Affording our Heritage will be a Big Issue

by Pat Dodd Racher, September 19 2012

Heritage comes expensive.

Bantry House in County Cork, Ireland, has a magnificent location on the shores of Bantry Bay. The house is home to the Shelswell-White family, whose ancestors moved in during 1765. From 1796 to 1891 those ancestors were the Earls of Bantry, but the title died with the 4th Earl, who had no children, and the estate passed to his eldest sister’s son.

The elegant parterre at Bantry House

Richard White, the 2nd Earl, was a keen collector of art and antiques, and in 1851 he bought many possessions of the late King Louis Philippe of France, who reigned from 1830 to 1848 and died in 1850. The eclectic mix of French, Irish, English, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and Oriental contents,  and pieces from other parts of the world too, in a largely Georgian mansion, is harmonious and fascinating, not at all intimidating. Visitors can wander around the rooms, taking as long as they want, even look at all the book titles in the library if so inclined. Lunch in the café, strolls around the gardens, and it’s easy to spend several hours here.

From the top of the 100 steps in the garden there is a panoramic view of Bantry Bay

Bantry House is, though, colossally in debt. We visited in mid-September, and soon after were told that in June the house had featured in the Channel 4 series ‘Country House Rescue’.* Thanks to Channel 4 On Demand, I watched the programme back in Wales, and learned:

  • The estate, formerly thousands of acres, is down to 100. Most of the land has been sold to pay debts.
  • Present debts (in Euros) are the equivalent of about £800,000.
  • In the first decade of the 21st century, visitor numbers fell from 60,000 to 28,000 a year.

Programme presenter Simon Davis suggested turning the East Stables into a restaurant and special events space, and brought in top Irish chef Richard Corrigan for a trial evening which made a moderate profit. The 70 paying customers paid €100 a head, about £80, which is a lot in modern Ireland (as it is in Wales too). It’s a sum representing an occasional treat, not a routine expenditure. It’s hard to see what more the owners of Bantry House could do to increase their revenues, as they host a music festival, plays, a craft fair, photography courses and a lot more besides. You can stay there as a guest, and the thought of evenings by the fire in the library is very tempting.

Bantry is an important historical house, but remote from tourism hot-spots. The day we visited, there was just one coach party and maybe a dozen cars at a time. In our era of falling real incomes (for the great majority) it is bound to become more difficult to afford the ongoing maintenance of the great houses of the past, let alone pay off all past debts.

One promising avenue is a package deal with Bantry Golf Club, a round on the championship course and a stay in the house. There are some very affluent golfers, for whom it’s a case of have clubs, will travel, and even better if they can help to preserve historic buildings too.

I can imagine oligarchs and hedge fund managers, with millions and even billions of pounds at their disposal, drooling at the prospect of owning a house like Bantry, but they would break the continuity of family occupation. What is more, would they keep it open to the public? When very rich people buy estates, they often put up big gates and make it clear that house and land are PRIVATE.  That, in the case of our historical heritage, would be a reversal of 100 years of widening public access.

So do visit Bantry House and help to keep it open and flourishing!

* ‘Country House Rescue’, series 4 episode 3.

Bantry House is on the shores of the famous bay

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