs. A 2005 survey by the Historic Houses Association of 70 of its most important houses showed that the backlog of repairs was costed at £67 million. To find the money – 17.5 per cent of which goes to the Government in VAT on building works – owners sell works of art, heirlooms, land and sometimes even the houses themselves.
Such owners have usually disdained the holiday-lets market, but Nick House, former managing director of Rural Retreats, saw that there was a niche here for the country-house owner, and he has set up a company, the Wow House, to make it happen.
“The popularity of larger properties to rent has increased hugely,” he says. “Ten years ago, you were lucky to get 30 per cent occupancy, but in the past
ve years it has crept up to 50 per cent. eople want to have amily gatherings, or eunions of friends hey haven’t seen in years.”
Nick advises country-house owners to throw out the “make-do-andmend” mentality and gear up to meet the needs of this new hedonism. “It is closer to a tique hotel than to self-catering,” says Roy. And it is not to be undertaken lightly. “It cost me five times what I thought it would, but it enabled me to borrow and to finish the house in eight months rather than eight years. It meant I could spend.”
The ceilings of Felmingham Hall are decorated with Elizabethan patterns, the floors have been laid with herringbone coir matting, the windows are hung with interlined tapestry curtains. The roof and windows have been repaired and renewed, four-poster beds have been installed, the attic bedrooms made charming. The children’s room has toys, a dressing-up box and a puppet theatre. Outside, the Elizabethan knot garden smells of lavender and the pool is heated and clean.
“A lot of large house owners,” says Nick, “are the landed gentry who are asset-rich and cash-poor, or millionaires with five or six properties who don’t spend enough time in each. Often, the son and heir has forged a career in London and come back to take over the country estate with a new young wife, and needs fresh ideas. He may choose to live in an estate cottage and make the big house earn a living. The younger generation are much more likely to consider letting out than their parents did.”
So what do owners have to do to get into the Wow House portfolio? It seems to boil down to plumbing. You need battalions of bathrooms – a minimum of one per bedroom. “You have to give guests the front half of the house. You can’t send them to the tradesmen’s entrance. And they need their privacy,” says Nick. And country-house tat must be replaced by country-house chic.
“You could spend a fortune and get the styling wrong, or get an interior designer in who will do it to show off their talents rather than keep faith with the house.
“With a 10-bedroom house, the cost of upgrading can be significant – it is only worth doing if the property is spectacular enough to warrant it,” says Nick. So how much does one need to spend to turn one’s pile into a Wow house? “If you have £50,000 to £100,000 to spare, and you create the right atmosphere, I could get that back for you over three to five years. But don’t forget that you are adding substantial capital value to your property, and it might be what you would spend on your house anyway.”
Nick charges a hefty fee for his service — 25 per cent of the gross rent, which includes VAT, advertising and brochures, or 40 per cent for full management. But Eric McClean and his wife, Nicola, who have put their house on the Lizard Peninsula, in Cornwall, into the Wow House portfolio, think it has paid off.
The spectacular, newly built, four-bedroom house, with a clifftop and beach, has been occupied all summer at a £3,080 per week rent. They have another house in London and can’t be on the Lizard for more than four weeks of the year. “It is better for a house to have people in it, and this is a fabulous bolthole from the madness of the world,” says Eric.
Felmingham Hall, 01692 538007, www.felming hamhall.co.uk. The Wow House Company, 01242 633637, www.thewowhousecompany.com
High hopes: Roy Kent (left), owner of Felmingham Hall, in Norfolk, with Nick House, of The Wow House, who seeks to make country homes available for rent