Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The High Cost of Castle Upkeep

Expensive maintenance challenges preservation-minded owners of Britain's stately homes

MANY of Britain's stately homes, once in danger of becoming either museums or piles of rubble, are being saved by their private owners.But, oh, the cost. Restoring even the humblest castle means buying heavy lead eaves trough at as much as British pounds330 a yard ($594), slate roofing at $150 a square yard, and paying fuel costs - usually for oil and only for part of the house - that have the aristocracy wearing thick sweaters and heavy coats to keep out the cold and turning down the thermostat to cut the heating bills. These are hard times, even for a family with an 1,800-acre agricultural estate complete with castle and moat. Parts of Broughton Castle, outside Banbury in Oxfordshire, date back to the 14th century. "The money we make from the land goes into restoring the house," says Nathaniel Fiennes, known formally as Lord Saye and Sele, but called Nat. He is spending British pounds1 million (about $1.8-million) over a 10-year period to restore the castle. Lord Saye and Sele does everything imaginable to finance the repairs on the castle his family has lived in since 1300. There are visitors, 20,000 a year, who pay about $3 to tour the house. When visitors' fees and government aid weren't enough, Walt Disney came to the rescue. Two years ago Disney Studios shot a movie here Three Men and a Little Lady and the money made went straight into repairs. "We'd like to see them again," laughs Lord Saye and Sele, walking through a maze in his garden, looking up to see two stone masons at work on a 10-year project. "When it is finished, Broughton Castle will be in a better state of repair than it has ever been," he says. Many historic houses sell off works of art to pay for upkeep. Sotheby's and Christies, the London auction houses, have sales every year in which art and furniture from the great houses of Britain are sold, in many cases to American, European, or Japanese collectors, to raise cash for the country's house-poor aristocracy. "People such as Lord Saye and Sele really make a life work of saving all this," says Norman Hudson, an adviser to the Historic Houses Association in London, as he stands on the roof of Broughton Castle, surveying the sheep grazing in the fields beyond the moat that surround the three-acre island on which Broughton Castle sits. "He could just sell it for several million and live on the interest, but he is dedicated to preserving this place," Mr. Hudson says. The roof is one spot where Lord Saye and Sele is fortunate. It is in good order, and the stone shingles won't have to be done again for 200 years, with a few minor repairs, Hudson says. And the lead gutters - which can cost $700 a yard - were done sometime in the early 1950s. "They could last another 80 to 130 years, though environmental factors such as acid rain work to corrode both lead and limestone," he says. But in the matter of art to sell to finance the family home, Lord Saye and Sele isn't so fortunate. "Some of my ancestors fell upon hard times and sold the art in this house, so there isn't any left to sell," he laughs. Burghley House near Stamford, in Lincolnshire, is another story. Lady Victoria Leatham lives in a stately house that still has the second-greatest private collection of art in England. But she doesn't want to sell one painting or a stick of furniture. She can't, really, for although she is a member of the family that owns the huge mansion, she and her husband describe themselves as "curators." BURGHLEY House was built in the 1500s by William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, who was Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. It was estimated by a London gossip columnist to have a total of 240 rooms, but Lady Leatham has never counted them. Although she lives in the house and makes use of the 5,000-acre estate that goes with it, she says that she and her family are really custodians, not owners. While the art is here to stay, the roof is a mess. "We have a rolling program to fix the roof," Lady Leatham says. "We have spent at least British pounds100,000 [$180,000] a year for the past five years and we have to keep at it for another five years." She too uses revenue from the agricultural estate exclusively to fix up the house. During a recent visit, there were teams of masons working on scaffolding in the inner courtyard, and in a brightly lit room off the courtyard, a woman worked alone restoring tapestries.There are companies in England that specialize in restoring old houses and public buildings, such as cathedrals and university buildings. One such business is Symm and Company, in Oxford. The firm has 130 people working on building libraries to go in old mansions or stonework to restore old houses and other buildings. Huge computerized machines cut stone to go into buildings where pollution and age have worn down the original stonework. Some of the work is too detailed and has to be done by hand. "I don't expect my work will be taken over by a computer in my time," says Percy Quick, a stone carver at work on a large gargoyle to be used at Exeter Cathedral. Mr. Quick says he does eight to 12 huge stone carvings a year; his biggest job last year was a huge stone coat of arms to go over the entrance to a private stately home. In the 1950s, says historian Hudson, great houses were being torn down at the rate of one every four days as owners threw up their hands at the cost of maintaining their ancestral homes. The government bought many of them, or took them over as derelict, and still runs them under the National Trust. The National Trust operates about 200 major properties, which are open to the public; there are 1,300 homeowners who belong to the Historic Houses Association and 400 of those privately owned mansions are open to the public. But Hudson says reduced government grants to private houses means that many of these old mansions are still in danger. "There are dozens of major houses that have gone in the past 10 years and that is out of total stock of only 1,400 great houses," Hudson says. "Government bodies in France, for instance, have been much more generous in supporting private owners." Subsidies to stately homes can run as high as 40 per cent of repair costs, paid usually by English Heritage, a government-supported group. But there's a catch: The houses must remain open to the public for at least 100 days a year. Hudson says the houses are better maintained by the owners or their relatives. "A house that is lived in has more to it than a house that is kept as a museum," he says. The aristocrats staying on in their houses lead a much simpler life compared with the grandeur experienced by their ancestors. Lord and Lady Saye and Sele have a small private apartment in their castle; the rest is open to the public. Lady Leatham and her husband, Simon Leatham, commute to jobs in London; she works at Sotheby's, he in a business in London's financial district. While hardly living in poverty, she imagines how the house was run before World War I. "A house like this, when it was up and running, would have needed 40 indoor servants. But the war ended all that. We get by with about five, and most of them are part-time," she says. "My husband and I do a lot around here, it would be cloud cuckoo-land to think we could do otherwise." Hudson hopes that eccentric aristocrats, dedicated to their family homes, will keep acting as unpaid curators and help save the great houses of Britain.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.