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The Swansong of Stately Homes

No cultural tour of Britain would be complete without at least one visit to a stately home. These magnificent houses set in hundreds of acres of land and surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens are great museums of a former age. At least most of them are. But some, like Manderston House in the South of Scotland, are very much still part of the twentieth century and functioning as family homes. Adam Fowler visited the current owner of Manderston House, Lord Palmer, to see how the other half live.

The Swansong of Stately Homes
by Adam Fowler

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Lord Palmer: "My home, Manderston, in the Scottish Borders, has been described as the swan song of the great classical house. Sir William Miller, my great-great-grandfather, made a fortune from selling herrings to the Russians during the Crimean War and his second son James was typical, I suppose, of second-generation wealth and he married into the English aristocracy and he built this palatial beautiful, beautiful house."

Manderston House is indeed magnificent, if a little small for a stately home with only 110 rooms. It's open to the public so you can see for yourself the silk and velvet wall coverings and the curtains made of gold and silver thread. And on the guided tour, if the priceless furniture doesn't take your breath away, wait till you see the central stairway constructed of precious metals.


Tour Guide: "We come upon the beautiful silver staircase. This leads up to the upper floors and the bedrooms. It used to take the servants three weeks to dismantle, clean and replace it again."

But all is not what it seems at Manderston House, for Lord Palmer has fallen on hard times.

Lord Palmer: "We've only got two gardeners whereas the garden used to have 24 gardeners. I'm farming a bigger acreage and I took on seventeen men and I now only have four. I just wish I could see some light at the end of the tunnel."

When the house came into Lord Palmer's possession about twenty years ago, he was due to pay a huge inheritance tax bill which might have forced him to sell up.

To avoid this, he took advantage of a government exemption scheme which waived the tax if he opened Manderston to visitors for a portion of the year.


Lord Palmer: "In our particular case we were told 25 days a year and we do in fact open every single day of the year by appointment and in the early eighties we used to chug along quite comfortably with 13,500 visitors. But for some extraordinary reason this year our numbers really have plummeted and we'll be lucky, I think, to make 6500 and it doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out, at five-pounds-fifty a head, that is a very, very serious drop in income. I think the only thing that keeps us going, really, is that all our visitors that do come here do thoroughly enjoy it. One only has to look at the visitors book to see their comments.

First Visitor: "We're breathless. It's absolutely wonderful. Just as you come in the main door it just takes your breath away. I've never seen anything like it. I think you'd probably dream that you would like to live in a place like this."

And that's the beauty of Manderston. Lord Palmer does live here. He depends on the tourist revenue to keep his magnificent roof over his head and the visitors, in return, get a glimpse of how life used to be in Great Britain.


Second Visitor: "The wealth in all the rooms is just outstanding. And the beauty of this is that it's a family who make use of it all and live in it all."

Third Visitor: "And you can also see the connection here with the great days of Britain."

But Britain is no longer as great as it once was and the aristocracy have to earn a living just like the rest of us. Lord Palmer could, of course, cash in the whole lot and retire in comfort to the Bahamas, but he would lose his ancestral home and we would lose one of the last living links to the past.

In the Scottish Borders, I'm Adam Fowler for The Savvy Traveler.


Savvy Resources for Manderston House and Scotland:

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