Back in the 1980s, the legendary, monocle-wearing, tourism impresario John Colclough, who had been running successful tours in a fleet of vintage Bentleys for American tourists to rural stately homes in the bucolic Irish countryside, started a new venture entitled Hidden Ireland.
The plan was to allow handpicked and carefully screened tourists to stay with Irish peers in their homes, and, for a fee, to join the master and mistress of the house for dinner. Long before authenticity was a marketing buzzword, Colclough saw a desire among some travelers to participate in the ‘normal’ life of a stately home.
Although they were paying for the privilege, that vulgarity would be quietly forgotten, and they would be treated, more or less, as private guests.
The plan was enthusiastically received by the impoverished aristocrats, and a meeting was called in Colclough’s Dublin home.
Colclough, who now runs the luxury travel company Ireland and Britain Observed recalled: “Everything was going marvelously until I said, ‘Now look, to really get the word out there we are going to have to have some journalists come down and write about you and your magnificent houses.’
"There was a long pause, and then someone, let’s call him Lord Prong of Prong Castle, coughed and said, ‘A gentleman’s name should only appear in the newspaper three times; on the occasion of his birth, his engagement and his death.’”
What a difference a generation makes. Today the online pages of Airbnb and other public-facing vacation rental sites are overflowing with aristocrats laying out the wares of their ancestral abodes, offering their historic homesteads up to all-comers for the right price as part of the never-ending battle to "keep the roof on."
Take, for example, Carnell, a vast house and 2000-acre estate in Ayrshire, Scotland, which has been in the Findlay family for 700 years. The current incumbent, Micky Findlay (who proudly boasts of having no title because his great-grandfather refused a peerage on the entirely reasonable grounds that it was stuff and nonsense) lists his home on Airbnb for 20 guests for around $3,000 per night. His girlfriend Adrienne manages the listing.
Guests to Carnell – who are expected to be ‘genial’ as Findlay has to remain on the premises for insurance purposes – have included Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Another guest, Larry Hagman, was a "bloody hoot" according to Findlay. Hagman promptly invited Findlay back to come and stay with him.
The non-genial receive short shrift. “We had one awful group and I just became more and more like Basil Fawlty (of legendary BBC comedy Fawlty Towers). In the end I outdid Fawlty and said to them, “What have I got to do to tell you lot to fuck off?’” recalls Findlay with a jovial cackle.
He says his grandparents would have been horrified at the prospect of renting the house out for money: “Paying guests? Perish the thought,” but as he points out, they “were so bloody rich” the question didn’t really arise.
“The thing is it costs about 120 grand (£120,00 or $154,000) a year just to run the house,” he said. “It’s a huge problem for all these big houses. I was complaining about the cost of maintaining the roof to the Duke Of Marlborough the other day and he said, ‘I’ve got six acres of roof to look after.’”
(The Blandfords have long rented out Blenheim Palace to help defray their costs.)
A perennial problem in stately homes for hire is the issue of bathrooms.
Colclough recalled: “The owners would proudly announce that each room had its own bathroom, and that ‘their’ bathroom could be found alongside all the others in the bathroom wing built by their grandfather, the 5th Baron, a five minute walk down freezing corridors at the other end of the house. That was a jolly sensible way of doing things in 1907.”
Those ghastly modern inventions so beloved by Americans, showers, present similar difficulties for the owners of ancient piles.
“There was not one shower when we moved in, but we have two now,” Lady Sarah Leslie proudly declared.
Leslie is the youthful and energetic new chatelaine of the gigantic Wardhill Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (it would be twice the size it is now had not a far-sighted ancestor pulled half of it down) which sleeps 16 in comfort and can be rented on Airbnb for as little as $1000 a night.
The home has been in the Leslie family since 1100, making it one of the oldest privately owned homes to have never changed hands in the country.
Her father-in-law (known by the Scottish title of Chieftain) and his wife moved into “another castle fifteen minutes away” which, conveniently, the family also own, two years ago to make way for the next generation, (the parents also offer accommodation on Airbnb).
Leslie says her primary aim is to pass the house, in good condition, onto her son, the 17th Laird of Wardhill. “We only put the house on Airbnb in April and it has been brilliant. We have just been so happy to have people coming through the door and appreciating it,” Leslie said.
While she noted that people do want an authentic experience of big house life, creature comforts cannot be sacrificed. “It’s important for visitors that there is heating and hot water and the wifi works,” she said.
Leslie agrees that it would in recent memory have been unimaginable for a good family to hawk their house to the paying public so openly, but she says: “It’s a different world now. Airbnb has completely changed the landscape for us and other houses like this.”
Airbnb can also provide a convenient way for owners of stately homes who live abroad to avoid selling up. Adrian Knott, who owns a remarkable Victorian villa in Torquay, Devon that sleeps 21, has been renting out his house to help cover expenses such as the live-in housekeeper since he lived overseas.
“I live there with my kids when I am not in London,” he said. “I am separated from my wife and they visit weekends. I travel a lot with work and have a new partner in Moscow so Airbnb works well. I’m a superhost – five stars.”
Justin and Paula Kent, who lived full time with their five children at Crayke Manor, in Yorkshire, England for two decades, now spend much of their time abroad and $2,000 per night rentals on Airbnb presented a way both to avoid selling the family home and to be able to continue to use it at as a family base at Christmas.
Kent told the Daily Beast they have never felt nervous about renting to strangers, “We always felt the Airbnb community was very friendly and respectful,” he said.
However, it is undeniable that the biggest barrier to historic house owners listing their home is the unspoken fear it will be trashed or robbed by light-fingered guests.
Some have attempted to solve this dilemma by purpose-building guest accommodation in the myriad outbuildings that dot these historic estates, and have largely fallen into disuse.
Nick and Becky Wilkinson, for example, have recently converted an old stable at their 1863 Manor House, Hotwell House, in County Meath, Ireland, into four unique bedrooms and a shared communal hang out space, all available on Airbnb.
The house is famous locally for a hot spring that bubbles up from underground at 25C, and is believed to have healing and magical properties by locals. The couple hope to be able to introduce a new generation of travelers to its appeal.
However the revolution only goes so far. Another aristocrat contacted by the Daily Beast said he had taken his home off Airbnb after having his "head done in" by guests who "just didn’t get it" and complained about the ancient horse hair mattresses.
“At the end of the day it stops being your home if it’s rented out the whole time,” he said. “Plus, for us, the risk/reward ratio was all wrong. For instance, we have open fires everywhere. It would only take a very small mishap – say some idiot puts the wrong kind of timber on the fire – for the place to burn down and I am not sure Airbnb’s million-dollar insurance policy would cover rebuilding an eighteenth century manor house.”