Still Standing, the Stately Homes of England
A new coffee-table tome highlights the fresh faces of Britain’s country estates.
Old Homes, New Life: The Resurgence of the British Country House, by Clive Aslet and Dylan Thomas (Triglyph Books: 2020), 304 pages.
Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each tradition of Europe’s aristocratic great houses has followed its own way. Russia’s vast latifundia were wrenched from their owners by communism so long ago they might as well be ancient history. Much of Central and Eastern Europe is dotted with newly revived manorial properties recovered after decades of litigation with unsympathetic post-Soviet bureaucracies. The forlorn recesses of what used to be East Germany are tread by intrepid Junker descendants seeking to rebuild. Hohenzollerns have made international news with legal claims on ancestral property, including Potsdam’s Tudor-style Cecilienhof Palace.
In the continent’s more fortunate Western half, families that held onto their patrimonies contend with high taxes, civil inheritance codes that divide property equally among heirs, and indifferent countrymen who have not entirely forgotten what guillotines were used for. In Normandy, whence my family hails, a solid castle can now be had for the price of a fairly average flat in Paris. In Italy, municipalities are practically giving away historic properties to investors who pledge to renovate them. Across the continent, many provincial seats are now conference centers, “event spaces,” playthings for foreign billionaires, hedge-funder retirement homes, or, perhaps worst of all, bed and breakfasts.
But in Britain, as Clive Aslet and Dylan Thomas show in their opulently illustrated new book Old Homes, New Life: The Resurgence of the British Country House, the tradition is not so unhappy, alive and well after its own fashion. Under relentless fiscal pressure in earlier generations, a large number of country houses fell out of family ownership, or fell literally under wrecking balls. But a combination of primogeniture traditions, changed attitudes toward work and entrepreneurship, beneficent government institutions, and a web of useful financial mechanisms has not only spared many other homes, but funded their preservation, often in exchange for a degree of public access.
Aslet, a distinguished architectural historian and longtime editor of Country Life magazine, and Thomas, an award-winning photographer, have taken a fresh approach by showcasing not the history or artistry of great houses (though brief sketches are provided), but rather how they currently function as family homes. The rootedness of tradition is abundant—of the dozen houses featured, ten have been passed down through family ownership for at least 500 years. But our more fluid times have yielded an entertaining array of ways these private homes, which often seem more like small businesses, have adjusted to modernity, or indeed, postmodernity.
Historically the seat of great lords reliant upon a stately home to project wealth, power, and magnificence, the best bet for long-term preservation of the country house now seems to involve entrusting management to heirs young and energetic enough to operate them to their best advantage. Most of the houses surveyed are home to stable couples in their forties or fifties who only arrived within the past few years. All but one of these new proprietors have young children in tow, usually at least three of them. A couple of featured homes came down as regular inheritances, but more often aged parents or other older relatives happily retired to a smaller residence to allow the younger generation to get down to what often sounds like exhausting work.
In addition to last-century adaptations such as welcoming paid visitors, hosting shooting parties, and hoping the tenant farmers and bearable tax policies stay in place, much of the financial management is now thoroughly corporatized. Aslet’s profiles feature Americanisms that would have mystified his hosts’ medieval forbears and horrified any owner before their parents’ generation. CEOs are engaged to “make assets sweat.” Sebastian Miller, in line to be the next Lord Willoughby de Eresby, and his wife Emma “want to up our game” at Lincolnshire’s Grimsthorpe Castle. Viscount Gage’s heir confesses “a big feeling that I don’t want to screw it up” in running the family’s impressive pile at Firle Place, in Sussex, which, among other enterprises, boasts a company that specializes in hemp products and hosts one of those British baking shows (the two activities are apparently unrelated, suggesting yet another new business opportunity). The double-barreled Alexander More-Molyneaux of Loseley Park, in Surrey, seems to know a lot about omega-3 levels in grass-fed cattle.
Most of the proprietors worked in reliably lucrative corporate professions before assuming their duties, and a number continue to work to help support their domains. The 45-year old Earl of Devon, who married an American actress before Meghan Markle turned the idea sour, is a corporate lawyer who does firm work in London to keep Powdersham Castle going in its twenty-eighth generation of family ownership. The Duke of Argyll leaves his 75,000-acre estate for 50 days a year to promote Scottish whiskies for Pernod Ricard, the French drinks company. The Honourable Martin Fiennes, who will one day succeed his centenarian father to become the 22nd Lord Saye and Sele, works for a venture capital company that specializes in biotech; he forthrightly admits that the future of his family’s Broughton Castle, in Oxfordshire, will depend on what sort of jobs his kids get.
If family tradition matters, so, too does community. Unlike some previous owners, who held aloof from the local populace behind their crenelated walls and armies of servants, the present ones see themselves and their property as organically embedded in their surroundings. Great houses and their upkeep, along with their ancillary businesses, employ dozens of local people in rural areas where prospects are otherwise dwindling. When economic interests overlap, the class divide quickly narrows. Lord Tollemache’s son and heir, a godson of Prince Charles, is universally known to his employees at Suffolk’s moat-protected Helmingham Hall as just plain “Ed.” Many of the families send their children to local state schools, presumably to break down barriers as much as to spare themselves the increasingly dubious burden of Eton’s $60,000 annual tuition.
Thomas’s elegant photographs, which capture each house bathed in natural light from infrequent British sunny days, also show the families in casual at-home scenes, dressed for the country and barely distinguishable from any ordinary middle-class family. There are even hints of wokeness about. After the previous earl temporarily lost the estate’s lucrative events license under Britain’s anti-discrimination laws, Powdersham Castle flies rainbow flags to signal the Devons’ openness to same-sex weddings. The landed gentry are changing their habits, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. As recently as 2019, one study estimated that aristocrats still own some 30 percent of all land in the United Kingdom.
Paul du Quenoy is a private investor and critic. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.