The fun, radical ways owners are saving their country homes

20 March 2017

Highclere Castle, an example of how one country home became one of the most recognisable landmarks in British television history.

Sir Ludovic Shaw Stewart – or Ludo, as he introduces himself – was 17 years old when his father passed away and, as an only child, he formally inherited the Ardgowan Estate. The 18th-Century house, which stands on 400 acres overlooking the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s west coast, had been in his family for 800 years.

The site’s history stretches back even further: the legendary Scots king Robert the Bruce, an ancestor of Ludo, fought two battles there, and 1,000 years ago, a watchtower was built on the land to ward off marauding Vikings.

Growing up, Ludo didn’t spend much time at Ardgowan. As a child he attended boarding school, and then studied at Edinburgh University before moving to London to work as an art dealer at Sotheby’s, the international auction house. It was only in his late twenties, when an unexpected tragedy befell a close friend, that he felt compelled to reconsider his path.

Since his mother had recently remarried and was spending less time at the estate, Ludo decided to return to Ardgowan to take on the privilege and responsibility of managing a historic stately home. The plan that emerged, over the following three years, involved merging the site’s unique history with his own entrepreneurial spirit to create a business that will breathe new life into the estate and its local area.

How do I even begin?

“I remember going back on the train,” Ludo says now, “and thinking, How am I going to spend my days? What does it entail? How do I even begin?” He considered selling the place – and did part with Napoleon’s iconic hat, which an ancestor had picked up during a Grand Tour pitstop at the Napoleon family home – but eventually decided “to invest in the house, emotionally and financially.”

Keeping a historic house both well-maintained and habitable can be an expensive affair. Ever since World War Two, aristocratic homeowners have had to innovate in order to keep the lights on – and, in many cases, to keep the slices of British heritage which these houses contain preserved. A study published in 2015 by the Historic Houses Association showed that the organisation’s 1,600 members, all private owners of historic properties, collectively spend an estimated £85 million per year on repairs and maintenance – and had a £1.38 billion backlog of outstanding repairs. But the report also underscored the value of maintaining such houses – it found that they contribute £286 million to the UK economy each year and generate 41,000 jobs.

When Lady Carnarvon and her husband took over stewardship of Highclere Castle, the location for the television series Downton Abbey, in 2001, she says their first job was the same one that faced Ludo in 2014: “trying to work out what the role for the stately home was in today’s world.” After all, she says, these estates “are no longer a private home. They’re something we share.”

For the Carnarvons, this has meant hosting garden parties, concerts, talks, and seasonal events, like an annual Easter Egg hunt, as well as selling regular tickets for tours of the property. They also lease Highclere, located in Sussex about 60 miles west of London, for corporate events and weddings.

Branching out

Custodians of historic houses have dreamed up a variety of experiences to offer visitors, from the surreal to the sublime. In 2017, you can see land art installations by the genre-defining artist Richard Long at Norfolk’s Houghton Hall, headbang to heavy metal at the Bloodstock music festival at Catton Hall in Derbyshire, or perhaps witness the medieval-style jousting tournament that takes place every spring at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Visitors to Kelburn Castle in North Ayrshire, just 12 miles south of Ardgowan, can behold the unique sight of a 13th-Century edifice covered in garishly colourful graffiti art. Four Brazilian street artists created the mural a decade ago, and despite local consternation and a battle with Historic Scotland, the artwork remains today.

Like many stately homes, Ardgowan had fallen into decline in the second half of the 20th Century. When Ludo’s parents first married in the early 1980s, he says, there was a tree growing through the North Wing and rooms that had been filled with junk, locked up and forgotten about. His mother set about making the place comfortable, and the property was rented on an ad-hoc basis for weddings, film shoots, and the odd business retreat or ghost tour. But there was plenty of work still to be done when Ludo returned in 2014.

The estate remains a work in progress. As Ludo sits on a footstool in a grand but chilly drawing room, surrounded by oil portraits gazing down from the walls, he says that he’s excited about the prospect of installing central heating for the first time, and about going through the archive of historical, beautifully calligraphed letters – including a bundle from TE Lawrence, the real ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – which are stacked in drawers. He’s also forging ahead with plans to run a fuller wedding business, managing the entire experience rather than simply hiring out rooms, beginning in the summer 2017.

Most excitingly, the local council this month approved plans to build a multi-million pound whisky distillery on the estate, which Ludo plans to complement with a visitor’s centre and possibly “incubation hubs” and exhibition spaces for local craftsmen and artists. The project has the potential to bring a number of new jobs to the area. “I have a real desire to make sure this place thrives,” Ludo says. At least, he adds, “I don’t want to be the one who gets it all wrong.”

An alternative lifestyle

Another of those in the elite club of stately homeowners is George Buchanan, owner of Hodsock Priory in Nottinghamshire, which has been in his family for nine generations. Most of the house dates back to the 19th Century, but it also has a Tudor gatehouse, and another house on the site, named Hodsock, was listed in the Domesday Book 1,000 years ago.

“There’s nothing worse than, ‘Oh poor me, I’ve got a leaking roof, we can’t go on skiing holidays,” George says when asked how he keeps the place running. “That’s how to cause a riot.” But he estimates the combined cost of repairs, marketing, insurance and licenses at around £150,000 per year – on top of wages for staff. The Buchanans employ around 30 people, including two full-time managers, as well as bar staff, chambermaids, cleaners, a house keeper, an assistant manager and a septuagenarian caretaker.

To pay for it all, George has turned parts of the estate into a luxury wedding venue, charging £17,500 for a 24-hour period, including food and drink, flowers, music and cake, and hosting around 20 to 25 weddings a year. He has continued his parents’ tradition of opening the grounds to visitors on weekends when snowdrops and bluebells are in bloom, but he’s also in the middle of researching additional uses for the property and its surrounding 800 acres of Nottinghamshire countryside.

Some of the options include “glamping” (a luxurious version of camping), outdoorsy workshops on topics like building a campfire and wood craft, theatre performances, and gourmet food trucks. He is even considering installing a cinema in the old gatehouse, where movies were once screened for during World War Two, when 42 members of the Women’s Land Army were accommodated there.

Living at Hodsock, George says, provides “an opportunity to have quite an alternative lifestyle, but if you’re not prepared to share it and be entrepreneurial, you’re going to have quite a dull time.”

Of course, the adaptation of stately homes to new uses has a history stretching back decades. The Elizabethan country house Longleat, seat of the Marquesses of Bath, was transformed in 1966 into the first drive-through safari park outside Africa, and visitors can still spot lions and tigers there today. Beaulieu, the 13th-century former royal hunting lodge and abbey, was turned into the National Motor Museum in 1972, and the Georgian Blenheim Palace, where parts of the James Bond movie Spectre were filmed, boosted visitors to its Pleasure Gardens in 1975 with a miniature railway. 

Today, George says, the stately home owners must offer increasingly complex and imaginative attractions. “The traditional idea of a British day out has been superseded by the fact that everyone wants to experience something, and learn the story behind a place,” he says. “The standards are so much higher than they used to be.”

The encyclopedia of a place

The National Trust’s Public Programmes Manager, Tom Freshwater, agrees. He’s met this demand with various programmes, such as an LGBTQ-themed event series throughout 2017 called Prejudice and Pride, and another initiative called Trust New Art, which commissions artists to create work inspired by the Trust’s buildings. In July 2017, an art exhibition will be unveiled at Castle Penrhyn in North Wales that looks at a difficult chapter of the building’s history – one concerning manual labour and striking workers at the start of the 20th Century.

“Each country house is its own global encyclopedia,” Tom says, “whether it’s French ceramics or Chinoiserie in the wallpaper or Chippendale furniture made with hardwoods that were brought in through the slave trade from the West Indies. They can feel quintessentially British, but they [contain] stories from all over the world, and we need to get back to telling these stories.”

One National Trust property, the former Augustinian Priory Caulke Abbey, in Derbyshire, has been deliberately kept in a state of disrepair in order to preserve what Tom calls “the spirit of the place.” Nicknamed ‘the unstately home,’ it tells the story of the eccentric, reclusive heir who amassed a vast amount of taxidermy. When he died, it was passed to the National Trust, who kept the peeling paint, antiquated junk, and overgrown courtyards.

The Ardgowan distillery, which Ludo hopes to have up and running in the next two years, promises to offer this type of deep engagement to visitors. It’s named after a former distillery established in the local area in the 1890s, using waterworks installed by the Shaw Stewarts, which was bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War Two. The alcohol caught fire, Ludo explains, “and served as a beacon for the rest of the bomb payload. There are stories of burning whisky running down Baker Street and into the River Clyde.”

As he returns to digging through the house’s long-forgotten archives, planning discussions on taste profiles with a master distiller and painting future wedding reception rooms pale green, Ludo is discovering new things about the house every day. Like the limping ghost he swears he crossed paths with in a cold corridor one recent evening, or the Roman love tokens he unearthed with a metal detector in a former rubbish dump on the grounds, hinting at a romantic drama unfolding in the distant past.

“Part of the joy of the last three years,” he says, “which has completely surprised me, is that I didn’t realise how much of this place was under my skin, and in my blood. I thought that I wasn’t particularly connected to it because I’d spent so long away.”

Now, he says, “I see myself in relationship to this house. In my mind they’re inextricably connected.” He says that he’s proud to help keep a slice of Scottish history alive. But Ludo is also aware that he’s just one link in a larger chain, and that his primary aim is to pass on the house to the next generation in good condition.

“I very strongly feel that I’m just passing through,” he says. But, he adds, for this period of time, while he plays his role in the house’s history, “it’s a wonderful view.”

Source: The fun, radical ways owners are saving their country homes by Jessica Holland, BBC. 

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