Castles for the Commoners

Helped by the popularity of ‘Downton Abbey,’ demand for a home on one of Britain’s remaining grand old estates has never been greater. The ins and outs of living like a lord—or at least a senior member of the staff.


Expectation among the legions of fans of British costume drama “Downton Abbey” is running at a fever pitch with season three launching this weekend in the U.S.

Pedigreed Estates

iStockphoto Blenheim Palace, family seat of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has survived intact, in part thanks to the income earned from around 100 rental properties on or near its 2,100-acre estate in north Oxfordshire.

Blenheim Palace, family seat of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has survived intact, in part thanks to the income earned from around 100 rental properties on or near its 2,100-acre estate in north Oxfordshire.

Given that a fourth season of the epic series is already commissioned, it is safe to assume that life, in some shape or form, will go on at Downton.

But in reality, many great families of the period were not so lucky. Fortunes were lost in the Depression. Many servants were either killed on the front or opted for alternative occupations when they returned from war. And an increasingly aggressive inheritance-tax regime meant that many aristocrats were forced to abandon their ancestral seats, selling them off as hotels, demolishing them or donating them to the nation.

Those who stayed put needed to become increasingly business-savvy—which has opened up the opportunity for mere commoners to experience life on a Downton scale, either by buying an apartment or wing within a distressed country pile, or renting a home in its grounds once earmarked for staff quarters or lesser family members. And, of course, the success of the show means that these homes are in huge demand. At Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed, the owners are loath to actively advertise rental vacancies for fear of a deluge of fans demanding tours. Their relative scarcity has also helped push prices on estates up higher than similar homes in surrounding villages.

Had Tom Hart Dyke been born 100 years earlier, he would probably be enjoying the Downton lifestyle at his family seat, Lullingstone Castle.

The castle, in the pretty county of Kent some 20 miles southeast of London, has been in his family since 1497. But in 1931, Mr. Hart Dyke’s great-grandparents both died in quick succession, leaving his grandfather, Sir Oliver Hart Dyke, facing huge death duties—an inheritance tax which used to be paid on property. To meet the bill, Sir Oliver was forced to sell off almost all of his land and, in the 1950s, took the radical step of carving up his home.

Mr. Hart Dyke’s parents now have a four-bedroom apartment within the castle. The rest of the building is split into five self-contained units which were sold off, along with two houses in the grounds. In 2010, the castle’s south wing went on the market for about $2.8 million and sold at close to that price.

“Every generation has had their own way of battling on, and without [the sales], the house would have literally collapsed,” says Mr. Hart Dyke, 36, a horticulturalist who lives in the castle’s gate house and runs its World Garden of Plants, containing rare species he has collected from around the globe.

He says he doesn’t mind the splitting up of the family’s property. “It is something I have grown up with, and it is a way of keeping the house going. We are still here and that is the main thing,” he says.

Unlike Lullingstone Castle, Blenheim Palace, family seat of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has survived intact, in part thanks to the income earned from around 100 rental properties on or near its 2,100-acre estate in north Oxfordshire.

Currently on the market is the picturesque Lince Lodge, which overlooks the estate’s artificial lake. The 1,263-square-foot house, probably once home to a senior member of the staff or a junior member of the family, has three bedrooms and two bathrooms and is on the market for about $5,148 per month.

Savills York An exterior view of the 3,591-square-foot Viking Wing of Thurland Castle.

Mark Charter, a partner at estate agency Carter Jonas, which advises the duke and duchess on their residential portfolio, says renters pay a premium of up to 50% to live on the estate, but he believes the expense is worthwhile.

“The advantages of living within the park are privacy, because the park is so vast when you are in your property it is incredibly quiet,” says Mr. Charter. “Then there is the landscape setting of sweeping parkland. And there is also a certain amount of kudos. You have the address Blenheim Palace and you drive in through the very grand palace entrance gate and through the park to get to your house.” The Blenheim address may be especially appealing to history buffs: Winston Churchill was born there when his mother, staying at the estate as a guest, gave birth prematurely in November 1874.

For buyers who would prefer an apartment within a stately home, the choices are varied.

Michael Wilson, chairman of Michael Wilson Restoration, is working on the renovation of Albury Park Mansion, a 35,000-square-foot house in Guildford, Surrey, an affluent commuter town 30 miles southwest of central London.

There has been a house on the site since the 1600s, but it has been extensively remodeled over the years by architects including Sir John Soane (who also designed the Bank of England) and Augustus Pugin, who codesigned the Houses of Parliament.

The house once belonged to successive Dukes of Northumberland, but by the end of World War II, the family was struggling to maintain it. “Like most of the stately homes I deal with, there was just no money around after the war,” says Mr. Wilson.

In the 1960s, the house was sold off and later turned into a retirement home, and Mr. Wilson bought it last September. He is now in process of converting it into apartments.

Getting the necessary building permits to reconfigure Albury Park was a surprisingly simple affair. Mr. Wilson did not tamper with its beautiful, ivy-clad exterior, and the interior had, after all, already been tampered with.

This was allowed to happen because, as Matthew Slocombe, director of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, explains, there were no serious legal controls over alterations to historic buildings until the late 1960s.

But Mr. Slocombe feels the real turning point came in 1974, when an exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum detailed some of the nation’s lost houses. After that, the public and the government started to take preservation of private homes seriously.

“Things became a lot tougher, and it was a lot more difficult to make alterations to houses from then on,” says Mr. Slocombe.

Nonetheless, developers are still able to—albeit sensitively—adapt historic homes to the 21st century. “Do I think it is a shame? The thing is, there is just no market for single-occupation homes of this size anymore,” points out Mr. Wilson. “But there is a multiple-occupation market which keeps them in use.”

Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal