An increasing number of sprawling historic houses is available for rent for short stays, finds Eleanor Doughty
You’re sprawled on the sofa, tea — brought by the butler — at hand. Nearby, the fire crackles deliciously. You are at peace, in beautifully designed surroundings. Except it’s not your house. You’ve rented it and, at the end of the week, you’re free to go home and not worry about the gas bill. Welcome to the super-rental.
The concept of renting a country house for the holidays isn’t new; in 1881, Empress Elisabeth of Austria rented Combermere Abbey from Viscount Combermere for £600 a month, but an increasing number of estate owners have discovered the charm — and returns — of the high-end let. These are no ordinary holiday cottages, rather ‘exclusive-use’ rentals, with privacy at their heart.
For 15 years, the Clifford family’s Frampton Court (above) in Gloucestershire had been run as a bed and breakfast. After the first lockdown, it was time for change and, now, Frampton is available from £3,100 for a minimum three-night stay, having been renovated by Peter and Charlotte Clifford, who ‘took it in turns to sand floorboards at 11pm’.
Together, they have created a cinema room, a games room, and gutted the kitchen, in which the Aga has been replaced with a periwinkle-blue Everhot and the table ‘made by a gentleman in the village out of a beam from one of the estate farmhouses’.
When furnishings were needed for the downstairs rooms, Mrs Clifford explored the attics, finding a gold pelmet that once hung in the dining room. This now adorns the cinema room, with blue velvet curtains that ‘drape over the screen so it looks like a theatre’. When new wallpaper was needed, Mrs Clifford went to Lewis & Wood. Happily, the house is now fully booked for the rest of the year.
The Cliffords are not alone in spotting the opportunity. At Syon Park, the Duke of Northumberland’s London home, Earl Percy has turned the family apartments into the Hotspur Wing, available to rent with five en-suite bedrooms and the option to arrive by helicopter.
The beautifully restored Wolterton Hall in Norfolk has four exclusive accommodation options, including the East Wing, which sleeps 14 and costs from £2,848 for a three-night stay.
In Dorset, the historian Philip Mansel’s Smedmore House is let on a whole-house basis, sleeping 16 people, from £2,150 per weekend, with guests having the option to cater for themselves or arrange a chef. It’s not always at the big house that the magic happens, however.
In 2015, Janie Money of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler renovated the Temple of Diana at Weston Park in Shropshire. She considered the interiors in the same way as she would any other domestic project: ‘It doesn’t differ at all for the length of time that someone rents a property — they need to feel at home.’
Her best tip for decorating a property of this kind? ‘Use paints that are already mixed colours, so that they can be replaced easily.’
On the Wilderness estate in Suffolk, prospective weekenders can choose between the classic good looks of Sibton Hall, the recently restored Chapel Barn, an array of beautifully restored estate houses or take the whole lot, lock, stock and barrel. The interiors by Shapes by Lolo, artfully combine the best of old and new.
Having a background in interiors certainly helps. The Countess of Harrowby, who works both as an interior designer and an author (as Caroline Montague), is the latest member of the exclusive-use club. Recently, she launched The Agency, the old agent’s house on the Sandon Hall estate in Staffordshire, for £5,000 a week.
‘It’s a beautiful house, originally part of a model farm by James Wyatt,’ she says. ‘If we moved out of the hall, it would be to that house.’
Lady Harrowby, who describes her style as ‘elegant’, has papered The Agency’s drawing room in Lewis & Wood’s Adam’s Eden, with leaf wall lights by Vaughan. In the master bedroom, she has chosen a ‘flamboyant bedhead to give it a bit of oomph — a pink and blue toile by Christopher Moore.’
New initiatives of this kind are vital for estates such as Sandon, which has been in Lord Harrowby’s family since 1776. ‘There’s no way of keeping the houses going unless you make them work for themselves,’ says Lady Harrowby. ‘It is a constant battle. Conroy doesn’t want to be the one that lets it all go, so we fight to make it work.’
Down in Hampshire, Viscount Lymington echoes that concern about Farleigh House, part of his family’s Portsmouth Estates. Farleigh, which was a school from 1954–83, is now an exclusive-use property available to rent from £6,000 a night. The estate can arrange just about anything for the guest to enjoy during their stay, from truffle hunting to falconry. Indoors, it’s a feast for the eyes, with highly Instagrammable, but sympathetic interiors by Viscountess Lymington, a protégé of Kit Kemp.
People that come to stay at Farleigh, says Lucy Kendall, the house’s events manager, are looking for ‘privacy, primarily’, as well as a luxurious, but homely stay. Making Farleigh House exclusive was a deliberate decision, points out Lord Lymington.
‘Although the wedding-venue approach is one way of doing things, it wasn’t what we wanted to do. When a property becomes a wedding factory, it changes the feel of it, but these buildings have got to find some kind of economic use.’
Edward Tennant feels the same about his house, Innes, near Elgin. His branch of the Tennant family has lived at Innes House since 1909, when Francis Tennant, son of the industrialist Lord Glenconner, bought the estate from the Duke of Fife.
When, with his wife, Zoe, he took over in 2018, the couple decided not to move in, but to continue running it as a wedding venue. The more they looked at the business model, the more they questioned it: ‘We thought, the house is empty, why aren’t we letting it out in its entirety?’
They, too, therefore, chose to follow the exclusive-use route. These kind of souped-up holiday lets are perfect for the big house, says Mr Tennant. ‘If you’re only selling it at weekends for weddings, it’s empty five days a week and that’s not good for the house. It’s like the heating — better to leave it on constant and low.’
Mr Tennant suggests that the pandemic might be a boon for the exclusive-use market. ‘For the next two or three years, people will be looking for staycations, as it’s going to be such a nightmare going abroad.’
Luckily, the Tennants haven’t had to do a lot to bring Innes up to date, as a result of the work done by Mark and Hermione, Mr Tennant’s parents, in the 1990s.
‘What we found difficult was striking a balance between a lived-in family home feel, without the house being cluttered, but also not being sterile,’ explains Mr Tennant. ‘The type of person who wants to take this house wants a home from home — they want their eight-bedroom Cotswold house, but in Scotland.’
This balance is something that, nine miles down the road at Gordon Castle, Angus Gordon Lennox has to manage. ‘Some people like family photographs to be on display; others would prefer that they’re not there, because they want to be the king of their castle.’
Gordon Castle is also available to let on an exclusive-use basis and is particularly popular with those wanting a base for fishing on the Spey. Until the Second World War, it was one of the biggest castles in Scotland, before Lt-Gen Sir George Charles Gordon Lennox and his wife, Nancy, scaled it down.
When their son Maj-Gen Bernard Gordon Lennox took it over, he let the castle on a long-term basis. As a result, Mr Gordon Lennox’s own children ‘had never been into the castle. I spent many happy times there with my grandparents, but you can’t have a place such as this where [your children] don’t feel any kind of pull towards the house.’
Upon taking over the castle in 2008, with his wife, Zara, he decided to do it up to ‘within an inch of its life’ and let to high-end customers, ‘renting off myself’ a few weeks a year.
The house ‘looked pretty tired,’ says Mr Gordon Lennox. ‘There were five bathrooms, which we updated, and we put in three more. We did it so it became timeless, rather than of the moment. You don’t want to be redecorating every year.’
For those looking towards a similar project, Emma Deterding, founder of Kelling Designs, offers some practical advice. Andrew Martin, she explains, does ‘wine-proof, waterproof, dog-proof’ fabric, which can be used both inside and outside.
Corners ought to be rounded: ‘We try to use ottomans with trays on them and oval tables, rather than square.’ When it comes to flooring: ‘We’ve started to use carpet from the Unnatural Flooring Company, which has New England carpets that look like sisal, but are basically plastic.’
However, not everything has to be bulletproof. ‘The cheapest way to make a statement in a bedroom is to have a great big bedhead,’ believes Mrs Deterding. At her own holiday lets, at Kelling Hall in Norfolk, ‘we accept that every three years we’re going to have to redo the bedheads — it’s simply a cost you bear’.
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