A glimpse behind the scenes at Newby Hall

Newby Hall is one of Yorkshire's most impressive stately homes, but maintaining popular country estates like this is a constant challenge, as Phil Penfold discovered.

Stuart Gill, commercial director at Newby Hall.  (James Hardisty).
Stuart Gill, commercial director at Newby Hall. (James Hardisty).

For hundreds of the stately piles of Britain, the year is turned on its head. Most of us still indulge in a spring clean, to get rid of the winter’s dust and cobwebs, and to welcome the longer days. Our heritage homes do exactly the reverse – when the doors close in autumn, that’s when the cleaning, conservation and restoration starts.

It’s a procedure known as “putting the house to bed”, which sounds as if everything is tucked in nicely, with a massive warm duvet drawn over so that the place can slumber peacefully until the following season.

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In fact, what happens is the complete reverse. And one of Yorkshire’s finest buildings, Newby Hall, near Ripon, is a perfect example of how a great home – today lived in and cherished by Richard and Lucinda Compton – is cared for in the present, so that its future is assured. When you offer Richard the analogy that Newby out of season is rather like a great, graceful swan, gliding along with apparently no effort, but with unlimited unseen energy under the surface, he grins hugely, his eyes twinkle, and he admits: “I rather like that – and it is exactly what is happening. There seems to be an image of everything inside the Hall covered in dust sheets, and all the shutters firmly locked. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Housekeeper Trish Sidebottom gets set for the big clean. (Pictures: James Hardisty).

Richard and his commercial director Stuart Gill offer a few statistics that make an ordinary householder’s eyes water. You and I might be a little worried about the guttering by the utility room, and may be thinking about getting it fixed. A single stone in Newby’s walls will (today) cost about £1,300 to repair. There are 2.5 km of gravel paths to maintain – they wind their way through 10,000 square metres of award-winning formal gardens, which have to be kept in tip-top glorious condition. One of Newby’s great glories is the Roman sculpture collection – if one bust or statue needs restoration, that could take two hundred hours (or more) to complete. And when one of the priceless Gobelin tapestries was recently sent for conservation and cleaning, the bill was “astronomical”.

“People say to me ‘It’s a bit like the old cliché of the upkeep of the Forth Road Bridge’” says Richard. “And they could not be more correct. It is. Take your eye off the ball for a second, and you are making a terrible mistake. This is a business. A beautiful business, run by an amazing team who all love where they work. But it is a business, nonetheless.”

To put it into perspective, Newby Hall is one of the largest employers in North Yorkshire, with important employment for around 60 people, both full and part-time. Stuart produces a useful – and fascinating couple of pie charts, Your Heritage – where does the money go? The circle to the right tells that admissions count for most of the income (there were around 140,000 this season) and after that are events, and then sales of ice cream and rides on the model railway – running about neck and neck. The restaurant comes next in line, and then, bringing up the rear in the list of cash generators, are the shop, and plant sales.

The largest out-going is for wages – which, in fact, is about the sum as that for admissions. Rates, lighting, insurance, heating and vehicles is next, followed by repairs and maintenance, with marketing after that, and security in the final segment. In other words, Newby – lived in by the Compton family and their ancestors since 1748 – breaks even. It does not – as some might think – provide vast profits, and neither is it teetering on the edge. It is like a well-oiled, precisely managed, skilfully steered ship of state. Visitors keep it going, and fuelled up, Richard Compton is the captain, and it is a continuous voyage. Every penny that the visitor to Newby spends is used for running costs and restoration.

But it would be wrong to think that Newby sits in a sort of splendid isolation. The Hall attracts visitors, but on their way to and from the Hall, they stop off at local pubs, tea-rooms, restaurants. They visit Ripon, they go into the city’s many attractions and facilities. They use taxis, local transport. Newby is the big pebble dropped into a larger pond. The ripples of the tourist economy go further and further outward.

And, like every other captain, Richard is reliant on his crew. At the front of the “big clean” this autumn are Trish Sidebottom and her daughter-in-law Sam Craven. They and the team will be meticulously washing – by hand – thousands of pieces or porcelain, china, crystal, glass. “None of it can go in the dishwasher”, laughs Trish, “it all has to be done separately, and very carefully. A little tip – never wash and dry something that costs a lot of money near anything else of the same value. Accidentally drop it, and you’ve not just smashed one thing, you’ve probably smashed two. Or more. Take your time, nothing can be rushed.

“But, when the house is officially ‘closed’, it’s just as much work – if not more – than when it is open. Cleaning every piece of crystal on one of the many chandeliers here takes quite a lot of time, believe me, and they all have to be carefully lowered from the ceilings by winding devices way up in the attics of the Hall.”

Richard and Stuart reveal that they discuss “priority lists”, things that definitely need to be done, those that aren’t quite so urgent, and then the ones that might be achieved – if funding allows.

It’s a constant balancing act. Last year, stonework on the façade needed attention – it wasn’t a vast expanse, just a few metres or so. But it cost £80,000. Richard says: “We are very very lucky in Yorkshire that we have so many accomplished craftsmen right on our doorstep.”

Richard and Lucinda also host shooting parties – and that can mean a dinner for two dozen guests around the great dining table. “You just have to be constantly thinking about where new revenues can be found”, says Richard. “You cannot stand still.”

One thing that he and his team have learned is to keep listening to everyone who visits Newby. “Lucinda is often in the gardens, which she adores”, says Richard, and “she’ll overhear something that someone is saying, and it will spark off some idea. You often hear things that will make you think ‘You are so right – why didn’t we think of that?’”

The Newby team are very much aware that Yorkshire is full of top notch attractions. “It is a very collaborative, mutually supportive competition. Here, we don’t have the resources that the National Trust or English Heritage have.”

There’s an annual staff outing when they can all let their hair down. It all adds to the feeling that this is one very harmonious family. So would Trish offer a tip on getting that big clean done? “Leave the silver until the very last, just before we re-open again”, she smiles. “Do it now, and it’ll need doing all over again in the spring. There’s no need to make even more work for yourself!”

Rooms with an impressive view

Newby Hall finds money from sources other than the day-to-day visitors. It is a popular venue for weddings, events and conventions – all of which go on throughout the year. And then there are film crews who use Newby as a stylish background for all sorts of productions.

It featured large in ITV’s Victoria and is currently a backdrop for the film The Little Stranger.

Newby Hall has popped up in everything from The ABC Murders to Gentleman Jack, and stars like John Malkovich, Suranne Jones and Tara Fitzgerald have all mingled with the staff.

For more details go to www.newbyhall.com. The Hall will re-open to general visitors next spring.