These are tough times for stately home owners, as Steve Boggan reminds us in The Times. According to the Historic Houses Association, which represents around 1,500 houses in private ownership, most country house owners now struggle to pay their bills.
Anyone who has stayed in one will know why. Country house living made sense in the 19th century, when there were plenty of servants and people came to stay for weeks at a time. Now, for most weeks, the bedrooms are as empty as the drafty halls. I admire the families who’ve managed to cling on and not sell up to a Russian oligarch.
And as Nick Way, director general of the Historic Houses Association (HHA), points out, there are a surprising number of them – many more than in France, for example, where few of the great chateaux remain in family hands.
“This is what makes the HHA houses which are open to the public [500 of them] such special places to visit,” says Way. “They retain a clear imprint of the people who have shaped them.” But the cost of maintenance is huge: there is a backlog of maintenance work on HHA houses of some £260m. The result is that more and more owners are letting staff go and doing the chores themselves.
Spotting this trend, a Suffolk entrepreneur called Veronica “Onky” Joly de Lotbiniere (pictured) has set up a business called More Than Good Manners. Her idea, says Boggan, is “to organise little holidays for people who want to rub shoulders with the upper classes. They can shoot with them, dine with them, stay in their stately homes, fish with them and, so long as they can ride a horse, hunt and play polo with them.”
One of the owners who has agreed to take part is Virginia Temple-Richards, who, with her husband, owns Sennowe Park, a 14-bedroom house north of Norwich. She describes what it was like when Onky Joly de Lotbiniere brought along the first set of clients to stay at Sennowe. “They were a group of eight Dutch, including a retired judge and some entrepreneurs, and they were utterly delightful. I cooked muntjac deer from the estate, which I marinaded in herbs and wine for three days. And we had such a good time that at one point during the meal I actually felt guilty that I would be charging them.”
I suspect some of her guilt disappeared later, when, on finally going to bed at 2am, she found that her guests had left their shoes out on the landing to be cleaned.
But she didn’t make a fuss about it. If polishing shoes at 2am is the price of survival, Virginia Temple-Richards will pay it. “The house and gardens at Sennowe once had 62 staff. Now there’s just me and a daily help… If we are to survive, we have to adapt…” At least she and others like her can charge properly for what they offer: just staying in a historic house and having a black-tie dinner with your hosts (no extras) can cost £800-£1,000 a day per person.
Tabloid money… are scared hens worth more than our squaddies?
• The MoD has odd priorities, says The Sun. “Wounded soldiers get pathetic compensation payouts, while a farmer pockets £42,000 because the Red Arrows stopped his hens laying. In contrast, Sean Chance received £1,500 for having part of his foot blown off in Iraq.” The MoD has paid out £7.7m to settle claims over low-flying planes, often on grounds that “livestock had been frightened. No one wants animals to suffer. But how can a fright for a chicken be worth 30 times a squaddie’s suffering?”
• Jonathan Ross quitting the BBC “has saved the heads of BBC honchos”, says Fiona McIntosh in The Sunday Mirror. Ross was paid an “obscene” salary of £6m last year. That was sanctioned by BBC bosses who between them earned an “equally obscene” £22m. “Ross’s problem is that he has become an unwitting symbol of the bad, greedy BBC.” But it’s going to take “more than one sacrificial lamb to restore our faith in over-paid executives.”
• “Tony and Cherie Blair have already built a tennis court and two-bedroom guest cottage at their £5.75m country mansion, says Jane Moore in The Sun. There are now plans for a swimming pool and a sports pavilion complete with a sauna. “Nice to see that socialism has paid off for some.”
• The Met Office predicted a barbecue summer, says Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun. We had the exact opposite. So why did John Hirst, the Met Office’s chief executive, get a 25% pay rise last year taking his salary to £200,000? This is more than the Prime Minister gets. If bosses were paid according to performance, Brown would get nothing. But perhaps John Hirst is thought to be doing a “superb job” because the Met Office is no longer charged with “telling us what the weather will be like tomorrow – only how warm it will be in the next century”.