Last tango in England
The Ruling Class is scrubbing its own pools these days, and opening its stately homes to any commoner with 50 pence. All with a stiff upper lip, of course
With the English pound languishing in the nether regions of $1.80 and inflation (almost 19% annually) driving even the modest London subway fare up to 50 cents, every Briton is feeling the pinch—even the rich and the titled. Since the mid-Fifties Britain has dropped from the second richest nation in northwest Europe (behind Sweden) to the second poorest (one step above Ireland), and if economic conditions continue to deteriorate she may be poorer in 25 years than many of Asia’s Third-World republics. Caught like everyone else in the country’s economic blight are the owners of turreted mansions embedded in ancient acreages that swallow the horizon. Income taxes are now an incredible 83% on earnings over $40,000, and invested income may soon be hit by a levy of 98%. In fact, the British aristocracy, which for so many years has defined the lifestyle of the world’s rich, is becoming an endangered species. Some 250 architecturally or historically valuable mansions have already crumbled beneath the wrecker’s ball. Another 930 so-called stately homes are threatened with annihilation. In the past six months great houses have been disappearing at the rate of one a day. When the auctioneers moved recently into Stonor Park, which was owned for 800 years by a Roman Catholic family that sheltered hunted priests during the Reformation, its mistress, Lady Camoys, watched and wept. “We have gone bust,” she sobbed. “Inflation, taxes and the Arab oil increase have done what Oliver Cromwell couldn’t — driven us from our home.”
For the die-hard socialist all this destruction signals the welcome demise of Britain’s rigid class structure. Lordly landowners and titled tycoons may soon be indistinguishable from the local dustman— happy news for those who blame the “upper classes” for every disaster from last summer’s drought to the fact that the royal swans have stopped laying eggs, but not for the aristocrats themselves. Many have solved their dilemma through exile. The Duke of Manchester has gone to Kenya and Lord Graham, the seventh Duke of Montrose, to Rhodesia. The Duke of Norfolk, premier duke of the realm (his is the oldest dukedom in existence today) has abandoned Arundel Castle for a snug gatehouse on the grounds, and Sir John Craster, whose family occupied Craster Towers for centuries, doesn’t live there anymore.
Still the stiff-upper-lip tradition lingers on. Britain’s aristocracy is possessed of an aboriginal know-how in the art of survival. They are Coming to Grips, Facing the Music, Forming the Thin Red Line—turning their hand to showbiz by opening their houses to the madding crowds at 50 pence a head, offering bread and circuses (in the form of tea and adventure playgrounds), antique car collections and a sail on a private lake. Some are taking in weekend guests, carefully screened by a London agent. Others are raising trout for the local marketplace, baby-sitting foreign children, scrubbing out their own swimming pools, growing sugar beets, renting farmland to tenants who can seldom if ever be evicted, opening riding stables, selling family silver, serving at their own dinner tables, using taxis instead of the proverbial Rolls, breeding cattle, sheep or bees and quaffing more sherry than whiskey. In many instances they have sacrificed yachts, villas and even beloved London clubs older than the Bank of England (one of them, White’s, recently refused membership to Sir Harold Wilson). And always they see before them the spectre of the government’s impending Wealth Tax, to be imposed annually on people owning more than £.100,000 of salable assets, which will undoubtedly accelerate the closure of great houses all over the British Isles.
Deep in Devonshire, where the sunken roads form moats permitting only an occasional flash of brilliant green fields populated by numbing herds of cattle and sheep, Sir Otho and Lady Prior-Palmer inhabit a sprawling mansion called Grange. It was germinated in Elizabethan times, bloomed under the Georgians and is expensive to heat under the socialists. “We only turn on the central heat for visitors,” Sir Otho beams from the comfort of his bulky navy sweater streaming with caught threads and definitely out-at-elbow (he has been out wrestling with the swimming pool drain), “so we’re delighted to see you.”
Sir Otho is a man of style, Brigadier General in two world wars, formerly a Conservative MP who used to have his own blue-water yacht. (His niece, Lucinda, was a member of the Olympic riding team with Princess Anne and Mark Phillips.) At Grange he keeps a single gardener-cumhandyman, arranges his own cut flowers in an antique vase picked up for a song at Christie’s, and enjoys madeira more often than champagne. Lady Prior-Palmer cooks up a neat quiche, keeps geese and grows her own artichokes. They have two dogs, a Labrador called Tarquín and a Pekingese called Mr. Fo. (No matter how drastic the situation, the English upper classes have at least two dogs.)
At a formal Saturday night dinner attended by three other local squires, conversation turns first on hunting (“I can’t afford to shoot any longer,” says Sir Otho, “I just walk along with the dog”) and then to the proposed Wealth Tax. “I shall turn violent,” exclaims one of the guests, “if the tax man ever comes snooping around my house! Did you know they have the right to walk in anytime? This government will make everybody dishonest. People will simply hide their paintings and furniture.” He is echoing what every English landowner feels, for the Wealth Tax, to be voted upon by parliament late this year, will be levied in addition to the already existent Capital Transfer Tax, which is payable whenever assets of £.15,000 or more are passed on as a.gift or inheritance, and the 30% Capital Gains Tax. Moreover, the Wealth Tax will hit the assets of British residents anywhere in the world as well as the
previously faceless untaxable trusts.
Down the road from the Prior-Palmer holding, Richard and Bunny Chichester spin uncertainly in the difficult economic climate, determined to maintain their essential style. A few years ago Richard amazed a Devon real estate agent with the request, “Have you a very large house with no central heat, no electricity, and in bad repair?” When he recovered his wits, the agent admitted he had the very thing: a Victorian-Gothic grey stucco house with a falling porch set in cedared hills beside a trout stream. The Chichesters (relatives of Sir Francis, who sailed alone around the world in record time) were enchanted and bought it on the spot, reasoning that they could raise fish in the stream to supplement their income. “We couldn’t afford a house like this if it had all the conveniences,” Richard explains, “but we like the space.” A house like this means, among other things, a front hall the size of three Canadian living rooms, a drawing-room mantel decorated with three carved alabaster heads and a skylighted billiard room with a cupid-frescoed ceiling. Most of the year it’s warmer outside than in, but the Chichesters cheerfully pile on more sweaters and stoke up one of their many fireplaces. As compensation, Bunny Chichester can whip up a lunch plus wine in the cavernous dining room for 20 guests ranging from an inventor to a knight.
But not all aristocrats fare so well. Newspaper stories tell the curious that the Earl of Lucan was charged with the murder of his children’s nanny and the attempted murder of his wife and then disappeared, that the penniless Duke of Leinster died of an overdose of drugs, that Lord George Brown was photographed lying in the gutter, that Lord Harlech’s heir shot himself, that Lady Carolyn Townshend, wife of Canadian liquor-magnate Edgar Bronfman, was divorced amid a swirl of lovers, including her doctor.
In the mellow precincts of her London drawing room, the Duchess of Argyll is frankly worried about the propriety of a two-week tour of the United States by such worthies as the Marquess of Tavistock (son of the Duke of Bedford), Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the Duke of Marlborough, the Earl of Dunmore and Sir Hugo Boothby. “I hope,” she intones in her mellifluous voice, “they aren’t out begging with a tin cup\ We English must make our own way, not ask Americans to save us.” But the Duchess needn’t worry—it is merely a case of five British lords a-leaping through 10 American cities on a punishing publicity tour for the stately homes of England— hustling castles for the coming tourist season. Nor is the Duchess above a little showmanship herself. She opens her early 18thcentury Mayfair residence to the public for $15 a head on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays between the hours of six and 8 p.m. “At that price,” she says, “we get only decorators and serious people. I give them
a glass of champagne in the garden.” Wearing a Pucci print and a shimmering smile, her Aztec face illuminated by improbably periwinkle eyes, her hair springing upward like a combed chrysanthemum, she occasionally conducts a tour herself which includes her own bathroom (done up by Syrie Maugham, Somerset’s wife), all celestial blue with silver mirrors and a toilet discreetly masked by a pinkish wicker commode. In keeping with hard times, the Duchess employs only five servants where once she had 10, and the dinner parties for 50 of yesteryear are extinct. “If one gives a dinner party these days, it’s a secret,” she admits, “and nobody tells. People arrive in taxis'.”
But it isn’t for the admission fees alone that owners show their ancestral treasures to the public. The Earl of March, who sits on the executive of the Historic Houses Association, puts it this way: “We aren’t trying to preserve a lifestyle but part of Britain’s heritage. My wife and I would be much more comfortable in a small, cosy place but it is our duty to maintain Goodwood House.” Invited guests consider Goodwood House one of the most beautiful homes in England, and though it is now divided into three sections—offices, public rooms and private—20 bedrooms are still available for Lord March’s personal use. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, complete with retinue, have roomed there during the races. “Lucky
Queen,” murmurs one envious peer, “to stay at Goodwood.” Keeping castle and Gainsborough together is a prime aim of Lord March and his associates, for while the chateaus of the Loire and the castles of the Rhine are starkly empty, most important British houses are still very much inhabited.
For Lord Hereford, premier Viscount of England, and Lady Hereford, it’s a shrinking world. Once, they lived in Hampton Court, the family seat at Leominster in Herefordshire, with its 210 rooms. “I dreaded going in after dark,” Lady Hereford recalls. “We used the servants’ entrance at the back, but it was still frightfully lonely.” She casts a loving eye over the choice furnishings of her new establishment, Haseley Court, with its 20 rooms and central heating. Lord Hereford, who used to breed cattle of the same name and still has red and white bovine faces stamped on place mats, crystal and his tiepin, is at present “in pigs.” He keeps a cordon bleu cook, a nanny for his son and a gardener for the duck pond and topiary chess set fashioned from yew trees. “My father once complained about the miniature chess set at Hampton, so when I saw the chessmen in the garden I knew we had to buy Haseley, if only to see father’s face,” Lady Herefore confesses. Although they live on what for them is a “reduced scale,” it is apparent that occasional paying guests
are welcome because Lady Hereford likes company from outside. She still loves to lunch in London’s trendy restaurants— Drones near Sloane Square, San Lorenzo on fashionable Beauchamp Place or San Frediano on Fullham Road. Her eyes take on a dreamy look at the mere mention of Harrod’s.
Sharing some of the same problems, but beset by lack of funds, the young Baron of Brocket, 24 and just out of the army, takes a do-or-die stance. Brocket Hall, an hour’s drive from London, is reached by stern though keeperless gates, a winding drive over gentle Brocket hills and an old-world stone bridge with a USE AT YOUR OWN RISK sign. The Hall’s rose-brick, lyric lines are softened by a mournful mist and two stone lions crouching disconsolately on grass, which badly needs a manicure. Once, in the early 19th century, this was the sporting ground of Lady Caroline Lamb (best known as Byron’s lover) and her husband, Lord Melbourne (favorite of young Queen Victoria and later Prime Minister of England). Lord Brocket is witty, realistic and currently hard-pressed for cash. He thinks wistfully of selling a wall-size, rather ugly portrait of George III which hangs in the billiard room to pay for repairs to the house. “The painting’s worth half a million pounds, but after taxes I’d be lucky to have two pounds left, so I’m opening a commercial riding stable instead.”
Lord Brocket is a new-generation lord,
outspokenly admitting that class envy is at the bottom of the crushing tax load imposed by a socialist government. He recently confronted two strangers picnicking under his drawing-room windows with the logic, “Would you let me picnic on the front lawn of your Council House?” The intruders shoved off. As Lord Brocket sees it, ifs a case of “if I can’t have it, you can’t have it.” The government promised redistribution of the country’s wealth. The Wealth Tax is an attempt to put the aristocrats’ money where the socialists’ mouth is. And yet Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey admitted in a speech to the Blackpool Labor Party conference a year ago that “if your government confiscated all incomes over $ 12,000 a year, that would bring in only about $900 million [about 1 % of government revenues] once and for all, because of course nobody would pay incomes above $12,000 after the first year.” But despite constant littering of his footpaths by trespassers, thieving gipsies and collapsing rooftops, Lord Brocket feels it his duty to rejuvenate Brocket Hall because, “We English will hang on until we’re dead broke.”
The quintessence of the shrewd, winning, with-it lord of 1976 is Hugh Edward Conway Seymour, eighth Marquess of Hertford (pronounced Harford), descendant of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, and Master of Ragley Hall. Married
to a Contesse, Louise de Caraman Chimay, herself the daughter of a prince, he neatly combines work and hobby in massive restoration of the family seat. Ragley was designed in 1680 by architect Robert Hooke and has been in Lord Hertford’s family ever since. It is a chimerical, 111-room retreat with a great hall 70 feet long, 40 feet wide and 40 feet high, a south staircase and a north staircase, a green drawing room and a red saloon. It is set in a fertile fiefdom which includes four villages and a property called Cold Comfort Farm, formal gardens planted with 2,000 roses graduated carefully from palest pink to deepest magenta and 15 haughty peacocks including a white one called Jack. “A neighbor offered us the white peacock free if we’d take Jack’s friend as well, and the friend turned out to be Applesauce, the ugliest bird in the world,” Lady Hertford says regretfully as a moth-eaten, discolored duck lumbers by. “What’s more, Jack doesn’t even speak to Applesauce. But what can we do?”
The Marquess’ family shares the house and grounds with a paying public; dining, drinking a fine Bloody Mary mixed by the Marquess and playing Saturday night poker in the same rooms that are periodically roped-off for the gogglers at 80 pence a head. Weekday mornings, Lord Hertford supervises his large domain from an estate office. As well as the restorers at work on Ragley, there are his tenants to deal with, the dairy herd of 150 Frisians, bookings for weekend guests at £.50 per head per night (with bed and breakfast) and elegant group lunches at £25 per plate.He also has a flock of sheep. Each spring he puts up a sign to deter wild drivers across his parkland: SLOW: l.ooo LAMBS. He once accepted a fee for advertising the use of commercial furniture wax throughout the Hall. Driving around his miniature kingdom he nods toward a cottage. “My tenant there is 90 years old. I can’t put up her rent because she can’t hear what I say. So she only pays a pound a week.” He considers this quite fair, but when a gap-toothed rogue tries to stop him at the gate for a conference he dismisses the man abruptly explaining, “He’s a ghastly old man and I want rid of him. But you can’t put tenants off unless they commit murder.”
Life at Ragley Hall offers many little extras: a butler, breakfast in bed, heated towel racks, a rare clock collection, and velvet-covered hot-water bottles at the bottom of the bed. Not to mention swimming and sailing on a private lake, riding, walks in Lady’s Wood when the bluebells are carpeting the hills, and beautiful vistas from every window. Lord Hertford knows why he is still in Ragley, despite the myriad problems, and he sums it up for every owner of a stately home when he says over his evening cocktail, gazing across the formal garden toward the mile-long avenue beyond, “Even when it’s not in bloom, it’s acceptable. Why would anybody want to leave all this? Would you!" ó