Berkeley Castle: Reopening for visitors again
- Credit: Alannette Photography
There were sighs of relief at Berkeley Castle as the doors reopened to visitors in July. But the barren weeks of lockdown didn’t stop bills from piling up for a 700-year-old building that simply eats money. So how are historic house-owners coping? Katie Jarvis spoke to Charles Berkeley
The gardens at Berkeley Castle are scented with the perfume of a myriad blooms; a teeming riot of colour. Bursts of reds, whites, pinks, yellows: unfurling roses, irises, peonies. Dipping in and diving out are heady flights of butterflies and moths, pausing only to bask when the sun beats down; while, in the grass beneath, you can almost hear the scurrying of busy beetles.
Gertrude Jekyll – who helped plant the 30-feet of climbing terraces early last century – must be sighing a happy sigh of satisfaction. But until mid-last month, castle ghosts (three tea-drinking Victorian ladies; a woman in white who floats upstairs) were amongst the few still able to admire these glorious sights.
For the first three-and-a-half months of this season – and for the first time since the castle opened its doors to the public back in 1956 - it was bare of visitors. Not that that stopped gardener Chris Gill from working hard to keep its eight acres ship-shape and Bristol fashion.
Charles Berkeley’s lockdown hair, by contrast, was less pruned. “It grew wild and bushy,” the castle’s owner admits. “My wife liked it; my mother was not so keen. I ended up getting a haircut from a friend of a friend so as not to terrify the visitors on their return.”
There’s a third growth spurt, too. Berkeley’s ever-deepening pile of bills.
Lockdown might have temporarily deprived Berkeley of visitors, but it hasn’t had the same effect on expenses. Heating and lighting its 44,000sqft drains £27,000 a year from the coffers. Maintaining its rose-pink walls eats another £50,000 into the annual budget. And that’s just for starters. If any major work is needed, that’s a whole new ball-game.
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In seasons past, the 44,000 customers passing through its ancient portals each year – not to mentions weddings and corporate events - would go some way to mitigating these hair-raising debits.
“We had anticipated a small profit for the year,” Charles says. “As it is, we reckon we’ll have nearly a £200,000 loss.”
The castle has weathered many a literal and metaphorical storm over its 700-year history. (A history co-habited by the Berkeley family: the only extant English family to trace its ancestors, from father to son, back to Saxon times.)
For many Berkeleys past, simply staying the right side of the king or queen was an art-form. Then there were the 17th century Civil Wars, when a political version of Go Fish saw the castle change hands no fewer than five times – much to the impotent fury of rightful owner George de Berkeley.
There were the horrors of 1327 when Edward II was imprisoned within its walls before his gruesome murder on September 21. (Though the legendary red-hot poker as modus operandi turned out to be an imaginative embellishment.)
“As children, we used to listen out on the anniversary of Edward II’s death, when he’s supposed to scream,” Charles once told me. “One night, I did hear a shrill sound, like a baby screaming, so I went and woke my brother, Henry. He was furious. We looked out of the window and there was a fox.”
But there’s a less ectoplasmic reason for waking up at night in 2020 – and it’s one even the most hardened of Berkeley ancestors would find a challenge. How to sustain a money-eating castle when its main source of income has been decimated.
When lockdown began, the castle hadn’t even opened its doors for the season.
As owner, Charles Berkeley feels the weight of 700 years of family history on his shoulders, not to mention the castle’s place in English culture. He works closely with Roly Brown, overall castle and estate director. It’s Roly who manages the 44 staff required to run it; but Charles himself feels a strong and warm sense of moral duty to those staff – around half of whom were furloughed over lockdown - not to mention the castle’s willing crowd of volunteers (whose age tends to a more vulnerable over-70).
“I am a fairly calm person, most of the time, but I do wake in the night with a lot of these thoughts going through my head.”
He knows he can borrow money for essential jobs to keep the castle safe. But it’s not just a question of surviving the next few weeks and months.
“One of my worries is: What will it be like next year? Will people be thinking differently about travelling? How much money will people have available to spend? We can be flexible and creative in how we operate the castle in future. But, at the moment, there’s no sign as to how that future will be.”
‘Destruction of country houses in 20th-century Britain’ has its own Wikipedia page. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course, the demolishing of huge piles. But whereas the nobility of yore gaily pulled down and rebuilt on a whim, determined to match the aesthetics of an age, the 20th century saw few builders move in after the demolition-trucks had moved out. Hikes in death duties, rising costs, falling estate profits, social and political changes: all contributed to a culture-catastrophe that, by 1955, saw one great house being razed every five days.
The National Trust, formed back in 1895, proved guardian angel to many historic gems, from the grandeur of Knole in Kent to the baroque beauty of Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire.
But it was an exhibition held at the V&A in 1974, commissioned by then-director Roy Strong, that really made the country sit up and take notice. The Destruction of the Country House 1875-1975 in words and pictures, featuring a graphic ‘Hall of Destruction’ complete with falling columns, showed the true horror of the loss of a thousand of Britain’s country-house treasures.
As a result of that exhibition, new organisations came into being – such as Save Britain’s Heritage – and the tide began to turn.
It’s hard to see who will perform a similar resuscitation role in 21st century Britain – though Historic Houses is making heroic attempts. This not-for-profit association represents around 1,500 member houses – independently-owned historic houses and gardens – around half of which run some sort of commercial activity.
I phone James Probert, its director of development, for comment. “I’m not going to make this a negative piece,” I reassure him.
“I appreciate you don’t want to make it massively negative – but we are quite keen that people know how hard this has hit heritage,” is his no-nonsense reply.
The point is, James says, we are hearing plenty about how the crisis has devastated pubs, restaurants and shops – and so should we. “But if you own a high street hairdresser, you can lock the door, walk away and, three months later, things are going to be pretty much as you left them, bar the cobwebs.
“If you do that with an historic house, you’ve got collapsing roofs and leaks and gardens that are overgrown.”
Many owners, moreover, have been hit on multiple fronts. Paying visitors to house and garden; weddings; hiring out the house as a film location; on-site restaurants, cafes; holiday accommodation… “Even where owners have diversified, it’s a perfect storm of things that have all been badly hit. And [much of] that wipe-out will continue probably for longer than lockdown. It is very, very challenging.”
Near the start of lockdown, Historic Houses joined with Historic England to commission a survey on how house and garden attractions would cope. The response was bleak: 53 percent of owners said they didn’t have enough reserves to reopen after a three-month lockdown; while, if closures were to continue for five to six months, the total leapt to 75 percent.
“There has been since then some alleviation; and, of course, some gardens have opened – thanks, in part, to us pointing out to the Government that their guidelines and their statutory instruments didn’t agree.” (The discrepancy lay in the fact that, from May 23, outdoor open spaces could be visited but not ticketed attractions; many historic gardens were both.)
“But then you’ve got problems with opening which, in some ways, make it more expensive than staying in total lockdown. You do have to bring back staff. If you want to open any kind of loos - and about 50% of places have - you have to have somebody on standby to sanitise them regularly.”
What’s more, most attractions have had to commission bespoke online booking systems pretty much overnight– lovely jobs for web-designers, but extra expense for hard-pressed owners.
Nor is it only volunteers that lean to an older age-bracket. Visitors are often in a more vulnerable group, too.
“Particularly for our properties, the audience tends to be older. Our houses don’t generally have great big adventure playgrounds so they don’t appeal as much to families. On the whole, they have more to show off inside a house than they do outside.”
As James says, a perfect storm.
As he also points out, there’s a wider concern here. Sure, old families have to maintain grand houses and – if push comes to shove – maybe even sell up and move out. That’s awful - but not the biggest of tragedies when so many are dying of the virus.
But there’s a deeper story. One that affects us all: that of cultural access. Access to the history and heritage of Britain.
“Owners open their homes in part because they need the money; but there’s a sense of obligation as well; the longer people have lived there, the more they want to share their privilege with others.
“If they sell to a businessperson, who’s made a lot of money, then opening to the public is barely of any interest to that type of person. They want their great big house as somewhere they can keep all their lovely Ferraris.”
So what can be done? Well, preferential-rate loans is one of the topics Historic Houses is discussing with Government. And why not? After all, these attractions are often more than the sum of their parts: contributing to local jobs, the local economy, and providing beautiful parkland for people’s wellbeing.
Something, certainly, needs to be done.
But don’t imagine for a moment that the mood amongst owners is as depressed as you might expect.
“They’re a stoical lot,” James says. “Through their character and constitution, stiff upper-lip shines through. Lots of them have been really enthused by the partial reopening of gardens and are just keeping busy.
“The sadness that has been reported so far is where they already know they’re going to have to be making redundancies.”
Neither are these owners fusty and dusty. They often run very socially-responsible places, thinking deeply about how to engage with audiences. Some have even been talking with schools to see if they can help make classroom space available in order to distance children more efficiently.
“These are people who really care. One of our members, Charlie Courtenay, who’s the Earl of Devon at Powderham Castle, talks about it being a family business that’s been going for 800 years.”
Charles Berkeley – a member of Historic Houses – might be an owner with problems, but he also exemplifies the fighting spirit of which James Probert is rightly proud.
The family – he, wife Daisy (the talented three-day eventer who won a team bronze at the 2008 summer Olympics) and their nine-year-old daughter Mary – moved to a ‘new’ house six weeks before lockdown: the estate’s 15th century deer-park lodge, complete with its own little turret-tower that Mary loves.
“We spent lockdown busy in the garden, getting the house up and running. We’re quite isolated, up on a hill, but it’s been rather lovely, in a way, being able to focus on that move… And we’re all healthy at the moment.”
Charles – not known for his equestrian skills - is even pondering getting a cob so he can ride out with Daisy and Mary. “Though I think I’d be shown up. Jumping hedges or great big muddy ditches is not my idea of fun.”
Mostly what he wants is to get back to normal. Whatever normal might prove to be. For the sake of the business; for the sake of the staff.
Castle staff have worked tirelessly on reopening. There’s strict online pre-booking; one-way systems are in place inside and out; and numbers will be restricted to 300 a day instead of the peak of 500 they might normally expect.
But, again, all is far from gloom and doom.
“I do think there are a lot of positives to come,” Charles Berkeley says. “We might not see as many visitors from far afield but, hopefully, people will want to do a lot more domestic travel. They’ll want to get out and about and visit these lovely places around them.
“And we need to be flexible in how we operate the castle. Creative.
“Life after Covid - for businesses, for people - will be very different. And a castle, a historic house, is no exception.”
• To keep up with other historic houses, log onto historichouses.org
Berkeley Castle and gardens have reopened to the public.
Strict pre-booking, restricted visitor numbers, and a one-way system round house and garden mean everyone can be confident that government guidelines are being adhered to.
Ice creams and light refreshments will be on sale, and customer toilets available.
The Walled Garden Café in the Walled Garden – castle entry ticket not required – is open Thursday to Sunday, serving street food and other delicious temptations. Pre-booking is required.
For essential booking – no walk-ins can be allowed – as well as details of new opening days and times in full, please visit Berkeley-castle.com