With many boasting extravagant decorations, yuletide activities and perhaps the chance to meet Father Christmas, it’s no wonder that a visit to one of the region’s stately homes and country houses has become a tradition for huge numbers of Yorkshire families over the festive season.
Many of the sites have come to be known as places that capture the charm and magic of the Christmas period – and though the tiered restrictions currently in place to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic have forced staff to reconsider what they can offer to visitors in 2020, behind the scenes much hard work has been going on to find ways of spreading festive cheer after an unprecedented and challenging year.
“We’ve had to just respond to things, be creative and think outside the box,” says Abbigail Ollive, head of marketing and sales at Castle Howard. “We’ve all the way along had plan a, plan b, plan c and every government announcement, we’ve been ready to say right these are the things we still can make happen. It’s been about working within the rules to create something magical and a really nice visitor experience for people.”
Doing so in a way that is financially viable has been a challenge. Christmas is usually one of the busiest period’s for the historic North Yorkshire house and last year it welcomed 67,000 visitors over the season. In recent years, the in-house design team has dressed the building to a lavish theme for visitors to marvel.
The doors of the house, in an area under Tier 2 restrictions, are not currently open for general admission, though a ticketed Father Christmas experience in the form of a theatre performance is going ahead in its Long Gallery, with families seated in bubbles. Elsewhere, the gardens are available for winter walks, with Christmas lights and a Santa’s grotto in the courtyard.
“When we closed our doors with the lockdown in March, we took the decision quite early on that actually a Christmas inside the house was looking quite risky...To be able to make Christmas financially viable, because we invest a lot in the production of it, it relies on thousands of people coming through the house,” Abbi says.
Social distancing measures, and therefore reduced capacity in the building, would not have allowed for that. “The income we get from visitor footfall goes every penny back into the restoration and conservation of the house. For us, not having that same amount of visitors over Christmas does put more of a financial burden on the organisation.”
At Chatsworth House in the Peak District, it’s a similar story. The stately home itself, in an area under Tier 3 restrictions, is currently closed, though it is decorated for the season should it be able to open its doors with the next restrictions review. The Christmas market it usually hosts over the season has not gone ahead, but for the first time, there is a festive light trail around the grounds and gardens.
“We are doing our very best to spread some Christmas cheer and festive spirit,” says Sally Ambrose, head of visitor experience. “Those who have been to the gardens say it’s brightened up their day...
“I think the team here has mixed emotions. We’re disappointed that we haven’t been able to share the house yet with it dressed for Christmas. But everyone is acutely aware of the risks with [Covid-19] infection rates.”
With the house not having been able to open to visitors for a large portion of the year, and the grounds now operating under a pre-booked ticketed entry system to help manage visitor flow, income to support the preservation of the estate and Chatsworth’s educational arm has been impacted, as Sally explains.
“Christmas is usually one of our busiest times. Not only are we feeling the impact of not being able to open parts of the visitor offer, we have had to open with limited numbers to ensure our colleagues at work, visitors and local community are all safe...
“It does have a financial impact and we are having to think creatively and innovatively. We are never going to get back those months when we weren’t able to open some or all of the visitor offer and we need to think about how we can sustain things longer term and keep moving forward and welcoming people safely to Chatsworth.”
At Sewerby Hall and Gardens in East Yorkshire, the house normally hosts various activity sessions on December weekends and over the Christmas holiday period. In a Tier 3 area, it is currently closed but there are self-led festive trails for visitors to enjoy in the grounds. This year, there were plans to expand on the Christmas offering with a winter woodland event featuring costumed actors in the gardens, but that has been cancelled.
“Christmas isn’t actually one of our busiest times,” says general manager Marie Gascoigne. “It’s a time that we’re working to grow hence why we were planning the event this year.
“We are looking to develop Christmas so we’ve kind of taken one step forward and two steps back at the moment.”
Over in Leeds, the picture is also challenging for Harewood House. Jane Marriott, director of the Harewood House Trust, says there has been “significant” financial losses, as well as redundancies. The support of members combined with financial assistance through the Culture Recovery Fund and National Lottery Heritage Fund has been a “lifeline”, she says.
Since 2017, Harewood has offered immersive Christmas experiences for visitors over the festive period but the installation planned for this year has been postponed. In an area currently under Tier 3 restrictions, the house itself is not open, though outside there is a lit walk through the grounds and a Father Christmas experience.
“By October, we knew that we were still going to be in a deficit this year but felt like at least we had a cautious sense of optimism that we were on the road to recovery,” Jane says.
“And then of course Christmas having to be postponed and closing the doors to the house has put us back a step and we’re faced yet again with unimaginable losses and trying to work out how as a charity we adapt to make sure the offer is still there and we keep our members and supporters whilst trying to generate more income.”
Though coronavirus measures are set to continue into next year, bringing with them uncertainty for the houses and their events programmes and an impact on travel and tourism, both domestic and overseas, there is a sense of cautious optimism for 2021.
Harewood is due to celebrate its 250th anniversary and Jane says its role within the community is not to be underestimated. “I think that’s one of the key things we’ve learnt this year, how important places like Harewood are to the community. I think this kind of landscape can really reinvigorate people and give us all a moment to forget the pressures and stresses of life, take a deep breath and escape.”
For many, Abbi agrees, the pandemic has meant rediscovering what’s on the doorstep and she’s hopeful local people will continue to support country houses and their programmes into 2021 and beyond.
“The biggest challenge is going to be around the fact that I don’t think we’ll see the overseas market back to 2019 levels for a couple of years...But we hope we will see that loyalty of local audiences continue and people in our local vicinity will keep coming, using and enjoying Castle Howard. I think the experience economy is going to explode next year. And people will really value spending time with friends and family.”
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