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Coronavirus UK: Will stately homes survive pandemic?

With hundreds of acres of land and art collections dating back centuries, it is perhaps difficult to imagine Britain’s grand country homes – and their well-heeled inhabitants – ever facing financial pressure. 

But the reality is that these stately piles have been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis and the government measures introduced to try and stop the spread.  

Historic Houses, an organisation that represents 1,500 such privately-owned properties across the UK, estimates 50 per cent of them will have to make redundancies as a result of Covid-19. Even those owned by the National Trust, which allows residents to continue living on site as long as the property is open to the public, is struggling. It estimates it will lose out on £200million this year. 

Speaking to The Times, the blue-blooded owners of a handful of properties, including Knowsley Hall, in Merseyside, which dates back to 1500, and Inverary Castle, in Argyll, explained that three months of enforced closures had taken its toll. 

Even now that some sites are up and running, reduced visitor numbers and one-way system means they are not bringing in as much money as usual.

The Duke of Rutland of Belvoir Castle, Lincolnshire, which is famous as a filming location for Netflix’s The Crown, revealed cancellations up until June had cost them £2.5million.

Weddings are also a big money maker for many properties. But with 30-people receptions only allowed in England from tomorrow and still some way off in other parts of the UK, this revenue stream has also been crippled by the crisis. 

Part of the issue is that while many of these families have assets worth millions, they are cash poor and are unable to sell of either their valuable homes or artwork, in fear of being the generation that depleted their once great standing.  

Eleanor Cadbury, of the chocolate dynasty, is married to Torquhil, Duke of Argyll, a Scottish peer, whose family have lived at Inverary Castle, on the shore of Loch Fyne, since the 18th century.  

She admitted the situation ‘hasn’t been great’, with visitor numbers down 90 per cent.  

‘We had a grant turned down because they said, “You’re really rich”,’ the Duchess of Argyll continued. ‘Yes, we have a lovely house, and beautiful possessions, but it’s not real money. The perception is that he’s a duke, he lives in a big house, and he’s got a Rembrandt on the wall. But you can’t sell the house, and you can’t sell the Rembrandt.’

The experience was echoed by Charlie Courtenay, the 19th Earl of Devon, whose family lives at Powderham Castle in Devon, who said: ‘The government has thrown money into heritage grants, but they’re typically only accessible to charities, not to private owners.’  

Wealthy landowners have gotten creative in recent months, finding novel revenue streams and cutting down on costs by furloughing staff. 

The result has been tales of ladies of the manor picking up their vacuum cleaners and corralling their children into action. 

The Duchess of Rutland explained she was relying on the help of her five children – Lady Violet, 26, Lady Alice, 24 and Lady Eliza, 22, Charles, Marquess of Granby, 20, and Lord Hugo, 16 – to do everything from cut the grass to man helplines.

‘We have a Whatsapp group going, it’s called the Corona Clan and in the mornings I share a to-do list,’ Emma revealed in an interview in April. ‘I don’t have staff anymore but I do have kids so I tell them where they need to be and what they need to be doing. I feel a little like the Sergeant Major.’

It was a similar story for Lady Carnarvon and her husband Geordie, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, who divided chores between them and three part-time members of staff.

The entrepreneurial Manners family came up with the idea of charging visitors for virtual tours of the property and Lord Devon has pivoted to outdoor events like drive-in movies. 

Some owners have been able to seek government support, with Lord Derby of Knowsley Hall among those taking advantage of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS). 

Although this and other programmes such as the VAT holiday and continuity business loan schemes have been ‘hugely helpful’, he already has an eye on the bills that will come in next year – and how they will be paid.  

Despite the cards being stacked against some of these stately homes, some remain optimistic.  

John Hoy, a former chief executive of Blenheim Palace, telling The Times: ‘Country houses will survive this because it is in their nature to do so. No stately-home owner wants to be the generation of the house that folds.’ 

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