Guardians of days gone by: inside the lives of the custodians to the UK's most historic houses and stately homes

From Highclere Castle to the Hunting Lodge, what it’s like to be a custodian a historically important home

The formal dining room at Highclere Castle. 

“What country houses of any size can hope to survive the next fifty years?” Pondered Osbert Sitwell in the late 1930s.   Certainly, the second half of the century was a challenging time for large country houses, as readers of Brideshead Revisited and fans of Downton Abbey will know.  The factual ins and outs have been brilliantly charted by Adrian Tinniswood in his book, Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the Post-War Country House – the title celebrating the fact that, seemingly against all odds and in the face of vast estate bills, many great houses have survived.  Which is fortunate, for arguably their existence is integral to our national psyche: they’re the essential foundation of much English literature (can you imagine Jane Austen without the houses?) and the cornerstone of our most enduring method of decoration, English country house style.   That so many are still lived in, either by the families who have tended them through centuries, or by people with a passionate interest in them, is crucial; “a museum is a dead thing; a house which is still the home of men and women is a living thing which has not lost its soul,” wrote Vita Sackville-West.  So, what is it like to reside in and care for one of England’s great historic houses in the 21st century?

The period-drama lifestyle (or not) 

The Countess of Carnarvon stands in front of Highclere Castle. 

Getty Images

Important to keep in mind is that the houses have survived because of the tenacity and commitment to the cause by those who live in them.  Salaries from external jobs get pumped directly into upkeep, some homes have been opened to the public, while others have diversified into safari parks, sculpture parks, wedding venues, and more - that necessary entrepreneurial energy rather putting paid to the perceived chatelaine lifestyle of glamorous balls and endless afternoon tea. Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed, is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon (it’s been in the family since 1793) and receives about 1,500 visitors a day; “I act more as CEO,” says the Countess.  “There’s the estate, there’s the castle, there’s the properties and the people renting cottages, and then there’s the horse-feed business and the books I’m writing.” 

From the veranda in Cadland House, the Drummonds can look across the garden to the Solent and the Isle of Wight beyond.

Simon Brown

Her job description is something that Fee Drummond, who lives in Cadland House in the New Forest, identifies with: “the Cadland Estate [which has been owned and managed by the Drummond family for over 250 years] is a multi-faceted business, an eco-system of micro-businesses as well as a larger number of coastal properties of various sizes that need permanent maintenance.  I try to separate work from home, but it isn’t easy when you live in the middle of the machine; most of the time I’m wearing a hard hat, gutting houses that haven’t been touched for decades, and working out how to do them up with a budget of nothing – like everybody else’s home renovations, but on a larger scale.” 

Property maintenance

The Hunting Lodge, once home to John Fowler, is now under custodianship of Francis Sultana. 

Francis Sultana

The mention of budget is significant – for keeping the houses habitable is still a universal struggle, and as economists will know, there is a vast chasm between assets and cash, and you can’t re-mullion windows with the former. The Countess of Carnarvon came up with the idea of decorating three rooms in the Highclere attic as if they had just been vacated by the Downton Abbey maids, only to discover that the ceilings that she had been going to patch were leaking; what started as a minor facelift became a £60,000 roof repair. 

The Hunting Lodge dates to the fifteenth century and is one of the most famous houses in the history of interior designer, having once been home to John Fowler. It is now owned by the National Trust and newly under the custodianship of Francis Sultana. It is comparatively tiny - but any alterations still come with intense complications, due to the house’s history and listed status.  What’s more, the alterations are vital. “The Jacobean façade was dangerously tilting, we are buttressing the East Pavilion else we’ll lose that, the electrics were no longer safe, and the roof needs completely redoing.  The house might have seemed like it was in rather a romantic state of decay, but actually – as the National Trust identified – it was in a very dangerous state of near collapse.  My committing to the works was part of the deal – but I’ve just found out that the greenhouse needs completely rebuilding too, so that’s another £80,000,” lists Francis. 

Negotiating the parameters of change

G08XBC The garden and house at Trewithen in Cornwall, UKKevin Britland / Alamy Stock Photo

The concept of ‘custodianship’ is interesting. With Francis, it is straightforward - he doesn’t own the Hunting Lodge - but it’s a word that is used by many, for a house with history will also have a future.  “And every generation marks their legacy in a different way,” says Kitty Galsworthy, who lives at Trewithen on the south coast of Cornwall, where generations of Galsworthys have lived for over 300 years. This magazine’s Editor Hatta Byng lives at Brockfield Hall, five miles east of York, an architecturally important Georgian house her husband’s grandfather bought in 1951, “and I was very aware, when we were redecorating – because the electrics and the plumbing needed redoing, and we unblocked doorways and restored the flow of the main rooms – that people would be coming to look around the house, and I couldn’t just decide to have something cool or minimal, not that that’s what I wanted. But it very much wasn’t about creating my perfect Instagram house but creating a home with what was here.” 

Kitty felt similarly when she and her husband Sam – with the help of Salvesen Graham – redecorated Trewithen and restored the front rooms by moving pipe work out of them.  (Dealing with awkward plumbing is a constant refrain, there having been little in the way of either central heating or bathrooms when these houses were built.) “Everything we did had to speak to the history of the house, because that’s a huge part of it,” she explains. 

But sometimes, as Francis has discovered, such is the reputation of a house, and collective love for it, that people have opinions when it comes to its evolution.  Put simply, change is seldom enthusiastically embraced, however small or necessary.  Who knew that deer gates could cause a furore, or incite the posting of doctored images of said gates on Instagram?  And he’s in good company: the conception of the Duchess of Northumberland’s new garden at Alnwick Castle, a modern counterpoint to the adjacent 18th century Capability Brown landscape, brought forth a sizeable army of critics. “Historic houses are not for the faint hearted!” Francis points out. 

You might, at this point, be wondering what is actually in it for those who live in them, for much of it sounds like hard work; the administration, the upkeep costs, the criticism – and most confess that it would have been easier, and less expensive, to simply purchase a smaller and more recently built house.  Is it worth it? The answer is a resounding and emphatic “yes!”

The joy of living with history . . .

Princess Diana attending a wedding at Highclere Castle on 2 February, 1988. 

Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

“If you’re interested in in interiors and architecture, then uncovering layers of wallpaper and pulling up floors to discover original York stone is really exciting,” says Hatta. The same holds true for Francis, who describes obsessively reading up on John Fowler and his schemes for the Hunting Lodge, along with Nicky Haslam’s (who lived there after John), undertaking a great deal of academic work, and tracking down and buying back furniture; “I feel very strongly about this house, I want to know everything about it, and I want to embrace it correctly,” he says.   

“There’s something amazing about living in a house with so much past, and it makes the future of our tenure seem very exciting,” enthuses Kitty - and notable is that Trewithen’s visitors’ book includes entries from King Charles when he was still Prince of Wales, and Margaret Thatcher, who apparently received a very important telephone call in the dairy. “I took so much pleasure in finding out about Trewithen, via heritage records, and uncovering layer after fascinating layer.  We’re now living in a house we know a lot about,” Kitty continues. “And what’s lovely is sharing that with visitors – they’re part of what this house is.” Hatta recounts that their August opening “is actually very easy.  We stay in the kitchen – some probably have heard the odd children’s tantrum, but it’s a family house with a family living in it!”  (Though worth bearing in mind is scale; visitor numbers, and indeed opening hours, are what could be described as manageable at both Trewithen and Brockfield Hall. At Highclere Castle, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon retreat to a cottage on the estate at peak times.)

. . . and serious beauty

A fully set dining table awaits guests at Cadland Estate.

Simon Brown

And of course, there’s the expanse, and the beauty – which is where our romantic attachment to these historical houses begins. Fee waxes lyrical about the Cadland Estate’s land, “the bit I find fun and interesting is the nature and conservation aspect – and working out how to amplify the extraordinary location that we’re there to curate in our lifetimes. I try to live in the moment in the glory of the place – it’s a real luxury.” 

Hatta talks about the “space to have fun.  We’re lucky to have a house that is not too large or unwieldy, but the children have nerf wars or race around playing laser tag without bothering us too much. Last week we had a birthday party with ten girls playing sardines for about an hour, and then charades in the drawing room.” 

And, says Francis - who hasn’t actually been able to move in yet, such is the extent of the restoration - “This house will be the tranquillity that I need. I’m looking forward to going for long weekends, as John Fowler did, and I will enjoy the garden, and read, and draw.” 

Long may our country’s great homes keep their souls.