Britain's stately homes struggle to survive with Covid restrictions

·4 min read

The sprawling redbrick house and grounds of Kentwell Hall, built up in the time when the Tudors ruled England, have, like so many of Britain's stately homes, face an existential threat during the pandemic.

The turreted house near Bury St Edmunds in eastern England has survived over 450 years of tumultuous history but is in need of critical repairs it cannot afford after closing its doors to visitors at the start of the outbreak.

In the face of mounting financial woes, owners of historic houses like Patrick Phillips, who bought Kentwell in 1971, are calling on the government to allow them to reopen faster.

The former senior lawyer, who has been restoring the house for decades said he has had to "cut back everything to the bone" after its £1.5-million ($2-million, 1.75-million-euro) turnover in 2019 fell by 90 percent in 2020.

"It is hugely, hugely burdensome for us to try and operate this place without income," he told AFP.

Most of the money generated came from events and visitors.

But lack of funds in the last 12 months has meant halting critical work to an 800-yard (metres) moat around the house.

Phillips said trying to repair the moat, which has collapsed at a sensitive point, was "an absolute disaster" without access to funds.

"This particular section supports an early building, a 15th-century building," he said. "But until we can get in and look at it, we don't know how serious it is."

The stately home owner was unequivocal in his criticism of the government's plans to reopen the economy and said they were "following the wrong track".

He compared stately homes to businesses in the hospitality industry and said "we are all suffering unnecessarily".

- Jobs under threat -

The British government unveiled in February what Prime Minister Boris Johnson characterised as a "cautious but irreversible" plan to exit a third national lockdown.

However, stately homes as well and other sectors are demanding answers as to why they have to wait until May to open parts of their businesses and until June to reopen entirely when non-essential retail is scheduled to reopen on April 12.

Historic Houses, which represents 1,500 privately owned homes around Britain, wants the government to ensure it is keeping to scientific advice and not unnecessarily burdening struggling stately homes.

"They're vital businesses and they've got vital contributions to make," said James Probert, the organisation's director of marketing and development.

"We haven't said you must allow these businesses to open on 12th April. But we have said, can you just consider that and make sure that it's all in the light of sensible scientific advice?"

Historic Houses' members had £1.4 billion of outstanding repairs to make in 2019, £400 million of which were urgent -- an amount Probert said he expected had "shot up" during the pandemic.

He said stately homes were looking at a "stored up crisis" with rot and damp that had permeated many houses.

"These are in very, very important listed buildings that are ultimately part of our national patrimony and open to the public," he added.

The cost has been harsh, not just for the homes but for the 34,400 employed by houses with ticketed visitors or for weddings and conferences.

Around 3,000 people face redundancy because of Covid, despite a national furlough scheme.

- 'Almost crisis time' -

The family of Charles Courtenay, the 19th Earl of Devon, have lived at Powderham Castle in southwest England for over 600 years.

While the Covid-19 pandemic might not compare directly to the damage it suffered in the 17th century during the English Civil War, Courtenay said water damage to the roof of the castle had reached a point where it was "almost crisis time".

Funds like those from Historic England, a national heritage body, that funded repairs over the winter months, have helped stately homes during the pandemic and meant costs for work at the castle did not continue to spiral.

Courtenay said Powderham would be reopening its gardens "as soon as we can", explaining that very few stately homes run a surplus.

"Anything that is made tends to be invested back into the fabric or into the running," he said.

The earl explained the pandemic had "decimated us financially" but when the gardens had opened last summer, it made the castle more of a "community space where people could come and get out and about really quite a tough time of year".

"We were proud and pleased with being able to make the space available for people."

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