Inspiration

Through The Keyhole

Forget an army of maids and butlers on call and lavish Downton style dinner parties, Sarah Freeman finds out what it’s really like to run a stately home.

Newby Hall

When we meet, Richard and Lucinda Compton have just finished compiling their annual list of jobs to do around the house. It’s something couples do up and down the country, but given their home is Newby Hall, near Ripon, the list is not only long, but completing it is going to be expensive. Very expensive.

“Top of this year’s list is to fix the crumbling masonry,” says Richard, who is also president of the Historic Houses Association. “There tends to be 300 plus jobs on there every year, which range from giving a window or door frame a quick lick of paint to major structural work. Whenever I walk round the property I always carry a pencil and bit of paper to note down work that needs doing. I never fail to spot something.” Even changing a lightbulb at Newby can cost a fortune, but the Comptons are not alone. According to the HHA, the country’s 1,500 privately owned estates, castles and gardens currently have a repairs backlog totalling some £390m.

“Maintaining a property like this is a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge,” adds Richard. “The work is never done. We are lucky in that we can call on a fantastic team of craftsmen, but they are getting older and there doesn’t seem to be anyone waiting in the wings to replace them. Lord only knows what will happen in ten or twenty years time when we need some 18th century plasterwork repairing."

When Richard inherited the estate in 1997 following the death of his father Robin, he and Lucinda were living in London with their three young children. Orlando, Ludo and Sasha were then aged between seven and thirteen and while the couple always knew that one day they would have to head north to begin another chapter of their lives at Richard’s childhood home, it didn’t make the upheaval any easier.

“We had a great life in London, great careers and we had to give all that up,” says Lucinda, who is trained in furniture restoration and conservation while Richard worked in magazine publishing. “It was also hard for the children. They might have had the bonus of an ice cream kiosk in their front garden, but Newby was a world away from everything they knew.

“Thankfully they are incredibly resilient and they did adapt to our new life and so did we. The fact is this is our home, but it’s also a business and we have to share it with our visitors. It is a bit like living above the shop.” But what a shop. Built in the 1690s by Christopher Wren, the property was later remodelled by both John Carr and Robert Adam.

However, while the public gets to see the impressive wall hangings from Paris’ famous Gobelins factory in the Tapestry Room and the library where 12,000 books, some of which date back to the early 17th century, have been lovingly restored by volunteers, the family’s private quarters are perhaps surprisingly modest.

Richard likens it to living in a three-bed semi and given the amount of work that needs doing in the rest of the house, there is rarely the time or the money to redecorate. The family kitchen is packed with cookbooks and curiosities picked up from Bermondsey market and with the Aga on there’s an inviting warmth about the place.

Lucinda admits that during the height of summer the blinds in the kitchen remain down to give the family a little privacy. However, while the Comptons relish the quiet winter period when the property is closed to visitors, they also know that without the paying public there would be no Newby Hall. It was something Richard’s father was also acutely aware of. It was he who redesigned the public entrance to the property and he who restored the estate’s impressive gardens.

Richard and Lucinda have continued his work, converting a derelict stable block into offices, opening up the hall for weddings and, in a further bid to help the estate’s finances, all the electricity used by the house comes from a hydroelectric scheme powered by the nearby River Ure.

Visitor numbers are now at around 130,000 a year, and after a phenomenally successful dolls house exhibition last year, the Comptons are hoping to repeat the success by hosting Gyles Brandreth’s teddy bear collection. “With each generation the home becomes less private and more hard work,” says Richard.

“There is always the temptation to do a few more weddings and to stage a few more events to bring in extra revenue, but it’s all about balance. Hosting something like a fireworks night can seem like a good idea but if there’s a downpour that’s it, you’ve lost your money and there’s no way of clawing it back.

“Running a place like this could be completely overwhelming, but you quickly learn that each generation can only do so much.”

While he may be pragmatic about what can be achieved, Richard would like to realise some of his more ambitious plans.

“What do you think about cutting a corridor through the forest?” he says looking down  Newby’s perfectly manicured gardens and pointing to a spot some way in the distance. Clearly we’d have to check those trees are not carefully disguising some concrete monstrosity, but I think it would be just fantastic.” With more pressing jobs on the to do list, relandscaping Newby might have to wait another day. However, the Comptons know they do have to keep one eye on the future.

“The children are all now in their 20s,” says Richard. “They have all left home and while they love coming back here for Christmas and holidays, not one of them is showing any signs of settling down or wanting to take over Newby. Newby wasn’t designed as a tourist attraction, it was designed as a house to be lived in and that’s what gives it its special atmosphere.

“It’s a big responsibility, but there will come a day when Newby needs them.”

Ripley Castle

Ripley Castle is a Grade I listed 14th century country house in North Yorkshire. It is now the home of Sir Thomas and Lady Emma Ingilby.

How would you describe your property in just three words?

Full of history (or happy family home). To be honest three words are just not enough!

All historic houses have a claim to fame, what’s yours?

Ripley Castle has been lived in for more than 700 years by one family and the history of the Ingilbys at Ripley reflects the history of England.

What’s the best thing about living and working in an historic property?

The drama and interiors of the castle and the landscape and setting. Also, the fact that no two days are the same.

And the worst?

Changing lightbulbs! And the endless repairs.

What are you looking forward to most in 2016?

Making special memories with our day visitors and welcoming more than 70 brides and grooms for their special day.

What should visitors not miss?

The ghosts! We have a few. You have been warned.

Carlton Towers

Carlton Towers, between Selby and Snaith in North Yorkshire, is a Victorian Gothic style property. Since 1991, it has been lived in, and run by Lord Gerald Fitzalan-Howard and his family.

How would you describe your property in just three words?

Simple. A family home.

All historic houses have a claim to fame, what’s yours?

We have a priests’ hiding hole in the Nursery Wing which was used by Catholic priests during the Reformation and visitors can now view it through glass panels set in the floor. Another claim to fame is being able to see all three Yorkshire power stations - Drax, Ferrybridge and Eggborough - from the Clock Tower.

What’s the best thing about living and working in an historic property?

You need a fire every night of the year.

And the worst?

You need a fire every night of the year.

What are you looking forward to most in 2016?

That would have to be planting a vineyard in the Walled Garden.

What should visitors not miss?

A cooking course at Cooks, The Carlton School of Food. It is one of the very few cookery schools in a stately home and guests can also stay overnight in one of our 16 bedrooms.

Renishaw Hall

Renishaw Hall near Sheffield has been in the Sitwell family for more than 400 years with Alexandra Sitwell the latest generation to take responsibility for the estate.

How would you describe your property in just three words?

Magical, eclectic and eccentric.

All historic houses have a claim to fame, what’s yours?

It would have to be the gardens and its literary connections. My great grandfather Sir George Sitwell laid out the formal garden between 1886 and 1936 and much of what visitors still see today is his lasting legacy. The Sitwells were also a family of writers and they were also patrons of many early 20th century artists, including Rex Whistler and John Piper.

What’s the best thing about living and working in an historic property?

Being surrounded by beautiful objects. Each room houses a wonderful array of items belonging to various generations of Sitwells, as each of us leave our mark on the interiors of Renishaw Hall. And the worst? The upkeep, maintenance and expense.

What are you looking forward to most in 2016?

The continuing development of the superb gardens here and the opening of the new café at Renishaw Hall which we hope will become a destination in its own right to visitors from around the region.

What should visitors not miss?

The gardens, the paintings and our eclectic collection of furniture and works of art.