The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
The new age of the stately home
Britain’s grand country estates are branching out into wellness, music, sport and fun. Our ultimate guide reveals the hottest new trends – and the best events to book this summer.
Britain’s great estates are notoriously expensive to maintain. Without careful management, crumbling post-war statelies not sold off to the National Trust are at risk of falling into debt and disrepair; many a fine Palladian mansion or Downton-esque estate has fallen victim to a squanderous duke or hefty inheritance tax.
But some 21st-century landowners have found new, lucrative ways to diversify beyond farming – breathing new life into dust-gathering inheritances as they invite the paying public to practise their pranayama (yogic breathing) at wellbeing retreats, exchange vows at wedding ceremonies, marvel at the opera and outdoor theatre in landscaped surrounds, be exhilarated by high-octane motoring shows, “glamp” in the grounds and more besides. The more novel the means of sustaining the family seat, the better.
Among the stately success stories is Goodwood in West Sussex, where the 11th Duke of Richmond and Gordon offers motorsports, horse racing, weddings, golf, a hotel, a spa and a members’ club. There are covetable tables to be booked at the estate’s flagship restaurant Farmer, Butcher, Chef. The Festival of Speed, the Goodwood Revival and the Qatar Goodwood Festival are worldrenowned dates in the social calendar.
New to Goodwood this year is the inaugural “Goodwoof ” dog festival from May 28-29, a grand celebration of dogs. Humans and their hounds can expect heel-to-music sessions, agility training with expert behaviourists, canine sports, including Disc Dog and Cani-Cross, and to explore the wonderful world of “canine wellness” (including dog yoga and massage). Barkitecture, an architectural exhibition devoted to kennels, will be judged by Grand Designs star Kevin McCloud, and a spaniel parade will be led by the Duke himself. Given the pandemic puppy boom, capitalising on the British public’s love of their canine friends is a canny move.
Other estates embracing all things dog include Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire, which hosts the Muddy Dog Challenge Manchester on June 26 (a 2.5K and 5K obstacle course with your dog by your side; capesthorne.com).
Another long-established winner is Glyndebourne in East Sussex, where the Christie family have made an internationally renowned success of their grounds with the annual Glyndebourne Festival – a summer programme of picnicking and opera – since 1934. Tickets will win you serious bragging rights.
But where there are victors, there are
also losers. While the likes of Goodwood and Glyndebourne are familyowned and thriving to this day, some statelies have either been consigned to the history books or now belong to the National Trust or corporate hotel chains.
Take Ickworth, near Bury St Edmunds. In 1956 it passed out of family hands, presented to the Treasury in lieu of death duties. The Italianate Grade I-listed building is now a hotel owned by the Luxury Family Hotels brand (which also runs Fowey Hall in Cornwall and Woolley Grange near Bath), surrounded by National Trustmanaged parkland.
Others have been demolished completely. According to British historian John Martin Robinson, nearly a third of the nation’s grand houses are no longer standing. Many were requisitioned during the Second World War, used as schools, barracks, hospitals, convalescent homes and military headquarters. While few country houses were destroyed by bombing, many were damaged by their new tenants or rendered obsolete. Examples include Deepdene in Surrey, now the site of the Dorking bypass.
In his book The Country House at War, Robinson tells the story of the hedonistic 5th Marquess of Anglesey – known as “Toppy” – whose excesses led to the sale of Beaudesert in Staffordshire. Demolition began in 1935 and was never completed: the remaining ruins still stand. Adrian Tinniswood’s book Noble Ambitions also charts the spectacular fall (and subsequent rebirth) of the British country house since the war. He notes that in 1955, a stately home was demolished every five days, but many were also bought up by a “new aristocracy” of actors and rock stars in the 1960s.
More recently, Britain’s estates have been bought by millionaire businesspeople, such as the Carphone Warehouse tycoon David Ross. Ross now owns Nevill Holt Hall and grounds, a medieval country estate near Market Harborough, where he houses his private art collection. The estate opens each summer for opera and concerts (La bohéme and The Barber of Seville this year; nevillholtopera.co.uk).
While the so-called “lost Downtons” will never be restored to glory or reimagined for the modern world, there are many ways to enjoy those which remain. The country house continues to evolve in order to survive. Modern inheritors and buyers are taking control of their destiny, embracing diversification and income generation from the outset. So, should you fancy yourself as a lady of the manor, here is our guide to how you can experience the great reinvention of Britain’s stately homes for yourself.
‘In 1955, a stately home was demolished every five days; in the 1960s, many were bought by rock stars’