England’s stately homes enjoyed their heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the majority were built as the focal point of an agricultural estate surrounded by farmland. The owners received income from renting out the farms and often enjoyed revenue from other sources such as mining, industry or the railways.
Stately homes were built as demonstrations of wealth and power in which to entertain and impress. As owners competed to build ever grander houses, several architectural styles went in and out of fashion. Such houses often formed the focus of entire communities, playing a pivotal role in the local economy, providing jobs, homes and farm produce.
But gradually England’s stately homes began to struggle for survival. A combination of substantial death duties imposed on landed families and a decline in agricultural rents led to the demise of many great houses. In efforts to raise funds, estate owners tended to sell off land as a first option but this in turn made the big house unviable and since the 1900s over 1,000 were demolished.
During both world wars, numerous country houses and stately homes were taken over by the military and often served as hospitals or convalescent homes. Many houses sustained damage as a result, which many owners found too burdensome to deal with after the wars. As no legal mechanism existed to save such properties, many lapsed into disrepair and they were often pulled down, often in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-19thcentury, there were around 5,000 mansions in England whereas around 3,000 remain today.
New Role for Stately Homes
Stately homes received renewed interest from the late 1940s onwards when some of the country’s finest examples began to open to the public. Gradually, more great houses followed suit as owners decided that public admittance was the only way to make such properties viable.
The 1976 Finance Act came to the rescue of hundreds of country houses; it allowed the owners exemption from inheritance tax in return for them keeping the house open to the public and maintaining it. Many of these houses began looking at alternative revenue opportunities and embarked on businesses such as holiday lets and hosting weddings, corporate events and festivals.
The National Trust and Historic Houses
More assistance for stately homes came with the establishment of The National Trust in 1895. The Trust’s aims are to protect all forms of heritage and open its sites for everyone to enjoy; it currently owns 300 country houses. Another support organisation, Historic Houses, is an association of 1,500 independent historic houses. It promotes heritage as the UK’s major attraction in terms of its contribution to the economy and highlights the role that such houses play by generating £1bn a year to the economy.
The main challenges facing stately homes today include huge maintenance costs, considerable taxes on succession and latterly, closure to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a resultant loss of income. While many properties were unprepared, some adjusted their operations to offer attractions such as staycation opportunities. Others were able to open their gardens on a socially distanced basis, which kept them in the public eye despite suffering a financial loss.
The successive lockdowns arising from Covid-19 have led more wealthy buyers to look for a larger home, often in the country. The surge in demand led to price rises: desirable large country houses sold quickly and attracted competitive bidding during the pandemic. The ongoing shortage of such properties coming to the market means that demand remains high.
As Covid-19 restrictions end, more country houses are expected to be placed onto the market and it is anticipated that prices will adjust to less frenetic market levels. The end of the Stamp Duty holiday is likely to dampen the market along with the prospect of the traditional slowing in transactions from late autumn.
Beyond 2021, the prospect of a rise in interest rates and increased taxes will undoubtedly impact the country house market. Further price rises appear to be less likely and a period of adjustment following this year’s strong growth is anticipated.
Current examples of country mansions for sale include 10 bedroomed Weston Hall near Towcester, seat of the Sitwell family for 300 years. The grade II listed property was placed on the market during Covid-19 and is priced at £3.25m.
The Street, Lympne, Hythe in Kent is on the market at £11m. This grade I listed castle and estate comprises 137 acres and operates as a wedding and corporate events venue. Leasam House in east Sussex is a Georgian mansion set in 56 acres which is on the market for £7.5m. Sheriff Hutton Park estate in York comprises a grade I listed main house, a grade II listed ranger’s house and 203 acres; it is being marketed for £10m.
Currently under offer is The Newhouse Estate in Wiltshire which includes a grade I listed Jacobean mansion set in 905 acres. The advertised asking price was £18m.
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The Critic. 2020. Is this the end for the National Trust? [Online]. Available from: https://thecritic.co.uk/is-this-the-end-for-the-national-trust/ (Accessed 25th August 2021)
The Critic. 2020. The future of Britain’s stately homes. [Online]. Available from: https://thecritic.co.uk/the-future-of-britains-stately-homes/(Accessed 25th August 2021)
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