History repeating: the National Trust for Scotland

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is one of the largest landowners north of the border with 130 properties, including 26 castles, palaces and country houses, and over 78,000-acres. Yet like a feckless son who has inherited plenty but isn’t living up to his responsibilities and squandering his inheritance, so the NTS has been ignoring its duties and now has to face the financial reality of their mistakes – with possibly far-reaching consequences for its country houses.

For many landowners, the 1920s and 30s were a lavish time. Yet, often the land which provided the income was heavily mortgaged and although this could cover expenses it usually left little in reserve. Landowners were ranked according to their acres which led to many to over-extend themselves – leaving them vulnerable if a crisis arose. Although the First World War had had a devastating impact on the lives of many both in the big house and on the estate, for those who came through it must have seemed that life might be able to be resumed from before the war. However, life had changed and although some owners were able to see this and adapt, others refused to face financial facts leading to lavish and unsustainable overspending. This later manifested itself with the massive land and art sales of the 1930s as financial recklessness raced right up to the front door of the main house and forced out the owners.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was formed in 1931, over 30 years after its southern sibling.  It now runs 130 attractions which include some of the finest country houses in Scotland such as Haddo HouseCulzean Castle, and Pollok House.  However, in marked contrast to the National Trust for England and Wales, the NTS hit a £13m financial blackhole in 2009 which led to staff redundancies, the selling of their Edinburgh HQ, and worst of all, the mothballing of various properties.  A formal, independent review of the NTS has just been published which makes it clear that they had been living in much the same way as the country house owners of the early 20th-century and now largely faces the same choices they had.

Like those dissolute owners in the 1920s and 30s who initially refused to face reality, the NTS have finally admitted that they have been living beyond its means and would now require a significant cash injection to cover its debts. For the country house owner in the 1920s and 30s they could always hope to marry an American heiress – but with this option denied to the NTS they’ll have to beg from the public.

Interestingly the NTS has also admitted that just 12 of its 130 properties are fully endowed, leaving the other attractions to have to make up the shortfall. The southern National Trust have, since 1968, used a complex calculation known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which takes account of the probable cost of repairs and maintenance, likely revenues, wages costs etc to assess what level of endowment they would have to receive from the donor before they could agree to accept a house and has led to them rejecting many on that basis.

It seems that the NTS have abandoned this sound practice and over-extended themselves. It has also admitted it doesn’t even have a complete asset register of what properties it actually owns or a list of the necessary repairs to maintain the properties.  So like the owners of the houses who suddenly faced a dramatic downturn in the economy and their income, they are faced with some stark choices which the struggling owner in the 1930s would recognise well: sell or turn over some properties to other uses.

The owner in the 1930s also had the option to demolish or abandon a house and many hundreds were lost over the next couple of decades. Thankfully this option is not open to the NTS so what’s likely to happen? Unlike the National Trust for England and Wales, not all the Scottish properties are ‘inalienable’ meaning they could be sold.  The NTS have however said that no property of architectural significance would be – so we are unlikely to see Culzean Castle in the local estate agents window but some of the smaller country houses may be tenanted on a long term basis.  Some may also turned over to other organisations for community use – though this has a naturally detrimental impact on the fabric of the house through increased wear and tear.

The NTS has shown that, as usual, it’s the owner who’s the problem not the houses.  Even an organisation which has admittedly done much to preserve and protect country houses in Scotland over the last 80 years can become part of the problem.   Let’s hope that they take this opportunity to reform the ‘byzantine’ governance structure which has led them into this crisis and that it creates a leaner, more financially stable organisation better able to look after the country house treasures they have inherited.

More details: ‘NTS to be told: sell treasures or go bust‘ [The Scotsman]

Aristocratic tenants of the National Trust; Shugborough House, Staffordshire

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The news that the area of Shugborough House open to the public is to ‘double in size’ with the inclusion of the Lichfield family apartment, is a reminder of just how advantageous some of the deals were for the owners who gave their houses to the National Trust.  The Trust today is perhaps almost best known for its country houses which form an important part of its work.  However the houses were not simply museums but, due to the often very generous terms under which the families ‘gifted’ the houses, they were often able to stay on in private apartments.

When founded in 1895, the original aims of the National Trust were very much focussed on the preservation of countryside with houses only coming later. The first house the NT acquired was Barrington Court, Somerset in 1907 but the unexpectedly high cost of maintenance and repairs meant that another wasn’t acquired for over 30 years.  With the first crisis period of the country house in the 1930s, leading to many demolitions, there was a growing realisation that the National Trust was well placed to rescue some of the threatened homes.  In 1936 they set up a ‘Country House Committee’ in response to the suggestion of Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian at the 1934 AGM that the NT should be able to accept the gift of country houses, with endowments in land or capital, free of tax. This new regime was then given legislative powers through the National Trust Act of 1937 with Lothian then providing the first donation of one of his four great houses, Blickling Hall with its 4,760 acres, in 1940. To help guide them, Country Life magazine was asked to draw up a list of those properties (which totalled 60 larger and 600 smaller houses) which ought to be saved for the nation.

Having created the legislative backing the NT was well placed in the second period of crisis in the immediate post-war period when the tireless, if not faultless, Secretary of the Committee, James Lees-Milne, travelled up and down the country persuading owners to part with their inheritance.  He was helped by the pernicious, and still highly damaging, death duties which, since 1904 had risen from 8% (for estates valued at over £1m) to 50% by 1934, leading to massive sales of land and contents to fund the demands of the ever-grasping Exchequer.  The multiple sets of duties levelled against the aristocratic families who had sometimes lost father and then son in WWI (and who had been particularly vulnerable as they were often officers and so first over the top) meant estates were inherited by an uncle with no deep connection to a house and estate who would happily sell up.  However, for some who were loathe to simply sell, the National Trust seemed to offer an attractive alternative where someone else would pay the maintenance bills whilst they were still able to live in the house.

The degree to which the family remained in the house was sometimes simply down to how well the family had negotiated with the NT and dependent on the chips they had to bargain with.  For some such as Lord Faringdon at Buscot Park where he retains ownership of the contents, this is powerful position as the house would be severely diminished without the collection of furniture and art.  For others such as Throckmorton family at Coughton Court and the Dashwoods at the glorious West Wycombe Park, long leases (250-300 years) ensure their continued presence.  For some, the pre-eminent importance of the house gave them the edge with Sackvilles at Knole, an Elizabethan treasure-house, living in a large section of the house and still owning vital parts of the house and the entire 1000-acre parkland.  At other houses, the family remain living in the almost the whole house but with almost all the rooms open to the public such as at Anthony where the Carew-Pole family have just a small kitchen and sitting room as their own.  For others such as the Hyde-Parkers at Melford Hall they were retained by the NT as the paid administrators of their own family home which is almost completely open.  Other families like the Lucy’s at Charlecote Park have just a private wing or simply a flat in a wing such as the Drewe’s at Castle Drogo.

For the grade-I listed Shugborough House, begun in 1695, the elegant enlargement and magnificent plasterwork and decoration by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart between 1760-70, ensured that the house would always be on the list of ‘major’ houses to be saved.  When the then Lord Lichfield gave the house and 900-acre estate to the NT in 1966 in lieu of death duties the agreement regarding the house only included the state rooms on the ground floor and a small section of the first floor with the rest was leased as private apartment for the family.  The rooms to now be opened include the Boudoir with original real silver leaf wallpaper dating from 1794, and the impressive Bird room which was Lord Lichfield’s private drawing room.  The 6th Earl of Lichfield has now surrendered the lease allowing Staffordshire County Council, who run the house on behalf of the NT, to include the rest of the ground and entire upper floors.

It may seem like a strange anachronism to have the donor family still living and enjoying the family seat (although they pay rent) whilst having the National Trust pick up most of the bills for maintenance. However, the family add a rich layer of history and their commitment to the care of the houses is second-to-none with their residence helping the houses avoid the awful fate highlighted by Philip Kerr that ‘nothing is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums’.

Full press release: ‘Shugborough mansion is set to double in size‘ [Shugborough Hall]

Superb post by Fugitive Ink on ‘James Lees-Milne and the National Trust‘ [fugitiveink.wordpress.com]

Thanks to Andrew for original link.

Perfect for a family of five: Knole, Kent

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The Sunday Times ‘Home’ section (9 May 2010) features an article which gives some insight into the concerns that might naturally arise when you inherit a huge house in this day and age.  When the 7th Baron Sackville inherited the vast Elizabethan Knole house in Kent in 2004 he and his wife had to decide whether they even wished to move from a four-bedroom cottage on the estate into one of the treasure houses of England with its 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards. Luckily shared with the National Trust since 1946 it is still a huge responsibility.

Despite having to share the house with the 80,000 annual visitors, with a house this size it’s quite possible to still hide the several members of the Sackville family who have apartments in the house or estate.  The Baron occupies the south wing whilst his mother lives in the north wing within a building with a footprint of approximately 4-acres with an exotic roofline which gives the impression of a small medieval town.  Even in these restricted quarters the family enjoys nine bedrooms and multiple reception rooms including a room known as the colonnade with superb trompe l’oeil decoration and a huge library along with the more domestic kitchen and ‘flower’ room.

The Sackvilles have long  opened Knole to the public starting in the early 1800s and had it’s first guidebook in 1819.  The fortunes of the town of Sevenoaks, which sits on the edge of the park, was increasingly dependent on the tourists, much as Leamington Spa and Warwick became on the success of Warwick Castle.  However, after the last of the male line of Sackvilles died in 1843, taking the Dukedom of Dorset with it, a series of inheritances left it, after various family challenges, with Lord Buckhurst in 1870, the eldest son of one of the last Duke’s daughters.  Although the house had remained open in the 1874 season, however he decided, for reasons which are not entirely clear, to close the house in October of that year.  He then removed the various access privileges which had been afforded to the people of Sevenoaks.  This prompted first local grumblings, then letters to the paper, then letters to Lord Sackville (as he had now become), until in 1883 it spilled over into the now infamous ‘Knole Disturbances’ where the locals, roused by stirring speeches,  tore up the gates and chains which had blocked their access, before marching to the door of the house.  However, all this left the cantankerous Lord Sackville unmoved and the house and grounds remained closed until after his death in 1888.

One side effect however of this was the raising of questions nationally as to the levels and rights of access to these parks and estates which were increasingly seen as something the public could enjoy at their leisure.  These sort of questions and the resulting answers, which were clearly in favour of the preservation of these open spaces – and later the houses – eventually led to the creation of the National Trust, which is now the current owner of Knole, and very unlikely to ever close the gates again.

Full story: ‘Living it large with 365 rooms‘ [The Sunday Times]

National Trust: ‘Knole, Kent

National Trust launches iPhone app and a free weekend to explore

National Trust iPhone application

The National Trust has just made it easier to visit their many properties with the launch of a new app for the iPhone and has announced it will be free entry during their ‘Bonus Time Weekend‘ on 20/21 March 2010.

The free application not only gives information about all the National Trust’s 350-plus properties and 600,000 acres of countryside but also other local attractions, routes and stop-offs.  Using location awareness, the app will let you know what properties are within 20-, 30-, and 40-miles of your current position but you can also just browse a complete list of all properties.

So how best to use their app?  Well, if you’re not one of their 3.8m members already, this coming weekend – 20/21 March – you can use this voucher to gain free entry to any of their properties which you would normally have to pay for.  See the full list of participating venues to see what’s close to you.

More details: The National Trust

National Trust to allow life back into properties

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire (Image: National Trust / Rupert Truman)

In an important change of policy, the National Trust has decided to lift some of the many restrictions which had led to criticisms that it was being too museum-like in it’s approach to its wonderful country houses.  The new strategy is designed to give visitors more of flavour of how a house might have been used when it was a home. 

This vision was inspired, at least in part, by the experience of the NT chairman Simon Jenkins, when visiting Chatsworth House in Derbyshire which is still the family home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire as well as one of the finest homes in private ownership in Europe.  Visitors often find that the Duchess has joined them and rooms show the momentoes and items found in any home.

The NT accepts that this will increase the wear-and-tear on the properties and inevitably some mistakes will be made. The expertise and experience of the Trust should ensure that the correct controls are still in place where appropriate as no-one wants to see damage to delicate fabrics, books or paintings. The new atmosphere of exploration and freedom will hopefully enhance the visitors experience and allow them to appreciate the house as it was intended to be; as a home.

Full story: ‘Welcome to Britain’s stately home from homes‘ [The Times]

Lease one of the best Charles II houses in England – but there’s a catch

Ashdown House, Oxfordshire (Image: wikipedia)

If an almost perfect example of a Grade-I listed, Charles II house set in beautiful protected parkland but only an hour from London was available for £4.5m you might think there was a typo.  However, it’s true but there are one or two minor catches.

Firstly, Ashdown House , built in 1661, is owned by the National Trust so your £4.5m only gets you a 60-year lease (or £205 a day if that’s easier).  Secondly, because it’s National Trust, the house is also open to visitors every weekend April to October (approx 2,000 last year) so that they can see the impressive staircase and ascend the 100 stairs to the viewing platform with it’s fine views over the Berkshire Downs.

So, basically, this is possibly the finest second home in the country – although rather than use it at weekends you may wish to be there during the week. The current owner, Mr Max Ulfane, a businessman and well-known philanthropist, has hosted such high-profile events as fund-raising receptions for the Ashmolean Museum.  Alternatively it might be possible to vary the lease to at least exclude some weekends – especially as the lease was offered with the same terms at the same price in May 2009.

*Update* The Sunday Times today (24 January) says that a 83-year lease is available for £5.3m (£175 per day for anyone putting it on expenses) and that the famous artist Anish Kapoor is planning to take a look and it has already been seen by several others including a top executive at Puma.

*Update* – Sept 2010 – The remaining lease has been taken by Pete Townshend of The Who.

Full story: ‘A grand Charles II house fit for a queen‘ [The Times]

Castle Drogo under seige – from rain

Castle Drogo, Devon (Image: wikipedia)

The last castle to be built in the UK, Castle Drogo, occupies a commanding position far up the Teign Gorge in Devon.  Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built in the 1910s and 1920s and finally finished in 1931 for the wealthy businessman Julius Drewe, the Grade-I listed house is a brilliant modern interpretation of a castle combined with the comforts of a country house.

It was also one of the last houses to be built entirely in granite, the local stone of the area.  The grey stone and the clever massing of towers and wings give the house a solid, impregnable air but the house is under attack from the elements, with rain penetration causing serious concern.  The many flat roofs hidden behind the battlements started causing problems only two years after the house was finished and ever since it has been a constant battle to keep the house watertight.

House manager Bryher Mason told BBC News: “I wouldn’t be surprised to walk into a room one morning and find a section of the ceiling having fallen in because the metalwork in the ceiling has failed.”

The National Trust, who have cared for it since it was handed to them in 1974, have instigated a restoration and repair programme on the many roofs, which will include the replacement of all 13,000 window panes, and has been estimated to cost £10m, and will be completed by 2016.

Full story: ‘Leaking castle needs £10m repairs‘ [bbc.co.uk]

Seaton Deleval Hall nationalised

Seaton Deleval Hall

It’s been announced that the National Trust has today succeeded in it’s campaign to acquire Seaton Deleval Hall, regarded as one of the finest Baroque houses in England.  However, the success in securing the future of the hall has again come about as a result the damage caused by inheritage tax leading to treasures – usually art or antiques, but sometimes buildings – being taken into ‘national’ ownership rather than remaining in private hands.

Seaton Deleval Hall was built for Admiral George Deleval by Sir John Vanbrugh and was completed in 1871.  Vanbrugh’s other notable commissions included Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.  However the house suffered a devastating fire in 1822 which gutted the central block which remained as a shell until 1980 when the 22nd Baron Hastings (Edward Delaval Henry Astley) partially restored it.

The 22nd Baron and his wife both died in 2007 triggering a significant inheritance tax bill.  It was this that led to the house being put up for sale and the start of  a fund-raising campaign to save it for the nation.  The house and 400 surrounding acres have now been accepted in lieu of £1.7m of tax (the first time since Calke Abbey in 1984) with the contents covering a further £3.2m.

The National Trust have generously contributed £6.9m to the endowment with a further £3m raised to cover other costs associated with opening it to the public.  The first visitors are expected to arrive in April 2010, part of an estimated 50,000 a year who will be able to see one of Vanbrugh’s masterpieces.

So whilst there is a success in that the house will now be secure and not carved up into flats, it’s still a shame that another part of our national architectural heritage is denied its primary function of being a home.  Inheritance tax has a pernicious creep – it can’t be avoided and just results in each generation selling off more historic artefacts to fund government budgets.  Give it a few hundred years and one conclusion could be that a majority of the crowning jewels of our artistic heritage including buildings, art and antiques could well end up being owned by a national organisation, be it the National Trust or the galleries.  For me, the art treasures of a nation are best located in the houses and families for whom they were produced or bought for, rather than part of a vast national archive, only brought out once a decade or less.  Inheritance tax makes a relatively small contribution to the national budget but it does have a disproportionate impact on our cultural heritage.

Full story: ‘National Trust saves stately home‘ [BBC News]

National Trust takes control of Seaton Delaval Hall‘ [The Art Newspaper]

Scottish National Trust saga continues

The sad decline of the National Trust for Scotland continues with the news that they are to vacate their offices in the historic centre of Edinburgh for an anonymous office block.

The financial mis-management that has beset the Trust has led to the closure of some of it’s houses and drastic cuts within the rest of it’s operations so this may be seen as a logical step.  However, as the project to convert the buildings for their HQ was funded by the National Lottery, as much as 70% of the hoped-for selling price of £10m will have to be paid back.

Full story: ‘National Trust loses its own stately home – and faces bill for millions‘ [Scotsman]

National Trust loses its own stately home – and faces bill for millions