Fiona Carnarvon reflects on the joys of living in Highclere Castle — and the challenges of making a historic building a financially viable proposition
‘THE STATELY HOMES of England, how beautiful they stand…’ I have always enjoyed Noël Coward’s lyrics. Little did I think I would be playing a cameo role in a play, helping devise strategies to ensure that the remaining Van Dycks do not have to go, that we do not become mortgaged to the hilt, that the state apartments do not tumble down, and that the house (or in our case the castle) does not become too bleak, because in Coward’s words, ‘the Stately Homes of England are more or less unique.’
I trained as a chartered accountant and was always interested in different business models. Ours here at Highclere Castle is not the textbook model: we have very high fixed costs and unpredictable revenue. Our business is therefore about managing our margins. The downside for our model is the ability to lose lots of money very quickly.
My husband (like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and seven previous generations) loves Highclere. He loves the landscape, the romantic, inspiring building and the old chalk downland of Hampshire, which is the soil type he farms. Since coming here I, too, have fallen in love with the people, the history, the gardens, trees and buildings. I have got to know them well.
I am now familiar with Victorian plumbing, broken windows, broken chairs, floors that are falling apart and the construction of the cellars with all the old water tanks underneath. I even discovered a new room in the cellars when we dug them out for our new Egyptian Exhibition. I have written about the castle and about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb. I have always loved history and try to make the memories come alive at Highclere; there is a lot of history here to explore.
Stately homes like Highclere reflect many layers of English history, from Iron Age forts to medieval fishponds, 18th-century follies and Victorian grandeur, all of which co-exist here today. As a source of income, however, farming is cyclical and unpredictable. Challenges include politics (the EU), economics (world prices) and acts of God (the weather). Sadly, though, money does not grow on trees, so the castle and its history have to make its own way.
WE HAVE BUILT up a range of businesses here. We have a wedding business, which continues to generate good bookings. We operate a corporate entertainment and conference business, which organises private dinners, award ceremonies, team-building exercises and product launches. All these are difficult contracts to find in the tough environment of 2009 and I suspect will remain so for 2010.
Optimistically, I believe that any business needs to stay close to clients and employees through tough times as well as good. Our good fortune is to be located in the Thames Valley business area and near London, as well as other big cities. We work hard not to be overlooked and have spent many hours creating a special area of our new website to ensure that we can be found easily, that routes can be plotted, that we are visible on maps and satellites, and that you can even check our local weather. Pragmatically, we ensure our delegate rates are very competitive.
Highclere Castle is open to the general public for Easter, and in July and August. We know we need to present a unique selling point to attract attention and are lucky that the 5th Earl’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is just that for us. We hope to build up visitor numbers over the next few years as we become more of a family day out as well as a heritage experience.
We have also planted a new arboretum and a wild-flower meadow, and the next project is to establish a herb garden. We hope to continue to offer more attractions for more and different audiences: keen gardeners, tree lovers, admirers of historic houses and Egyptologists — all catered for in a single day out.
Much of our cash for the immediate future is simply used to keep going. We are not (yet) able to undertake major repairs or upgrades to the upper floors. Our staff numbers remain lean in the current economic climate, but all are amazing and show a great love of Highclere — occasionally I am delegated to check if they still want to carry on in their seventies or even eighties.
Highclere is a way of life. We couldn’t operate and produce beautiful events in our unique stately home with any fewer people; and, like many others in business today, we are all working harder for less.
Our real gems are the people who work here and, with care and a bit of luck, we will get through the next year
or two and ensure the safe transition of Highclere Castle to the next generation.