Owners restore stately British homes Costs prove high, even for the rich

February 02, 1992|By Fred Langan | Fred Langan,The Christian Science Monitor

STAMFORD, LINCOLNSHIRE, ENGLAND -- Many of Britain's stately homes, once in danger of becoming museums or piles of rubble, are being saved by their private owners.

But, oh, the cost.

Restoring even the humblest castle means buying lead gutters at as much as $700 a yard, slate roofing at $150 a square yard, and paying fuel costs -- usually for oil and only for part of the house -- that have the aristocracy wearing thick sweaters and heavy coats to keep out the cold.

These are hard times, even for a family with an 1,800-acre agricultural estate complete with castle and moat. Consider Broughton Castle, which has sections that date to the 14th century.

"The money we make from the land goes into restoring the house," said Nathaniel Fiennes, known formally as Lord Saye and Sele. He is spending about $1.8 million over 10 years restore the castle outside Banbury in Oxfordshire.

He does everything imaginable to finance the repairs on the castle his family has lived in since 1300. Visitors, 20,000 a year, pay about $3 to tour the house.

Two years ago Disney Studios shot a movie here -- "Three Men and a Little Lady" -- and the money made went straight into repairs.

"We'd like to see them again," said Lord Saye and Sele. Many historic houses sell off works of art to pay for upkeep.

"People such as Lord Saye and Sele really make a life work of saving all this," said Norman Hudson, an adviser to the Historic Houses Association in London.

"He could just sell it for several million and live on the interest, but he is dedicated to preserving this place," Mr. Hudson said.

The roof is one spot where Lord Saye and Sele is fortunate. It is in good order and the stone shingles won't have to be done again for 200 years, with a few minor repairs, Mr. Hudson said.

But regarding art to sell to finance the home, Lord Saye and Sele isn't so fortunate. "Some of my ancestors fell upon hard times and sold the art in this house, so there isn't any left to sell," he said.

Burghley House near Stamford, in Lincolnshire, is another story.

Lady Victoria Leatham lives in a stately house that still has the second-greatest private collection of art in England.

But she doesn't want to sell one painting or a stick of furniture. She can't, really, for although she is a member of the family that owns the huge mansion, she and her husband describe themselves as "curators."

Burghley House was built in the 1500s by William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. It has been estimated to have 240 rooms, but Lady Leatham has never counted them. Although she lives in the house, she said she and her family are custodians, not owners.

While the art is here to stay, the roof is a mess. "We have a rolling program to fix the roof," Lady Leatham said. "We have spent at least 100,000 pounds [$180,000] a year for the past five years and we have to keep at it for another five years."

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