Keep Calm and Carry On: Britain’s stately homes on lockdown

Inveraray Castle in Scotland, the seat of Clan Campbell

Britain’s stately homes were forced to close their doors during the recent lockdown. These ancient walls are used to surviving against the odds – but how have they coped in the current crisis?

On 3 May 1950 Alnwick Castle opened its doors to visitors for the first time, and 100 eager tourists queued up to buy a ticket in the first hour. Britain’s second-largest privately inhabited castle (after Windsor), home to the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, it has come a long way since, with soaring visitor numbers boosted by appearances in the Harry Potter films. 

But this year on the 70th anniversary of Alnwick’s opening, the famous gardens lay quietly deserted and the castle’s 150 rooms were eerily empty of visitors. High above the historic battlements a blue NHS flag fluttered from the flagpole.

Alnwick has stood for over 900 years, witnessing wars, famine and disease. But like Britain’s other castles and stately homes it was abruptly forced to close its doors to the public this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Alnwick Castle in Northumberland

Most of Britain’s best-known ‘statelies’ are owned and cared for independently, rather than by government or national charities. They are hugely expensive to run, and in most cases, visitor numbers are the key to survival. In response to the pandemic, tickets and tours were hastily cancelled, tearooms and gift shops closed. Income for these historic houses was reduced to zero overnight.

Day-to-day management was another complication. In bygone times, a vast team of ‘downstairs’ staff would have bustled upstairs at the ring of a bell to attend to their master’s and mistress’s every whim. Chambermaids and scullery girls are hard to come by these days, but modern-day stately homes still have an army of staff. Their job, by and large, is to look after the house rather than the family within – from gardeners that tend the prize roses and farmers working on the estate to the curators that look after precious art collections. 

The striking Knebworth House and its glorious gardens. Credit: Chris Orange

With staff sent home, in many cases owners found themselves managing vast estates single-handedly, and in sole charge of houses with hundreds of rooms. Despite the challenges, the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ spirit prevailed. The houses united to show their show support for NHS key workers: as the nation joined in with the weekly ‘clap for carers’ from their doorsteps, stately homes and castles lit up their facades in blue, hoisted NHS flags from historic battlements or planted avenues of blue lavender in their gardens.

Chatsworth House, in the Peak District, rose to the challenge by supporting local communities. Following the house’s closure in late March, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire donated 240kg of chocolate eggs intended for the annual Easter egg hunt to local food banks. The house also offered holiday cottages on the estate to frontline NHS workers to stay in for free, while the chefs in the restaurant kitchens turned their hands to preparing meals for those in need in the community. 

Down in rural Berkshire, Highclere Castle – unmistakeable, of course, as Downton Abbey of the ever-popular TV series – serenely surveys 1,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland as it has done for centuries. Ordinarily, the arrival of warmer weather would see streams of visitors, but this spring, when the wildflower meadow and ornamental Monk’s Garden burst into bloom only the lord and lady of the manor were there to see it.

Lady Carnarvon, chatelaine of Highclere Castle in Berkshire

Hosting visitors being out of the question, technology gave Highclere other ways to connect. “We were 100 per cent not virtual,” says Lady Carnarvon. “We’ve tried to turn ourselves around.” Lady Carnarvon’s new podcast (with her husband the Earl as the first guest) is now available, while the Highclere Instagram account shared glimpses of lockdown life with its legion of fans; posts have included Lady Mary the lop-eared pig’s new litter of piglets, daily walks with the dogs, virtual cocktail parties and cookery lessons from Lady Carnarvon’s kitchen.

In Scotland, on the shores of Loch Fyne, romantic Inveraray Castle stands in spectacular isolation – a state shared, during lockdown, by the family that live there, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll and their three children. Overnight, the Duchess tell us, she became “the cleaner, mender, teacher, gardener, tidy-er.. Same as most people but probably in a bigger house!” The castle is part of a small remote community, which pooled resources during lockdown. “I have been growing lettuce and herbs, someone else has chickens, someone wants flour…”

Inveraray, whose architecture mixes Baroque, Palladian and Gothic styles, is the seat of Clan Campbell. It is full of treasures, and the castle’s closure gave the family a chance to explore its hidden corners: “For the first time since we inherited the house we’ve had time to go into every nook and cranny. Find the damp patches and leaks for ourselves, clear attics and find some historical gems, from a piping banner that would have been carried into war to letters from various generations.”

Down in Hertfordshire, Knebworth is a lavish Tudor manor, home to the Lytton family for over 500 years. If it looks familiar, it may be because Knebworth appeared as Balmoral in The Crown – though its facade, covered with turrets, domes and gargoyles, may trump even the Queen’s Highland home for architectural splendour. 

Playwright and politician Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton – author of the ominous line “It was a dark and stormy night” – lived here in Victorian times; the pandemic has surely been Knebworth’s ‘darkest night’ of all. 

“Having to shut our House, Park and Gardens was devastating to us,” says Martha Lytton Cobbold, who lives at Knebworth with her husband Henry. The house is particularly in demand as a film location and is world-famous as a festival venue – a reputation cemented by the Rolling Stones’ iconic concert here in 1976. Most of this summer’s events had to be cancelled in light of the coronavirus crisis.

Happily, Knebworth and other historic houses, symbols of permanence and resilience in a topsy-turvy world, have weathered the storm, recently reopening their doors to the public. 

“It was very strange being closed,” says Martha. “It’s not what [the house] was designed and built for, and we felt much happier when visitors were able to come back.” For now, visitor numbers are capped and a one-way route has been devised around the house, in accordance with government guidelines.

“We have to adapt to survive,” she adds, “and this is what we have done for centuries.” 

All of the historic houses mentioned reopened after the UK’s first lockdown, though some may now have closed once again as the pandemic continues. You can check current details at the houses’ websites: