We round up England's best stately homes available for hire, from Blenheim Palace to Downton Abbey's Highclere Castle. If you're looking for a unique venue, these stunning stately homes will offer a fantastic backdrop for your event.
An invitiation to an event at a stately home is guaranteed to make an impression. The kind of invitation you'd definitely reply to straight away and certainly an event you'd make a real effort to get to. Even though it's a good drive out of town. That's the fresh appeal of the stately home event, significantly fuelled by Julian Fellowes' almost impossibly brilliant period-drama, Downton Abbey.
Whilst a multitude of events would undeniably and universally benefit from a commanding vantage point atop a skyscraper or nestled in the exclusive surroundings of an almost-impossible-to-get-in-to rooftop bar, confident brands, however hi-tech (in fact, especially hi-tech brands) would undoubtedly be enhanced by an association with one of England's finest country piles.
Let's not forget that these magnificent symbols of well travelled sophistication, power, superiority and wealth were state of the art in their heyday and now represent the finest architecture and craftsmanship on display on a grand scale, admired almost universally by their commanding splendour. Highclere Castle(or Downton Abbey as the world now knows it) is currently the most high profile Stately Home, except, perhaps, for Buckingham Palace, and the fact that it’s still privately owned and lived in by The Earl and Countess Carnarvon makes the place all the more authentic and intriguing.
In fact, I'm rather familiar with Highclere because they used to be my client in my PR days. It’s actually in Berkshire as opposed to Yorkshire, where Downton Abbey is set. Apparently, gaggles of American tourists have been spotted attempting to locate 'Downton' near Harrogate, hundreds of miles away (although Yorkshire has more than it’s fair share of magnificent houses, of course).
Highclere castle is also the home of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, a suitably horsey client who got landed with me after approaching the finest and most fashionable consumer PR agency in the land. Mainly because I was considered less cool (but more posh) than most of my contemporaries, I have to admit. So off I spluttered through the magical Capability Brown designed parkland in my beaten up old Porsche to this magical place, perfectly preserved (because its still being lived in by the original family) and, although I wasn't quite met by Carson at the front door, I immediately fell under the spell of this magnificent stately world. The ‘Grand Tour’ included a fascinating private viewing of the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb which are casually concealed on shelves, behind the impressive double-doors between the drawing room and the dining room. The 5th Earl’s discovery of the tomb with the original Indiana Jones, Howard Carter, was, interestingly, the world’s first global media event. The Fifth Earl’s mysterious death shortly afterwards in Cairo, caused by accidentally cutting into an infected mosquito bite with a shaving blade, only served to fuel the sensational story further, re-igniting the fabled “Curse of Tutankhamun”. Carter, who lived sixteen more years has one of the most stirring statements I’ve ever come across etched into his tombstone - “May your spirit live, May you spend millions of years, You who love Thebes, Sitting with your face to the north wind, Your eyes beholding happiness"
Aside from being a master-class in how to re-invent (and make use of) a metaphorical relic of an outdated era, Highclere Castle is a classic example of how to ‘sweat the asset’ and preserve the family seat for future generations - exactly as the third Earl Carnarvon would have intended when he commissioned the building. He certainly wouldn't have foreseen today's world where one of his London Town House servant's terraced cottages in Fulham would be worth over a million quid and where the Lords of the realm are resigned to being largely penniless and shoe-horned into a tiny 'wing' of their ancestral home (if they’re lucky), with the National Trust taking control of their estates following a begrudgingly forced sale (often due to excessive and disproportionate death duties). Of course, the National Trust is a Godsend because it has preserved so much of our rich heritage (and commercialized it to enable us to host these amazing events) but it's a stark reality how quickly old money can dry up via one wayward generation. If you think about it, it's almost always going to happen eventually because it’s difficult enough to make money in the first place, let alone keep it for over 500 years!
It hasn't happened at Highclere though, as the Herbert family, are the Madonnas of the stately home brigade. Always reinventing themselves and maximising their prize assets. Sure, they have land, farms and copious tenants but, in this day and age, it's not enough. Silly things like heating and electricity bills, mowing the lawns and the upkeep of the roof - acres of troughs and gullies, hoppers and downspouts, lead flashing and slates - all Grade one listed and not a reproduction in site. Not to mention the payroll which, in the golden era of the Great Houses was far less because many ‘below stairs’ members of staff were largely paid in kind, via accommodation and food, something which is not feasible today – you can’t ‘contra’ cleaning! It costs millions, every year and that has to come form somewhere because old money, however much there once was, can not keep up with inflation unless it’s been invested and reinvested (wisely) year upon year, upon year.
Highclere’s secret is the way the family have embraced events. Whilst events are inherently and potentially an invasion of their privacy the Carnarvons have successfully incorporated events into their way of life. Whether it’s a wedding, a conference, a photo-shoot, product launch, Country Fair, festival, dinner or, in many cases, used as a film location, it’s all about using the House, the grounds and the stunning interiors as a non-institutional back-drop for others to benefit from. It’s a very clever way to capitalize on the assets of the house, in a very similar way to how it was originally intended – to entertain and impress on a grand scale.
Of course, Highclere’s success has had a knock-on effect and the popularity of Stately Homes for events is soaring. And they never fail to impress.
Indeed,Shugborough Hall, the ancestral Staffordshire home of Lady Elizabeth Anson (the original Party Planner, cousin of the Queen and sister of the late photographer, Lord Lichfield) is a classic example of what these houses were all about. With the original Georgian section of the house built by Admiral George Anson who circumnavigated the globe between 1740 and 1744 in his famed ship, The Centurion, bringing back the biggest treasure haul of all time after scuppering a Spanish galleon laden with gold worth an estimated £400,000, his brother, Thomas Anson inherited the estate after his death. Thomas’ sister’s Grandson, having assumed the Anson name, transformed the estate into the neo-classical masterpiece it remains to this day. The most impressive additions were the eight ionic orders that form the huge portico which frames the facace of the house. As a timeless reminder of the importance of stature and creating an impression, this grand portico holds a secret, which is rarely mentioned. In his bid to finish the impressive architectural alterations in time for the arrival of a high profile guest, King George the 3rd, Viscount Anson needed to speed up the works which revered architect Samuel Wyatt was commissioned to complete in the late 1700’s. However, funds were running low so Anson did something extraordinary. He instructed the architect to construct his spectacular frontispiece, the gigantic portico, in plywood! This stands to this day and if you knock on any of the towering ionic orders you’ll hear the familiar sound of hollow wood. Indeed, this is technically the first ‘themed’ structure, so Walt Disney can’t take all the credit!
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (a Londonlaunch accredited venue). Certainly one of the most magical (and excellently located) Country Houses in England, Blenheim is a masterpiece and a sensational setting for a wide variety of events. Blenheim Palace was a gift from Queen Anne to the first Duke of Marlborough following his victory in France at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Situated in Woodstock, just outside Oxford, Blenheim Palace is set amongst 2,000 acres of 'Capability' Brown landscaped parkland, and was the birthplace of the most inspirational leader of all time, Winston Churchill. Currently the home of the eleventh Duke, this magnificent country house is all the more alluring as it is still a (very big) private home. The current Duke is rather ‘hands on’ too, so expect a tongue lashing if you’re caught dragging a chair across the hall floor…
Chatsworth, Derbyshire – Another private home, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth is one of England’s finest houses. Like all the great houses of the Renaissance, Chatsworth has a long tradition of inspirational entertaining, and this continues today in the 18th century Stables, which now house wonderful spaces for weddings and special events. Utilising the very best local produce, Chatsworth offers a stunning and unique venue of the utmost quality and elegance, perfect for a wide variety of events.
Warren House, Greater London – On a more manageable scale, Warren House is an amazing four-acre oasis of refinement and tranquility, only a stone’s throw from central London in Kingston Upon Thames. Warren House is the best of both worlds too because on one hand it’s a beautiful 46 bedroom country house retreat (albeit with London knocking on the door!) and, on the other, it used to be a dedicated conference facility for a major corporation. With immaculate gardens, a diverse array of conference and meeting rooms, a health spa and the stunning Orchid Room restaurant, Warren House is a sensational choice for a wide variety of corporate events.
Holkham Hall, Norfolk – Having done a degree in History of Art and Design, Holkham Hall is one of my favourite country Houses, mainly due to it’s magnificent symmetrical grandure. Set in a vast rural Norfolk parkland of literally thousands of acres, Holkham Hall is a Palladian masterpiece, epitomized by it’s gigantic stone portico and impressive marble hall. A wonderful location for events and weddings, Holkham Hall is a backdrop Hollywood can only dream of.
Castle Howard, Yorkshire – One of the most recognized Stately Homes in the Land, Castle Howard is suitably sensational. Indeed, Lonely Planet have declared it “one of the world’s top ten greatest mansions”. With more than three hundred years of rich, hospitality- based history and experience, Castle Howard is perfectly placed for corporate events (from world-class hospitality to dinners and receptions) and, of course, weddings. One refreshing quality of Castle Howard is that they are genuinely prepared to help you host a variety of corporate events, however unique or elaborate, without hesitation (or restriction). This wonderful, thriving, working estate is a classic example of a stately family home, which has moved with the times and adapted to modern life, making them wholly relevant and a significant venue in the corporate world.
Brocket Hall – Used as a stunning backdrop for many films and television productions, Brocket Hall is an accomplished events destination with a variety of world-class venues on offer. As well as having one of the most impressive red brick facades, this quintessentially English Country House boasts one of the world’s most dramatic sweeping driveways which takes in a beautiful Palladian bridge framing the house in it’s majestic parkland. What’s more, Brocket Hall is only twenty-two miles from the West End! Brocket Hall, however, is perhaps most famous for it’s suitably juicy scandals! From Lord Melbourne’s wife’s alleged affair Lord Byron to the family’s second Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston’s happy ending upon the Billiards table (beneath a Chamber Maid), the estate is steeped in delightfully debauched history. More recently, Margaret Thatcher wrote her memoires here and Charlie Brocket couldn’t find his Ferraris. Finally! A household that’s recent history at least has a valiant attempt to live up to its gloriously eccentric past!
Waddesdon Manor - Ferdinand de Rothschild’s Loire-style repro Chateau is certainly one of England’s most memorable architectural masterpieces and with it’s distinctly continental design and immaculate embellishments, Waddesdon Manor offers a diverse spectrum of equally excellent event spaces. The Dairy is an enchanting private building, nestled in a tranquil waterside setting which is perfect for events and weddings, whereas the main house and its famous wine cellars are a stunning reminder that ‘new build’ (well,1883!) can hold it’s own against the renaissance masters, in considerable style!
Nazeing Park House - There's a new Stately-place-to-be in the form of the magnificent and manageable Nazeing Park, just north of the City and easily accessible by rail (there's a station from Liverpool Street 5 minutes away) and by road (the M25 is 10 minutes away). Nazeing is a rare gem for three reasons. Firstly, it's a private home and therefore completely un-institionalised. Secondly, the house can be used for receptions, even for larger events, as guests can then venture through the magnificent grounds on their way to the beautiful marquee (which, itself, has the best views in the land!) and thirdly, the heritage of Nazeing stretches far beyond Georgian splendour as it's the family seat of the Billy Smart's Circus family and is filled with hidden treasures from genuine Carousel horses to oil paintings – of clowns and trapeze artists!
E.J.Churchill Shooting Ground @ West Wycombe Park - For possibly the most invigorating, interactive, immersive and exhilarating stately day out though, E.J.Churchill Shooting Ground combines the UK's finest Country Pursuits centre with a sensationally beautiful rolling country landscape as the backdrop, with an imposing Classical Stately Home at the heart of it all of course! What's more, it's within touching distance of London so just a few miles up the M40 you'll find yourself in a whole new world…!
Of course, there are several more Stately Homes in the UK, a surprising number of which have forged a rightful place on the event industry circuit. They’re generally excellent for events because of their symmetrical beauty, their diversity, their stunning locations and, perhaps most of all, their rich and intriguing history. The one thing they all have in common is a long and often somewhat shocking past, which will fascinate even the most stony-faced of corporate guests…
Houses like Goodwood (famous home of the Festival of Speed) and Syon Park (host to the acclaimed Supercar Show, Salon Prive each year), Longleat (home of one of the UK’s most popular visitor attractions) and West Wycombe Park who have possibly the finest location for corporate away days in the home counties) all have their own unique attributes to offer as temporary backdrops to support and elevate your brand. Just imagine taking your annual company conference to a different one of these Stately Homes each year, with the chance to roam the estates and delve into the fascinating history behind them. It’d be a memorable experience and a talking point (on the social networks too) for many weeks to come, especially with the nation’s current fascination with the Granthams of Downton…
The big venue collectives, such as The National Trust have done a fabulous job of restoring so many of our Great Houses to their former glory whilst retaining their deserved place in our collective heritage.
Historic Royal Palaces are possibly the most accomplished venue group in terms of corporate events. With the finest collection of majestic Royal residences in Greater London, HRP offer architectural excellence and marry it with strategic expertise and know-how, ensuring that your event is crowned with a Royal seal of approval, without exception. From the Tower of London to (my personal favourite) Hampton Court Palace, Historic Royal Palaces offer a unique opportunity to transport your guests back to a glorious era of Regal supremity, debauchery and architectural grandeur. My History of Art dissertation on Palladianism taught me the fascinating fact that the Banqueting House on Whitehall was the first proper neo-classical building in England, having been designed by the illustrious Inigo Jones, following his Grand Tour of Italy; A tour that I was lucky enough to do myself, some twenty years ago (but that’s another story!)
And finally, it turns out that my Great Uncle Eric, who was the editor of the Spectator some time in the Twentieth Century was the proud owner of Lincoln House, near Harrow, the famous Public School (now available for venue hire as a Londonlaunch accredited venue). He’s also, unfortunately, the brunt of many a family joke as he did something even he admitted was an ‘Only Fools and Horses’ style classic! Upon returning home from his London office one fine summer’s day, he found a gang of uniformed workmen rolling up and carefully packaging all his prized Oriental and Aubusson rugs. When challenged, the men informed Uncle Eric that ‘the Lady of the House’ (his battle-axe of a wife) had ‘gone over his head’ and ordered ‘the dirty old things’ to be professionally cleaned. Conceding that it was probably a good idea after all, Eric proceeded to spend the next hour helping the men wrap and load all of his valuable carpets into their truck which was parked on the forecourt outside.
He never saw his prized collection of priceless rugs again.
It’s so ridiculous that he had to laugh (before he cried)!
Right, come on you lot, let’s get back below stairs…!
Will Broome, CEO