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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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Bambridge

An American President Championing British Heritage

By Martha Lytton Cobbold
Published on December 3, 2020

Oliver Dowden meets Martha Lytton Cobbold at Knebworth The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (left) meets Martha Lytton Cobbold at her home, Knebworth House. All photos courtesy Historic Houses

Until this November, every President of Historic Houses, which has represented the UK’s independently owned stately homes, castles, and gardens since 1973, has been a British man. Martha Lytton Cobbold grew up in Alabama, and is now a dual US/UK citizen as well as the managing director of her home, Knebworth House in Hertfordshire – which has been passed down through the generations of her husband Henry’s family since the fifteenth century. Here, Martha writes exclusively for The American about the formidable but rewarding task of caring for priceless heritage in challenging times, as the organisation’s ground-breaking new leader.

‘Americans, rightly or wrongly, are commended for the ease with which they adapt themselves to foreign conditions,’ wrote novelist Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady in 1880. He would have taken the success of his fellow patriots in running some of Britain’s grandest homes as a powerful confirmation of his theory. Examples can easily be found in the pages of The American magazine. Recent issues have featured Hollywood actor and comedian Hopwood Depree, who’s busy rescuing his family’s ancestral seat, Hopwood Hall in Rochdale, (and telling jokes about it along the way), and Julie Montagu, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, who with her husband Luke is taking on the running of Mapperton House in Dorset from Luke’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Sandwich – when she’s not presenting Smithsonian documentaries on the owners of some of the country’s other great estates.

Knebworth House Knebworth House

So I’m certainly not alone in being an American with responsibility for an important piece of British heritage – one which is also a visitor attraction, a business, and an important part of the local community, environment, and economy. And I face the same sorts of challenges that are common to all these special places – long gone are the ‘Downton Abbey’ days of English Earls marrying rich ‘Yankee’ heiresses for a dowry that would save their estate and Edwardian lifestyle. Today’s historic homes and gardens have to be run as viable businesses, and work hard to earn their keep.

My home, Knebworth, had a well-earned brand heritage as a live music venue and film location before I arrived, but it needed a new approach to remain competitive and a realignment with the changing world of business and marketing. My plan was to focus on the basics: raising the revenue, reducing the expenditure, diversifying, and enabling more investment back into the attraction. It’s been an extraordinary journey as well as a challenge, but seeing happy guests, and leaving it better than when we started, is a delight. We have a dedicated team devoted to raising our profile not just as a location but as a beautiful, fun, and educational place for a family day out, a wedding and event venue, as well as a place to eat and browse for gifts in our shop.

These sorts of activities are the reason why, before COVID-19, at least, the member houses of our association employed more than 33,000 full-time-equivalent staff. The 26 million or so visits made to them every year generate more than a billion pounds for the British economy. Two thirds of that gets spent in local communities and towns, often far from the usual metropolitan centres. From Glenarm Castle in County Down to Holkham Hall on the Norfolk coast, Skaill House on Orkney to Prideaux Place in Cornwall, Golden Grove in Carmarthenshire to Bamburgh Castle on the rugged Northumberland shoreline, our members can be found all over the UK. They’re engines of activity and tourism in the remotest spots.

Julie Montagu Mapperton American Julie Montagu (second from right) is owner of Mapperton, another Historic House

After the wholesale destruction of the post-war decades, that saw hundreds of large, ancient country houses demolished as economically unviable, our highly listed buildings are – quite rightly – legally protected from unsympathetic changes and tightly regulated. But they’re still fragile and vulnerable, in need of constant care and maintenance. We estimate £1.38 billion needs spending on our member properties to preserve them for the future, nearly a quarter of it urgently.

That burden is carried – with commitment, ingenuity and good grace – by private owners. But that makes it all the more important that these places are supported to earn the income that will keep them standing and accessible. Making the case to government for fair rules and sensible policies that will help those of us who care for historic buildings to continue doing so ‘on our own dime’ is an important part of my job.

My task is made easier by the obvious importance our beautiful places have for local people, beyond pure economics. Our gardens and parklands are designed for, and welcome, public access– the grounds of Burghley House, on the edge of Stamford, Lincolnshire, remained open and free right through lockdown for the use of locals, for example. The beauty of the time-worn archways of Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, where Tudor queens’ gowns have worn away the soft Cotswold stone, or the patina of the Old Masters hanging in the Long Gallery at Penshurst Place, Kent, just where they have been for centuries, creates wellbeing that has measurable benefits for mental health. Academics carry out research in our archives and school visits come to learn about Britain’s history. From the coronations of Scotland’s kings and queens at Scone Palace, through the machinations of Whig politics at Houghton Hall, to the experiences and legacies of domestic service, suffragettes, or colonialism, explored at places like Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire, Powderham Castle, Devon, or Harewood House in Yorkshire, the country’s history unfolds within our walls.

We have an important role to play in encouraging visitors off the beaten track to discover some of the country’s less well-known sites. There are around fifty thousand members of Historic Houses who use their cards to enjoy free admittance to over three hundred open houses and gardens. Some are world-famous: Winston Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, or Anne Boleyn’s childhood home at Hever Castle in Kent, later home to the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, for example. But our hidden treasures, such as Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire, ancestral home of George Washington’s family, or Traquair Castle in Peebles, Scotland, full of Mary, Queen of Scot’s personal possessions and Jacobite memorabilia, reward those who seek them out with rich histories as well as beautiful art and architecture.

Many of our homes also offer the opportunity to stay – something that sets them apart from ‘museum houses’. Kincardine Castle in Aberdeenshire, for example, boasts a rare eighteenth-century ‘flatpack’ bed from China, one of only two in the world. The other is in the V&A but, as the castle’s owner Andrew Bradford says, ‘they don’t let you sleep in that one.’

Bamburgh Castle Bamburgh Castle

But despite their best efforts to diversify, the effects of the pandemic – which stopped weddings, events, filming, accommodation, dining and visiting, all at once – hit our members hard. Thousands of jobs are now at risk, scores of urgent maintenance projects, with an average value of around a quarter of a million pounds, have had to be indefinitely postponed because of lack of cash, and there is always the risk of collection sales or permanent closures.

But whether through being among the first outdoor attractions to reopen in May (we had almost 150 open sites at the height of summer), replacing weddings with socially-distanced filming, as Birdsall House in Yorkshire have done, staging drive-in concerts and film screenings, as we’ve hosted here at Knebworth, or running livestreamed tours, as at Mapperton or Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, our members have responded with ingenuity and entrepreneurship – something we’ll need more of in the difficult economic climate to come.

It’s a thrill and a privilege to have been chosen by my fellow custodians to lead Britain’s independent heritage through what will be exciting as well as tough times. We look forward to welcoming you to our homes!

Martha Lytton Cobbold
President, Historic Houses

Special Offer

I’d be delighted if my fellow Americans wanted to help support our cause. Readers of The American are entitled to a discount of £5 off any membership package – just enter the code AMER76 on our website as part of the join process. historichouses.org.

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