Longleat, in Wiltshire, is the seat of the Marquesses of Bath. In 1949 it became the first stately home to fully open its doors to the public.

How to fund a British stately home in the 21st century

Longleat, in Wiltshire, is the seat of the Marquesses of Bath. In 1949 it became the first stately home to fully open its doors to the public.

Story highlights

Nearly half of Britain's stately homes were demolished because their owners couldn't afford to keep them

Stately homes cost a princely sum to run.

Owners find inventive ways -- tours, music festivals, farm shops, weddings and pheasant shoots -- to maintain and restore their historic homes.

CNN  — 

Imagine if your home had turrets, a ballroom, or a maze in the garden. Some people’s homes have all those things. But while life in a palace – or a castle – might sound like a fairytale existence, it costs a princely sum of money to run a stately home.

Heating, keeping the roof in good repair and mowing the lawns all drain the coffers, and those lucky enough to inherit a country pile have to find ways to finance them.

Most of the UK’s stately homes were built in the 17th and 18th centuries as manor houses at the heart of an agricultural estate, explains Ben Cowell, director general of the Historic Houses Association, which helps owners of 1,650 houses, castles and gardens throughout the UK to conserve them.

“Owners made money from renting land to tenant farmers,” says Cowell, “but many also invested in industry, mining, or railways, which helped to replenish the family fortune and fund a country house way of life.”

The large estates provided employment for hundreds of people and supported providers of food, fuel and services. But, over the past two centuries, thousands of country houses have been torn down. “There were almost 5,000 mansions at their mid 19th century peak, but that number has almost halved – only about 3,000 remain today.”

“The decline started in the late 19th century,” says Cowell. An agricultural depression reduced farming rents, and politicians turned against landlords – death duties on landed wealth were introduced in 1894, followed by other legislation that further turned the screws on the landed classes.

Unable to pay their tax bills, owners were forced to sell off parts of their estates. “Once the land was lost, the house itself became less and less viable,” says Cowell.

A wave of destruction began in the early 1900s but, says Cowell, most people weren’t upset at the losses, because the houses symbolized an old order. Demolition peaked in the 1950s. “Country houses were requisitioned by the military during the second world war, and frequently damaged,” says Cowell. “When the keys were handed back, the families had lost the wherewithal to repair them. With no legal protection in place, the houses were just pulled down.”

This was also a period of intense suburbanization in the UK. “Some houses were buried beneath new housing estates, motorways and golf courses as cities expanded and encroached on the surrounding countryside.”