Downton it ain't! What happens when hard-up aristos open their stately piles to the hoi-polloi An eye-opening new TV series finds out



22:27 GMT, 6 April 2012

Back in the days of Lord Grantham, the lower classes all had housemaid’s knee and slept in the attic.

Now they have the chance to rub shoulders with the nobility as today’s beleaguered aristocrats open up their stately homes to every Tom, Dick and Harry as overnight paying guests. People who inherited their four-poster beds are giving them up to people who bought theirs from IKEA.

A fascinating new Sky Atlantic series explores what happens when two worlds collide and the classes come face to face on an equal footing.

Chillingham Castle in Northumberland owned by Sir Humphry Tyrrell Wakefield

Chillingham Castle in Northumberland owned by Sir Humphry Tyrrell Wakefield

‘If you love this place, look around
and stay. If you don’t, b****r orrff!’ says Sir Humphry Tyrrell
Wakefield, owner of Chillingham Castle in Northumberland.

He was forced to buy his own castle in 1981 after his ancestral home in the Lake District was turned into flats. ‘I had tremendous withdrawal symptoms. If you’re born into splendour and suddenly you’re cast out and those lands don’t have your family name… help!’ he protests, plaintively.
It wasn’t a snob thing. I had plenty of social cachet anyway,’ he says blithely.

He simply needed the storage space for all the dynastic mementos acquired by generations of Empire builders. Now Chillingham, where eight guest apartments cost up to 340 a night, hosts 20,000 visitors a year at events from weddings and shooting weekends to ghost hunts. But Sir Humphry, 75, is a stickler for protocol and his own pedigree: Gordonstoun, 2nd Bt, 10th Royal Hussars.

Sir Humphry Tyrrell Wakefield

Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard

Sir Humphry Tyrrell Wakefield (left) and Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard (right)

‘I don’t intend to be called Humphry by
people who haven’t been asked to do so,’ he grumbles. ‘When one was in
the Army, one called the colonel “Colonel”, one didn’t call him Harry.’

Sir Humphry manages to offend one set of
paying guests on the programme – who live in a 1960s semi in Gateshead –
by setting out tactlessly why he wouldn’t have wanted his children to
marry people like them. They’re far too polite to argue. ‘I did say
that, indeed I did,’ he protests. ‘It’s much easier to marry into your
own bracket. You have everything in common: jokes, relatives… I don’t
count myself as aristocracy. I consider myself in a certain gentrified bracket and I’m happy with that.’

Even if he can be condescending, Sir Humphry clearly relishes his encounters with his visitors. ‘I think they’re lovely, decent people, the backbone of England.’ But what if he had to move into a suburban semi himself ‘I think I’d top myself!’ he says.

The real gentry are down to earth – you
can have a laugh with them – but people who’ve made their money in the
last few years think they’re special.

Another guest at Chillingham is painter and decorator David ‘Blackie’ Blackburn, who lives near Newcastle – in a bungalow – but has a passion for shooting and is there on a ‘keeper’s day’ at Sir Humphry’s estate after working throughout the season. ‘It’s a rich man’s sport,’ he says. Pheasant shooting costs upwards of 28 a bird; grouse shooting more like 100.

Blackie, 48, a crack clay shot, spends about three days a week out with his dogs ‘picking up’ birds for people who can afford it. ‘They’ve made a lot of money and want to be seen shooting. But I don’t think they’ve got a proper passion for it,’ he says. ‘It’s my life. It’s all I do. But you have to go with the cards you’re dealt, unfortunately. The real gentry are down to earth – you can have a laugh with them – but people who’ve made their money in the last few years think they’re special.

‘I’ve decorated some big places. I’m not overawed by people. Sir Humphry seems a genuine sort. I met Prince Harry on a grouse moor. Stood talking to him for ages, didn’t recognise him. He’s a good shot, actually.’

Meanwhile, at Carlton Towers in East
Yorkshire, a Victorian Gothic pile that’s home to Lord and Lady Gerald
Fitzalan Howard, guest Lyn Creasey arrives for a 950 fitness boot-camp
and is nonplussed to see family guests arriving by helicopter for son
and heir Arthur’s 20th birthday dinner party.

Victorian Gothic pile: Carlton Towers in East Yorkshire

Victorian Gothic pile: Carlton Towers in East Yorkshire

‘And I’ve driven here in a
car with bird mess on the bonnet! That shows you the difference in
status,’ laughs Lyn, 53, a human resources consultant from a semi on a
Doncaster housing estate.

perception of landed gentry was the male in corduroy trousers and tweed
jacket, smoking a pipe, and the female on the committee of the WI. It
wasn’t like that at all. Gerald was a card – it was Gerald and Emma,
there was no Lord and Lady – and she seems really normal. I didn’t get
the sense she was putting anything on. We were sitting there having tea –
in my world it’s tea, in theirs it’s dinner – and Gerald came down in
this gorgeous coat.

'He told me he got his tailor to make it out of curtain material. I’d have liked to ask what preconceptions they had about me, but in truth they’re just looking at us as potential income. When I first got my degree, my mum would write BA (Hons) after my name when she wrote to me. But that soon disappeared. It’s the same with them. They’re just another Mr and Mrs.’

In fact, Lady Gerald – ‘I often just say Emma Howard, it’s easier’ – is a middle-class doctor’s daughter from Sussex. As Gerald, 49, is a younger son – his father was the late Duke of Norfolk – theirs are courtesy titles only and can’t be passed to their children. ‘Which is sad because this house lends itself to a title, but that’s how it is, so no regrets,’ says Emma, 50.

‘It’s a dynasty I’m proud to be part of. I hope we’re really welcoming to what we think is our lovely home. But I’m sure we’re a huge let-down. I’m not very posh. I’ve never been curtsied to. I don’t have a tiara. We’re very frugal. The children complain that Gerald buys his trousers from Asda.
‘I hate snobs. People can hold their knives how they like. As long as someone is genuine, that’s what matters to me. But even if we won EuroMillions, I’d still run the house as a venue. It would be exhausting filling it with all your friends.’

The Guest Wing, Wednesday, 8pm, Sky Atlantic.