The Power in the Land 

Guest post written by Ben Cowell, author of the forthcoming book The British Country House Revival.

Ben Cowell explores the continued relevance of country houses, for tourism, for jobs, and for local history research. 

Country houses are a ubiquitous presence in the British landscape. As centres of local power, many countryside locations were dominated by the presence of the nearby big house. The owners of these houses were the landlords of substantial estates, comprising the farms which even a hundred years ago provided much of the employment in rural areas.  

Country houses in this way can provide rich source material for local historians. One of the ‘short’ volumes produced by the Victoria County History was devoted to Eastnor in Herefordshire and was based on records located at Eastnor Castle. Other research projects involving country house archives have looked at wartime experiences, or the lives of those engaged in domestic service, or the way houses were sometimes also implicated in global networks of trade, exchange, and exploitation.  

A landmark exhibition at the V&A in 1974 highlighted how over a thousand houses had been demolished or otherwise eradicated from the British landscape since 1875, due to a combination of the agricultural depression and over-bearing capital taxation. That exhibition has inspired much recent local history research into these ‘lost houses’. One website has kept a running tally, which now stands at a total of 1,980: the ghosts of former power houses.  

Visting country houses first became a popular pursuit in the 1950s and 1960s, when many of them opened after being in military use during the Second World War. The 1950s were also the peak period of acquisition of country houses by the National Trust. Plenty of houses had become so denuded of resources that ownership by the Trust was the best solution for their long-term protection. The Trust now owns two hundred mansion properties, including such gems as Hardwick Hall and Attingham Park

But most of the nation’s country houses remain in private ownership. More than 1,400 are members of Historic Houses, the trade association established in 1973 to represent the interests of such places and to campaign for them to remain, as far as possible, as lived-in family homes. With more than 21 million visits each year, and supporting over 32,000 jobs, these houses continue to pack a collective economic punch.  

Those houses that survived the dark days of the post-war decades have therefore found new purpose and significance. Today, country houses can be places to eat in, to sleep in, to exercise in, or to dance in. Many of them have become wedding venues, following a change in the marriage laws in 1994. The original intent of these houses – as grand statements of cultural, economic and social power – has been transformed in ways that their original owners could never have imagined.  

Questions continue to be asked about the relevance of country houses in the 21st century. It’s one of the issues being discussed at a major conference at the V&A this month. But the fact is that country houses remain a staple of the UK tourism industry, as well as of endless film and television productions. Research by local historians reveals the multiple ways in which country houses intersected with everyday life. For as long as interesting new research questions continue to be asked, country houses will continue to attract considerable audiences and remain a power in the land.   

BEN COWELL, OBE, is the Director General of Historic Houses. His book The British Country House Revival is out now. 

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