Historic Houses president Martha Lytton Cobbold: ‘We aren’t looking for special treatment, simply an equal playing field’

The new Historic Houses president talks to Teresa Levonian-Cole about leaky roofs, lobbying Government and VAT.

Knebworth House presents an architectural conundrum. The building is Tudor, yet bats and gargoyles stare from a stucco façade crowned with turrets and battlements. The additions were made in about 1813 by Elizabeth Bulmer-Lytton, with further alterations by her son, Edward, the novelist, of  ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ fame.

Inside, the house is deceptively shallow, belying the grand exterior. ‘There used to be four wings,’ explains the Hon Martha Lytton Cobbold, ‘but Elizabeth demolished three sides, to simplify the house and make it more manageable. It was a survival thing.’

As châtelaine of Knebworth since 2000, Mrs Lytton Cobbold is no stranger to tough decisions. She has been preoccupied with preventing the masonry from collapsing. She shows me around, apologising for the scaffolding, focusing not so much on the splendours of the house (the Tudor hall, the re-created grand staircase, the library with its fake-bookcase doors, the Queen Elizabeth Room, which has featured in several films) as on water damage, floating chimneys and cracks in the walls.

‘The north-west turret is twisting away from the underlying brick, causing 4in cracks to ricochet right through the building,’ she explains. ‘All the [leaded] windows had to be replaced and the stonework rebuilt. But we haven’t yet redone the gaps in the floor-boards. It’s a work in progress.’

The problem of maintaining a house that gobbles funds to the tune of some £250,000 a year has been compounded by the pandemic. ‘We all suffered a massive drop in income, but we were very fortunate to qualify for aid through the Cultural Recovery Fund, a fantastic grant opportunity the Government put together, for work planned before Covid hit. We lobbied hard to allow privately managed heritage to participate.’

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‘We’ refers to Historic Houses (HH), an independent collective of some 1,000 privately owned houses, gardens and estates, of which Mrs Lytton Cobbold was elected president this year: the first woman, and the first American, to hold the post in the association’s 41-year history.

“If we can’t support owners, they’ll give up and sell”

Martha Boone was 11 and living in Alabama when she first met her husband-to-be, screenwriter Henry Lytton Cobbold. Their parents were friends through a shared love of antiques and Henry, aged 13, was visiting Martha’s brother. Two years later, Martha went to England and spent her first night at Knebworth. ‘Never in a million years did I think I’d become responsible for the upkeep!’ she laughs.

From Henry James’s heroines to Jennie Jerome at Blenheim, from Sudely to Mapperton today, the notion of the New World infusing new life into the Old Country has become familiar.

It is, Mrs Lytton Cobbold concedes, ‘a daunting concept at any time to look after a heritage property of this magnitude and age’, but her husband’s grandmother, Hermione (who unexpectedly inherited Knebworth), proffered sound advice: ‘Remember, dear, whatever you do, it may be considered wrong, so make your decision and don’t delay. Keep the momentum going.’

Knebworth opened to the public on a regular basis in 1970 and is famed for its concerts, from the Rolling Stones to Robbie Williams. ‘We jokingly refer to two turrets as Metallica and Iron Maiden, as they helped fund their restoration.’

The ‘cash cow’, however, has been the Barns Conference and Banqueting Centre, built by the present Lord Cobbold in the 1970s and which his daughter-in-law began expanding in 2000. This, with residential and commercial lettings, are among the six businesses that she runs with her team of 14, diversifying as much as possible.

Knebworth’s challenges are common to HH members. ‘Our interests align. There is no point in anyone trying to reinvent the wheel. We share information on what does and doesn’t work — it saves so much time. Only yesterday, someone in Devon was asking about a system for dealing with pre-sale tickets — a Covid requirement — and almost immediately, a neighbour here, in Hertfordshire, was able to provide her with the name of a company.’

The HH’s concerns are currently remedial, but its modest, collegiate president has already notched up triumphs: eligibility to apply to the aforementioned Cultural Recovery Fund and permission to erect temporary structures for up to 56 days without planning consent.

A key function of the HH — in addition to advising on matters such as applying for funds or dealing with dry rot — is its remit to lobby Government. Issues range from increasing the number of listed buildings officers to lifting the cap on Sideways Loss Relief to enable greater support of rural jobs and economies.

‘If VAT were no longer charged on structural repairs to listed buildings, 20% more work would be done, there would be 20% more employment and that much more secondary spend,’ she observes. ‘All of us support our local trades and we purchase all our materials locally.’

It is worth noting that the National Trust and English Heritage can reclaim VAT and are zero-rated for business rates: ‘We aren’t looking for special treatment, simply an equal playing field.’

She believes private ownership is the most efficient way to maintain historic properties and preserve heritage. ‘If water is coming through the roof, my husband or I will climb to remove the dead pigeon from the hopper head to allow it to flow. Time is of the essence before the water overflows and water damage occurs.’

The easing of lockdown has brought cautious optimism, yet the HH has seen a big drop in both house and visitor membership. ‘Our biggest fear is that, if we are unable to support owners, help them survive and thrive, they’ll give up and sell.

You might get a sympathetic new owner who is able and committed, but sometimes houses are sold to become hotels or public access is denied — and that would be a huge shame.’

On the record: Martha Lytton Cobbold

  • Favourite place in Britain? The coastline of north Devon
  • Favourite building? The Palace of Westminster
  • Food? Mexican
  • Book? 100 Years of Solitude  by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Music? Classic rock. The Eagles is my favourite group — the soundtrack of my youth!
  • Dream dinner guest? Choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov

Find out more about Knebworth House and Historic Houses.