Go back a few centuries and huge mansions and estates in the UK were owned by uber-wealthy families. They were passed down from one generation to the next, with most people from the neighbouring village(s) working as a servant in the house or farming the land/keeping the estate’s grounds.
Nowadays, our country’s wealth is much more spread out (in theory). Very few landmark properties remain in the hands of these same families. This is largely because the amount of money needed for the upkeep of such estates could no longer be generated by the land, once modern farming methods and the industrial revolution arrived. The riches enjoyed by the inhabitants dwindled with each subsequent generation and many struggled to meet their sprawling property’s running costs. The answer, in many cases, was to sell off some or all of the estate; however, this solution was a finite one, as it could only be sold once.
Given that a lot of these houses are key to our nation’s history, selling them off and/or breaking up the estates would have a negative effect on the UK’s identity and heritage. Thankfully, charities such as The National Trust, The Landmark Trust, Historic Houses and English Heritage allow these important properties to remain in their original splendour, with as much of their contents and features preserved as possible—for the benefit of the current population and future generations to learn from and enjoy.
The government can’t afford to financially prop up such properties, which is why it’s so important that charities like those mentioned are able to step in as caretakers. When you understand just how much money just one property costs to upkeep, it’s remarkable just how many houses have been saved from ruin. For example, I seem to remember reading that the upkeep of nearby Nostell Priory, which is in the safe hands of the National Trust, costs around £3m per year (I hope I’ve remembered that correctly). This may seem a staggering amount for one estate, but when you consider the many, many acres of parkland that requires tendering, the ongoing renovation/preservation of the huge house and outbuildings, and the cost of staffing the estate so that visitors can come, it’s not that outlandish an amount. The money is reaped back through the entry fees and membership subscriptions charged when the public visits Nostell and any other properties in the trust’s portfolio.
These charitable saviours are not able to capture every fine, historic property in the UK, unfortunately, and some estates are still sold today. Most of the prestigious houses we’ve lost had their downfall in the 1950s, with more than 400 British stately homes wiped out in that decade alone—many of them demolished as they were beyond reasonable repair. In comparison, over the last two decades, just 40 historic properties have been sold to private firms and developers. Whilst some of these lost estates were flattened and replaced by suburban housing, the hospitality sector took over a handful and they were subsequently turned into hotels, fine eateries and golf courses.
Though the upkeep of the land surrounding a historic house is relatively straightforward, the house can be anything but, with some proving very costly to upkeep. Heritage laws and responsibilities also inhibit the use of modern materials in some cases, which can see the cost of any restoration escalate. Then there’s the upkeep of the houses’ contents. Many of these properties contain rare paintings, furniture and ornaments…at the end of the tourist season, a lot of the estates close their properties’ doors (though the grounds typically remain accessible). The winter season is then spent restoring, cleaning and caring for the thousands of artefacts and family treasures within the houses.
The National Trust is the largest conservation charity in Europe that looks after 8 million visitors each year. It’s responsible for 750 miles of coastline, 248,000 hectares of land and over 500 properties, including castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves. Without this charity and similar organisations, a huge chunk of our history would have disappeared into the ether.