Noel Coward may have sung ‘The stately homes of England, how beautiful they stand, to prove the upper classes have still the upper hand’ – but that was in 1938, and today they are yet another casualty of coronavirus.
While the landed owners of such magnificent historic piles might not receive – nor expect – much sympathy for their plight in a pandemic that has affected so many, the financial impact of the lockdown has been substantial.
Public tours have been banned and essential revenues from the use of the properties as wedding venues or film sets has all-but dried up.
Typical of those badly hit is the Casterne Hall estate in the Peak District. The house, with 182 acres, has been put on the market by Charles Hurt
Matters have been exacerbated by the fall-out from revelations that some estates were built on proceeds from the slave trade.
‘This year has been a total washout,’ says James Probert of the Historic Houses Association, which represents 1,500 properties, around half of which normally operate public commercial ventures from gift shops to holiday accommodation.
As a result of the crisis, many properties have been put up for sale.
Typical of those badly hit is the Casterne Hall estate in the Peak District. The house, with 182 acres, has been put on the market by Charles Hurt, who says: ‘My family has owned the estate since the 1400s but it’s no longer financially viable to keep the place going. The coronavirus restrictions were the final nail in the coffin.’
Caroline and Charles Hurt try to stay ‘unsentimental’ over the sale of a property that’s been in the family for six centuries
He and his wife Caroline had been dependent on the income generated from special events and from renting the house out for weekend parties. The Grade II*-listed 18th Century property high above the Manifold Valley has been used for several TV period dramas, including Peaky Blinders and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
With most of the art and land sold by previous generations, all that was left for the Hurts was to sell the house itself. ‘We’re trying to remain unsentimental,’ says Charles. ‘These things are part and parcel of life.’
Other country estates for sale include the Bowden Park estate, near Chippenham in Wiltshire, on the market for £35 million. The Grade I-listed 18th Century house is in nearly 1,500 acres of park and farmland, with eight farmhouses and 12 cottages.
Then there’s Leasam House in East Sussex, on offer at £8.9 million with 56 acres, and Nazeing Park, an Grade II-listed 18th Century estate with 68 acres on the Essex/Hertfordshire border, for sale at £6.5 million.
Since the first nationwide lockdown, estate agent Savills has been involved in the sale of 21 estates in the £15 million-plus price range. This compares with just one equivalent property sold in the whole of 2019.
All this suggests that one effect of the pandemic is to disprove Noel Coward: economically, the upper classes are having less of an ‘upper hand’.
Even Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which benefited hugely from being the setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, has suffered. Its chatelaine, Lady Carnarvon, said earlier this year: ‘Coronavirus was devastating, catastrophic, challenging and very abrupt.
‘We weren’t at half-mast, we were running at zero-mast.’
Those estates not fortunate to get filming revenue have, in the past, often relied on hiring out their buildings for weddings.
Even Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which benefited hugely from being the setting of ITV’s Downton Abbey, has suffered
This has been the main source of income for Sir Richard FitzHerbert’s Jacobean Tissington Hall in the Peak District.
But, of course, the lockdown means weddings are banned. Sir Richard says: ‘It’s been very difficult, although we know there are many people in far worse situations than us. The weddings market has been decimated.’