Reinventing England’s Manor Houses

How savvy young 21st-century entrepreneurs are opening wide the doors of those once staid and stately homes of England.

Britain’s stately homes—all those grand Elizabethan castles, Jacobean piles, and Georgian manor houses dotting the moors and dales—are as central to the country’s cultural psyche as Shakespeare, cricket, and summer pudding. With their venerable antiques, Old Masters, and eclectic gardens, these touchstones of English heritage have also long been major tourist draws, particularly for Americans. In the thirties Noël Coward parodied the phenomenon in a song: The stately homes of England / We proudly represent / We only keep them up / For Americans to rent.

These days “Americans” should probably be updated with “Russians,” but the stately home retains its iconic status, even as government support for the upkeep of historic properties has been dramatically cut. Prompted by the fiscal challenges of running centuries-old estates, a new generation of owners is responding with decidedly 21st-century entrepreneurship.

The dukes, marquises, and viscounts on these pages—all in their thirties or forties—are pursuing ventures that would have horrified their predecessors: luxury suites with WiFi, rock concerts and art exhibitions on the lawn, wind turbines, gourmet gastropubs, even landscaped trailer parks. Not exactly the stuff of Brideshead Revisited, but a welcome shift for the waves of visitors who come each summer eager for a glimpse of Britain’s aristocratic past—and present.

Sudeley Castle

Set amid the rolling Cotswolds of Gloucestershire, this estate has a storied past going back to medieval times. Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, stayed at the Tudor mansion in 1535—a momentous visit documented in an exhibition now on view at Sudeley to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry’s ascension to the throne. Later it served as home to Henry’s widow, Catherine Parr, and was visited by Lady Jane Grey and Queen Elizabeth I.

Despite its rich history, Sudeley in recent years has become known for its up-to-the-minute displays of contemporary art organized by Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, 40, who owns the 1,200-acre estate with her brother, Henry, and mother, Lady Ashcombe. Amid the manicured yew hedges, clematis, and old roses, one might come upon, say, a giant pink pitchfork protruding from the turf (a work by Michael Craig-Martin) or a disorienting mirrored labyrinth (by Jeppe Hein) or a swirling futuristic slide for children and adults alike to careen down (by Zaha Hadid).

This year, because of the economy, Dent-Brocklehurst didn’t commission special pieces, but visitors will encounter works such as Vito Acconci’s Face of the Earth I, a playful sculpture of facial features that uses grass, soil, and steel, and Henry Krokatsis’s Ambo, a spiral staircase and preacher’s pew wound around a centuries-old tree. “When we started we felt that what was happening in the contemporary art world was rarely reflected in outdoor exhibitions,” says Dent-Brocklehurst. “We wanted to move away from traditional bronze outdoor sculptures.”

While a number of English stately homes have art programs, few owners can match Dent-Brocklehurst’s credentials. Hired by megadealer Larry Gagosian after a stint at Sotheby’s, she opened his first London outpost in 1999. Last year Dasha Zhukova, a former model and the girlfriend of billionaire Roman Abramovich, tapped Dent-Brocklehurst as coordinator of her much-buzzed-about Moscow exhibition space, the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture.

By Dent-Brocklehurst’s estimation, a quarter of the 80,000 to 100,000 paying visitors to Sudeley each year come for the contemporary art. “The setting and history are so unique that we thought we could offer something different to artists,” she says. “It’s also a great way to bring both of my worlds together.” Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Open every day, through November 1; 44-124/260-2308;

Burghley House

“It’s a job for a young person—you need fresh eyes and a lot of energy,” says Miranda Rock, 39. For the past three years she has been at the helm of Burghley, the 13,000-acre Lincolnshire estate founded by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, a powerful courtier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Along with her husband, Orlando, and their four children, Rock lives in private quarters at the 115-room house, one of the grandest of the Elizabethan era, with its soaring turrets and parapets. It houses a superb collection of 17th-century Italian paintings and murals by Antonio Verrio, who spent nine years covering six staterooms with fantastical trompe l’oeil frescoes, including the famous Heaven Room and Hell Staircase.

Despite being a descendant of William Cecil, Rock had to win the job on merit. “I’m an employee of the trust that owns the house,” says Rock, an art historian who worked in London at the Royal Collection and as a researcher at the Hispanic Society of America in New York. She and Orlando, who runs the country house sales at Christie’s, are serious students of Burghley’s collections. Two years ago he discovered a rare desk being used by a clerk in the estate office. “It was covered by papers,” Rock recalls. “Orlando said, ‘Oh my God! It’s the ninth earl’s desk!’” Since restored, it is now installed upstairs in one of the public staterooms.

As Burghley’s custodian, Rock is always seeking new ways to attract visitors and generate income beyond the location fees for period films (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Da Vinci Code). She is behind the museum-quality exhibitions that are held in a stone-walled former brewery, which doubles as a state-of-the-art visitors’ center. A special show now on view, “Travelling Earls,” highlights the Grand Tours of the fifth and ninth earls during the 17th and 18th centuries. There is also an exhibition on Queen Victoria’s visit to Burghley in 1844, to coincide with the movie The Young Victoria.

Rock praises her mother, Lady Victoria Leatham, for innovations such as the Gardens of Surprise, a fanciful interpretation of Elizabethan water gardens, with mirrors, mazes, and water jets (some designed to spurt at passersby). Other parts of the gardens are used for exhibitions of sculpture and for jazz concerts held in August. The lineup of summer events at Burghley also includes a fine food fair, Battle Proms, and the annual Land Rover Burghley equestrian competition. “It’s harder to get government money for houses like Burghley these days, and costs have increased,” says Rock. “So you have to be imaginative.” Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire. Open every day but Friday, through October 29; 44-178/075-2451;

Holkham Hall

Thomas, Viscount Coke took over this seaside Norfolk estate in 2007, after his father, the Earl of Leicester, retired. He’s an unassuming presence as he strolls through the Palladian-style mansion built in the 18th century by his ancestor, Thomas Coke, whose Grand Tour acquisitions were the foundation of Holkham’s prodigious collections of books and art.

Thoroughly down-to-earth, Coke (pronounced “cook”), 44, exudes none of the grandeur you might expect from someone who in his youth was a page to the queen. “We’re here by an accident of birth,” he says, referring to the privilege of living in a house—which he shares with his wife, Polly, and their four children—crammed with priceless art, including paintings by Rubens and Van Dyke and an ancient statue of Artemis said to have been owned by Cicero.

Coke first settled here in 1993, living for a while in a converted barn, after studying art history at the University of Manchester and spending six years in the army—a fairly useful combination of training for his job overseeing Holkham. In addition to the world-class collections, there’s a farm with crops and livestock and forested areas for hunting wild game. “It costs about $500,000 a year to run the house,” he says. “Opening it actually loses money.”

Coke led efforts to diversify Holkham’s businesses into tourism and real estate development, and he is especially proud of the Pinewoods Holiday Park, a charming seaside caravan park that, he notes, is an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. He also turned around the fortunes of The Victoria, an inn on the estate that is now an acclaimed boutique hotel and gastropub. His wife did the Victorian decor with designer Miv Watts (the mother of actress Naomi Watts). The two collaborated as well on the seven-room Globe Inn in the town of Wells-next-the-Sea.

Holkham attracts around 30,000 visitors a year and is a popular venue for outdoor plays and concerts, ranging from tenor José Carreras to, earlier this summer, Elton John. Coke also rents out parts of the estate for photo and film shoots, including last year’s historical drama The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley.

Lord Coke emphasizes that such ventures are crucial to the survival of great estates like Holkham. “If you do not keep up with the times,” he says, “you get overtaken.”Holkham Hall, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk. Open three or four days per week, through October 31; 44-132/871-0227;

Inveraray Castle

Torquhil Ian Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll, was 33 when his father died during heart surgery in 2001. Overnight he became head of the ancient Clan Campbell and the youngest duke in Britain. Faced with running a 55,000-acre estate, he moved back from Hong Kong, where he worked promoting Scotch whisky. He kept that job but now splits his time between London and Inveraray Castle, his family’s ancestral home in Argyll, Scotland.

“I grew up knowing that one day it would be mine,” says Campbell, now 41. “A lot of people inherit when they’re much older, and they’ve lost that drive and youthful exuberance. I’m young and I’ve got energy to burn.”

Effortlessly charming and casual, he wears a gold signet ring that’s the only clue to his formal title: The Most High, Potent and Noble Prince, His Grace Torquhil Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll. He acknowledges that his quirky titles might seem absurd in the 21st century. “I’m actually Admiral of the Western Isles,” he says, “but I’ve never been in the navy.”

Campbell describes Inveraray, an elegant turreted castle surrounded by formal gardens and woodlands along the banks of Loch Fyne, as a “beautiful, magical place” but clearly takes a less sentimental view than his parents did. “The way I see it, I run a big business,” he says. “It’s a business that can be very modern and up-to-date, and I want it to benefit the local community.”

His portfolio includes tourism, caravan parks, real estate, forestry, and hydro and wind power. “I’m concerned that the estate set an example in terms of renewable resources,” he says. Accordingly, the castle’s oil furnace has been replaced with a biomass heating system that consumes wood chips.

In early 2008 Campbell began a $5 million restoration of the 225-year-old castle’s private quarters to make them better suited to a modern family (he and his wife, Eleanor, have three children). The rooms also function as six luxury suites. He rents out the castle for exclusive weekends a few times a year, starting at $20,000 per night.

Inveraray welcomes some 80,000 visitors each year, making it the top tourist attraction on Scotland’s west coast. In addition to offering walking, horseback riding, hunting, and fishing, the estate is involved in a number of events, including the Spirit of the West food and whisky festival in May and the Inveraray Highland games in July, featuring piping, dancing, and athletic competitions such as the ancient sport of tossing cabers, or large wooden poles. (The duke is himself an accomplished elephant-polo player.)

The past two summers Campbell hosted the high-profile Connect Festival—three days of music by acts such as the Beastie Boys, Björk, the Breeders, and Conor Oberst as well as “seriously good food, including local produce and oysters,” he says. This year’s festival has been scuttled by the economy, but Campbell insists it will “come back strong in 2010.” Inveraray Castle, Argyll, Scotland. Open every day, through October 31; 44-149/930-2551;