Historic Houses – “Doing things differently is what we always do”

12 May 2021

country house with gate

James Probert of Historic Houses explains how independent historic houses and gardens are weathering the pandemic.

It’s now clear that, along with hospitality and live entertainment, heritage and the activity associated with historic sites – visiting, staying, getting married – will be the worst-hit sector of the economy by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Historic Houses, the UK’s association for owners of highly listed houses in private hands, was set up to halt the tremendous destruction of country houses as ‘surplus to requirements’ or impractical ‘white elephants’ between the First World War and the 1970s.

The survival and diversification of these much-loved places since then is a huge success story. By 2019 almost 30 million visits a year were made to independent historic houses, and they generated well over 30,000 full time equivalent jobs through commercial activities. Far more people are employed in country houses today than at the height of Edwardian service culture a century ago – and in far more rewarding and varied roles, from web designers to school engagement officers.

The closures and visiting restrictions that came with the pandemic dealt a huge blow to this thriving, but still fragile, sector. Average turnover in 2020 was less than half 2019; those places that could open received around a quarter of their usual footfall. Half our member properties have already made, or are planning, redundancies; 3,000 jobs are on the line. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of repair and maintenance work scheduled for 2020 was postponed, storing up greater problems for the future and adding to a repair bill already estimated at well over £1 billion across our membership.

But what comes through from the member surveys we’ve conducted is owners’ determination to adapt to the challenge. Perhaps it’s in their DNA; the social and economic landscape circumstances of our homes and gardens have been transformed beyond all recognition over the centuries, including more than once within living memory.

Jason Lindsay, our deputy president, is descended from the Earls of Oxford, who built his home, Hedingham Castle, in the twelfth century. The Norman keep has seen off more serious assaults than Covid-19 in its time. But even in recent years drastic changes in course have been needed to keep these wonderful buildings standing.

“After the Second World War my cousin had to sell farmland and turn her house into an old people’s home – while she was still living in it – to keep the roof on,” Jason told me. “But even that wasn’t working by the 1980s, when we inherited. In the last 30 years we’ve built a tourism business that attracts 25,000 visitors a year for jousting events, and weddings provide 70% of the costs of staff and maintenance.

“That’s all been on hold since March 2020 and shows no sign of picking up any time soon, so we’ll need to cut expenditure and find other sources of income. But if my predecessor managed to take desperate measures to keep the place standing, I’m determined not to be the weak link.” 

Throughout the pandemic our policy team have interpreted and influenced government decisions to ensure that the long-term interests of the nation’s heritage are protected. Although not perfect, state support for the sector has been forthcoming; we’re delighted that many of our member places received financial aid in October through the Cultural Recovery Fund. Last summer we achieved clarification that garden attractions could safely welcome visitors again. Over 150 of our member places did reinstate some public access – essential for the country’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Independent heritage sites don’t enjoy the same advantages or protections as places in the care of the state or national charities. Most will survive, but things won’t be the same in the future. Amidst the retrenchment and recovery, we’ll see innovation and evolution. Half of our members have either already diversified their business models in light of the virus or have plans to do so.

While the acute crisis of Coronavirus has dominated the agenda, in the longer term the chronic crisis of climate change is of far greater significance – as both a threat and an opportunity. That is keenly recognised by historic house owners; in our most recent survey respondents rated sustainability as their third highest policy priority for 2021, only beaten by Covid recovery and the real risk of a counterproductive approach to taxation on heritage assets in the face of much tighter public finances. The UK’s hosting of COP26 in the autumn will be the culmination of a year of opportunities to highlight the leading work that our houses are doing to reduce carbon use and promote sustainability.

The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated the power and value of our self-help association. We help our member houses share and use the tools that will support their survival and recovery. But it’s the great country house tradition of changing everything in order the keep these beautiful places looking the same that will be the salvation of our sector.

James Probert, Director of Marketing & Development, Historic Houses