Magazine article The Spectator

Defending the Downtons

Magazine article The Spectator

Defending the Downtons

Article excerpt

Why Britain's stately homes are struggling

From a horrific Victorian murder to its role as a royal refuge from Nazi invasion, Newby Hall has known enough genuine drama to make a primetime telly series. And in fact the more you find out about Newby, the more strikingly similar it is to TV's actual stately star: Downton Abbey.

It's almost spooky. Not only was Newby Hall the seat of the genuine Lord Grantham - his portrait still hangs on the wall - but he left it to a daughter called Lady Mary (just like the series).

But when I meet him, Newby's owner, Richard Compton - great, great, great, great grandson of the real Lord Grantham - is preoccupied by a very different set of problems than his TV equivalent. He has just become the leader of Britain's grandest trade union.

And his members are a little anxious.

'The biggest driver of tourism in this country is our heritage, ' says Mr Compton, the newly elected president of the Historic Houses Association. 'But the last year has been pretty bad for a lot of our members. People might think we're all toffs with cooks running around, but we're not.'

Compton, a former publisher, took over the family home with his wife, Lucinda, and three (now grown up) children 15 years ago.

In their case, 'home' is part of one wing ('I tell people we live in a three-bed semi - because we do'). He now has a four-year term as front man for a substantial chunk of Britain's heritage industry. The HHA is not merely a club for Britain's private stately homeowners;

it claims to represent more great piles than the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and their Welsh and Northern Irish equivalents put together. Some are wellknown tourist attractions. Others open periodically for seasonal tours or weddings.

Mr Compton is cheerful and straight-talking and he's well aware that people with ramparts or a Titian on the wall are not going to command much public sympathy in austere times, or any other. But he is keen to ensure that government and officialdom understand what the heritage industry brings to the country: 'We employ 30,000 people, we are a major part of the tourism industry and that's the fifth biggest sector of the economy.'

Some of his members, he says, are on the brink, pointing to a £390 million backlog in maintenance work. Recent changes to VAT exemptions on listed buildings and other tax changes may tip some over the edge. 'I can quite understand why the Treasury wants to get more money out of the oligarch buying a big house through a network of overseas companies. At the same time, that can hit the custodian of a big old house who is just trying to keep the roof on.'

He points to Torosay Castle on the Isle of Mull. Until last summer, it was the seat of the Clan Guthrie and a popular tourist attraction.

But the laird finally found that he could no longer keep it all going and sold up to a Swiss financier. 'The first thing that happened? The doors closed and it's not open to the public any more.' He says his own numbers are down 20 per cent, thanks to the weather and the economy, while red tape is stifling the heritage trade. 'You can't get married in here, ' he says with a laugh, leading me into Newby's main hall. It has several Chippendale chairs - which were designed for the room - and a fully functioning organ. But it's off limits because of a painting which features a saint. …

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