The question of whether or not to open up one’s home to the hoi polloi has long since ceased to be an issue worth debating for British aristocrats.
Regretfully, most now concede, that if you don’t want some foreign oligarch swiping your gaff, the paying public must be invited into the house and gardens to gawk and gawp to their hearts’ content, before being ushered into a tea room where they can be parted from a little (or a lot) more of their money.
The revenue is helpful and there are also significant tax advantages to the wheeze—if you can show your stately home is a business, you can write off large chunks of the maintenance and gardening budget against your pre-tax profits.
Still, there is great sympathy in aristocratic circles for Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, one of the most powerful landowners in the North of England, who has told Tatler magazine that ever since Harry Potter and some scenes in Downton Abbey were shot there, he is a virtual prisoner in his own home, Alnwick Castle.
The castle featured as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films and as Brancaster Castle in Downton Abbey’s 2014 and 2015 Christmas specials.
Scenes filmed at Alnwick (pronounced “Annick”) include the crash-landing of the flying Ford Anglia and Harry’s first Quidditch lesson.
Of course, when it comes to problems, it is fair to say that being so overwhelmed by visitor numbers to your enormous stately home by hordes of tourists (contributing some $5 million a year to the cost of keeping the roof on, by the way) is definitely a first world issue.
But with the house—said to be the second largest castle in the U.K., after Windsor castle—now attracting upwards of 600,000 visitors per year, the Eton and Oxford-educated 12th Duke, who inherited the estate unexpectedly after his brother overdosed on amphetamines more than 20 years ago, has taken to moving out during the summer months and retreating to his Scottish estate, Burncastle.
He told the September issue of Tatler that living in the house during the summer months, “didn’t really work because we couldn’t get in or out without going through crowds. And because we lived in the keep, there were no private gardens, so the children just ended up staying inside the whole time.”
The Duke, who is thought to be worth a cool £350 million, and whose kids are close friends of the young royals, tells the magazine (although he “hates talking about money”) that the house and grounds cost £1.8m per year to maintain.
The castle has a long history of celebrity—its first major television appearance was in Becket, screened in 1964 and starring Peter O’Toole.
The owner of a prominent Irish stately home which attracts some 100,000 visitors per annum told The Daily Beast: “We actually find it quite a lot of fun opening the house and gardens up, but it is difficult to balance the pressures of making these houses financially sustainable and also keeping them as a pleasant place to live. Those two goals always conflict.
“We close in the winter which helps, and we also close at 6pm so we can have our evenings to ourselves. Those decisions make no business sense but otherwise you end up basically living in a tourist attraction, not a house, and then you might as well just sell the whole lot to an American hotel chain.”