Robert Hardman

Defending the real Downton Abbeys

Why Britain’s stately homes are struggling

Defending the real Downton Abbeys
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From a horrific Victorian murder to its role as a royal refuge from Nazi invasion, Newby Hall has known enough genuine drama to make a primetime telly series. And in fact the more you find out about Newby, the more strikingly similar it is to TV’s actual stately star: Downton Abbey. It’s almost spooky. Not only was Newby Hall the seat of the genuine Lord Grantham — his portrait still hangs on the wall — but he left it to a daughter called Lady Mary (just like the series).

But when I meet him, Newby’s owner, Richard Compton — great, great, great, great grandson of the real Lord Grantham — is preoccupied by a very different set of problems than his TV equivalent. He has just become the leader of Britain’s grandest trade union. And his members are a little anxious.

‘The biggest driver of tourism in this country is our heritage,’ says Mr Compton, the newly elected president of the Historic Houses Association. ‘But the last year has been pretty bad for a lot of our members. People might think we’re all toffs with cooks running around, but we’re not.’

Compton, a former publisher, took over the family home with his wife, Lucinda, and three (now grown up) children 15 years ago. In their case, ‘home’ is part of one wing (‘I tell people we live in a three-bed semi — because we do’). He now has a four-year term as front man for a substantial chunk of Britain’s heritage industry. The HHA is not merely a club for Britain’s private stately homeowners; it claims to represent more great piles than the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and their Welsh and Northern Irish equivalents put together. Some are well-known tourist attractions. Others open periodically for seasonal tours or weddings.

Mr Compton is cheerful and straight-talking and he’s well aware that people with ramparts or a Titian on the wall are not going to command much public sympathy in austere times, or any other. But he is keen to ensure that government and officialdom understand what the heritage industry brings to the country: ‘We employ 30,000 people, we are a major part of the tourism industry and that’s the fifth biggest sector of the economy.’

Some of his members, he says, are on the brink, pointing to a £390 million backlog in maintenance work. Recent changes to VAT exemptions on listed buildings and other tax changes may tip some over the edge. ‘I can quite understand why the Treasury wants to get more money out of the oligarch buying a big house through a network of overseas companies. At the same time, that can hit the custodian of a big old house who is just trying to keep the roof on.’

He points to Torosay Castle on the Isle of Mull. Until last summer, it was the seat of the Clan Guthrie and a popular tourist attraction. But the laird finally found that he could no longer keep it all going and sold up to a Swiss financier. ‘The first thing that happened? The doors closed and it’s not open to the public any more.’ He says his own numbers are down 20 per cent, thanks to the weather and the economy, while red tape is stifling the heritage trade. ‘You can’t get married in here,’ he says with a laugh, leading me into Newby’s main hall. It has several Chippendale chairs — which were designed for the room — and a fully functioning organ. But it’s off limits because of a painting which features a saint. It’s not immediately obvious, but that constitutes religious symbolism and therefore rules out civil weddings.

‘It would be a serious job moving it,’ he says. ‘We have other rooms people can get married in, but for some historic houses it’s a major problem.’

Newby Hall, near Ripon, is a classic example of the self-sustaining modern stately home. It needs an annual injection of £250,000 just to keep the place and its contents intact. From March to October, it draws 140,000 people through the gates next to the unfeasibly large estate church. This, it turns out, was built as a memorial to a Victorian son of the house who was hacked to death by kidnappers in Greece.

Visitors have the run of 25 acres of celebrated gardens next to the River Ure. They can also walk around a house designed by Sir Christopher Wren and remodelled by Robert Adam. It is such a gem that Simon Jenkins, the chairman of the National Trust, has described Newby as the ‘Jewel of the North’.

It’s not just Jenkins who has found Newby special. While the Grantham title died out, the house passed via the female line to the current owner’s grandfather, Major Edward Compton of the Coldstream Guards, when a mysterious order came through in 1940. Richard Compton still has the letter, on Windsor Castle paper and marked ‘secret’, which was sent to Major Compton by Sir Ulick Alexander, wartime Keeper of the Privy Purse.

Newby had been earmarked as a royal bolthole by the ‘Coats Mission’, a small unit led by a fellow Coldstream Guards officer, Major James Coats MC. His task was to keep the royal family out of enemy hands in the event of a German invasion and he picked three country houses as emergency seats of state to fall back on, one by one, in the event of invasion. The first was Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, the second was Pitchford Hall in Shropshire and the last was Newby.

In the event, the royal family never left Windsor, but the Queen Mother, a family friend, would visit Newby many times, always staying in the South Bedroom in a Chippendale four-poster. The guidebook makes no reference to this. ‘We like to keep things understated here,’ explains Compton with a smile. Similarly, there is no mention of Newby’s uncanny likeness to Downton Abbey. In the series, the characters are always doing things in Ripon or visiting Easingwold or Thirsk or Skelton — all places around Newby Hall. Skelton is the estate village. Shortly before filming started on the first series, Julian Fellowes and the Downton team came to inspect Newby as a potential location before settling on the Home Counties convenience of Highclere Castle.

But Lord Fellowes says this is all just a ‘spooky coincidence’. He pays tribute to the beauty of Newby Hall — ‘one of my favourite houses in Yorkshire’ — but insists that Downton’s Yorkshire credentials are rooted in his own childhood memories of the county. As for calling his main character Lord Grantham, he says he chose the name long before he knew that it had ever existed.

Mr Compton has no quarrel with this and not just because Lord Fellowes belongs to the HHA. His members may have been through a lousy period, but one of the few up sides has been the Downton effect: ‘Downton has done us all a great service because it’s reminding people about our heritage. It’s bringing history to light.’

Robert Hardman writes for the Daily Mail.