How owners keep the lights on on England’s stately landmarks

The incident involving a wedding guest and a dead pheasant was the clincher, explains Ronnie, the house manager of Goodnestone, a 1704 Queen Anne-style mansion with 15 acres of land in Kent; a grand house where Jane Austen once danced ‘La Boulangère’ with her wealthy relatives and where previous lords of the manor included Robert FitzWalter, a nobleman who led the drafting of the Magna Carta in 1215.

As he serves us chicken on fine china at the 4.5 meter high oak table in the dining room, Ronnie tells us about the day in 2022 when the traditional annual grouse hunt, staged at Goodnestone since the 1860s, was overrun and clashed with a wedding.

“A shot pheasant almost landed on the guest’s lap,” Ronnie remembers about this wedding faux pas. Ronnie is from Peru and arrived at Goodnestone in 2021 after ten years working as a butler at Claridges, The Ritz and The Dorchester.

“The guest was vegan and quite shocked.”

That day, as the old rural economy collapsed into the new, was the day the current owners of Goodnestone House fully committed themselves to the tourist and wedding business. It also explains the number of plucky grouse we encounter during our overnight stay, with my partner, son and I having the flight from Goodnestone, with its elegantly appointed Jane Austen Drawing Room (named after this regular guest on the estate, whose brother Edward married in 1791 in the family); antique-stacked library; four-poster beds and creepy oil paintings of dead ancestors.


The Salon in Goodnestone, which is still family run – Alamy

Ronnie is on call in an adjacent house, which is connected to the country house via a servant’s staircase, which stands on the site of a country house from 1057. Not that my other half Tim likes to bother our cheerful housekeeper. “It’s all a bit upstairs, isn’t it?” he says, about the feeling of being in charge like a squire.

Like many great country houses, Goodnestone has been forced to diversify. Since the death of the last family member to live here full-time, Margaret, Lady FitzWalter (1923-2015) – who restored Goodnestone and its beautiful parterre gardens in the years after the Second World War – this stately pile has had to earn its value. to hold.

Julian Plumptre, second Baron FitzWalter, today manages the estate and grounds as a tourist business with his son Ed.
Ed Plumptre told me there are pros and cons to keeping the property in the family, rather than handing over management to an organization like the National Trust.

On the one hand he says:[family owners] on the other hand “we do not have access to the National Trust’s expertise and we cannot compete with its marketing and PR”.

Professor Stephanie Barczewski is the American author of the new book How the country house became English (Reaktion Books, £25), which examines the fluctuating finances and fortunes of the English aristocracy, and how this affected their beautiful country houses.

Professor Stephanie BarczewskiProfessor Stephanie Barczewski

Professor Stephanie Barczewski, author of How the Country House Became English

Barczewski says that for more than a century, the English nobility suffered a series of devastating blows to their income streams, starting with the agricultural depression of the late 19th century, followed by World War I, when sons of the aristocracy in large numbers died at the front. while Liberal MP David Lloyd George levied hefty death taxes to pay for post-war reconstruction. “Suddenly, hundreds of estates became white elephants, burdened with taxes and without anyone to manage them,” Barczewski explains.

During the Second World War, many large houses, including Goodnestone, were requisitioned by the War Office and later returned to their owners in poor condition. “The army was quite ruthless,” Barczewski continues, “for example, they tore down large stairs to burn the wood as fuel.”


Guests can immerse themselves in the world of Goodnestone, with its chandeliers and decorative painting – Alamy

The post-war period was the final death knell for many large piles. A 1974 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, The destruction of the mansion, shocked exhibition visitors with its centerpiece ‘Hall of Lost Houses’, a dramatic installation in which designer Robin Wade recreated a neoclassical portico that crumbled under the impact of a wrecking ball, with photographs of destroyed country houses mounted on pieces of falling masonry and a soundtrack of burning wood and collapsing buildings.

In the context of the 1970s blackouts and the three-day week, many vilified this dramatic setting as propaganda for a lost feudal era. But in the 1970s the National Trust also accelerated its push to save crumbling country houses, says Barczewski: “This is the moment when rural tourism is really taking shape.”

It was also the time when country house owners began to learn how to market these grand properties to a wider audience, allowing guests to stay in the properties and, in a gesture we are now familiar with, opening up servants’ quarters and kitchens . so visitors could explore the lives of those below the stairs.

In 1979 the National Trust established Historic House Hotels “to rescue and restore dilapidated country houses”.

They currently have three hotels managed through this brand: Bodysgallen Hall in Wales, Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire and Middlethorpe Hall in York, although the trust offers self-catering stays in historic houses within their portfolio.

Bodysgallen HallBodysgallen Hall

Bodysgallen Hall in Wales is a hotel managed by the National Trust-founded Historic House Hotels – Stephen Hughes

English Heritage offers options to stay as a paying guest at legendary stacks including Osborne House, the family home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the Isle of Wight, and Henry VIII’s Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, as well as cottages dotted around the grounds of the stately homes spread across the estate of 400 historic buildings.

More recently, smart aristos have appeared on television as a path to livelihood.

Highclere Castle is the best example of this, with the current Countess of Carnarvon, Fiona Carnarvon, “really lobbying for Downton to be filmed there. [in the 2000s],” says Barczewski.

Fiona CarnarvonFiona Carnarvon

Lady Fiona Carnarvon is a ‘cunning aristo’ who lobbied for Downton Abbey to be shot at Highclere Castle – Getty

Income from 14 years of Downton tourism has since funded a multi-million pound renovation of Highclere’s turrets and interiors.

Today’s historic bodice-buster, Bridgerton, has become a major banker for The Ranger’s House, the Georgian stately building in south London that is the home of the Bridgerton family in the hit series, which has just landed its third series on Netflix .

Despite Tim’s fear of heights in class, I enjoyed my evening experiencing how the other half of the 19th century lived and strolled, especially the view from the beautiful upholstered chaise longues over the Goodnestone gardens. My son, classic for a seven year old, enjoyed the croquet and the giant chess set on the lawn.

Plumptre tells me that weddings and gatherings should keep the lights on in Goodnestone for a few more years. “Weddings and reunions are where the money is,” he adds. (Toodle-pip, grouse shoots.)

Barczewski jokes that a historically accurate Downton Abbey would revisit the Crawleys in the 1960s when they transferred their pile to the National Trust, and so generations of scone-munchers and weekenders sought out blue-blooded B&Bs. “That’s my idea for series seven anyway,” she laughs.

Goodnestone House sleeps up to 24 people, plus two children, and costs from £4,800 per night, or £5,900 for a two-night stay (

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