British country houses may have been financed by exploitation – but we should be proud of that
As Aslet puts it, with a certain understatement, “hospitality was linked to the idea of magnificence” – a remark about the Stuart era, but equally true for the following centuries. At Belvoir Castle in the early Victorian period, the Duke of Rutland and his guests drank 2,400 bottles of Bordeaux and 70 barrels of beer, and ate 23,000 pounds of meat in 13 weeks.
Aslet notes the challenges the country house has faced since the war. There are the “horror stories” of the damage caused by the soldiers stationed there in time of war – half of Tudor Melford Hall in Suffolk was set on fire – and beautiful houses demolished because of the neglect or, as in Trentham in Staffordshire, being too close to a river so polluted it has become uninhabitable.
Aslet also notes the challenges faced by the National Trust in preserving heritage while attracting a younger generation (in my opinion they will leave once they are older), and now necessarily recognizes that slave trade money is entered these houses. He also points out that other forms of human exploitation have paid off for them – 12-year-old girls in dynastic forced marriages and men ruining their health by digging for coal. But he is right to insist on the beauty that has nevertheless been created, and which distinguishes, rather than stains, our landscape to this day.
The Story of the Country House: A History of Places and People is published by Yale. To order your copy for £ 18.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books