Saving Britain’s Past: The Country House

16 September 2009

We are often approached and asked to take part in television programmes, local and national. Often, they will be fly-on-the-wall documentaries, involving a wife swap, redecorating a room or some sort of competition for which we are not suited. But I was delighted to be asked to be part of Tom Dyckhoff’s programme looking at the post-war history of the country house, which was broadcast last Monday on BBC2.

Tom is the Architectural Correspondent of The Times and has presented a number of programmes in the series. He gave a very comprehensive overview of the history of country houses over the last 70 years, tracing their almost 50 year decline from 1939, during times or war, high taxation and weak national economic conditions and when nearly 2000 were demolished or lost to fire or institutional use.

The change started to come after the Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum in 1974 when demolitions stopped and a better tax regime was introduced, shortly followed by better availability of grants form what later became English Heritage.  We were only able to pay for the restoration of the interiors of Eastnor because we had grants to repair the roofs and more manageable levels of Inheritance Tax when my parents died. This did not come out in the programme, but Tom did emphasise the commercial approach to managing country houses pioneered at Longleat, Woburn, Chatsworth and Beaulieu, a route which many of us have later tried to follow.

The programme was well put together and carefully researched, and included a lot of interesting archive material, some from Eastnor, with an interview with one of our retired estate workers, Stanley James, who had seen my parents struggle through the worst of the harder times. The overall picture was one of a remarkable survival for many country houses, but, in changed economic times, the answer to the question of how we will manage in the future remains unclear.

JH-B     11th Sept 09