Meet the custodians: the guardians of Britain’s stately homes

What’s it like to live in a heritage property that is open to the public? From privacy and perks to cleaning and ghosts, we get the inside stories from five custodians...

The Priest House North Lane, West Hoathly, West Sussex
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Antony Smith, Custodian

The Priest House
North Lane, West Hoathly, West Sussex

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‘I’ve known this house all my life. My grandparents lived over the road. When my cousin rang up one evening in 1988 and said the custodian job was available, it seemed like a good idea, so I applied, and here I am over 30 years later.
It was meant to be.

Antony Smith, custodian of The Priest House
Antony Smith, custodian of The Priest House.

Built in 1430, the house has nearly 600 years of history. Henry VIII gave it to Cromwell and it was owned by Anne of Cleves, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I before it was sold and became a family home. In 1908, local landowner John Godwin King restored it and opened it as a museum. He gave it to the Sussex Archaeological Society in 1935.

The ancient kitchen fireplace in The Priest House.
The ancient kitchen fireplace in The Priest House.

I live in one third of the building and the other two thirds is open to the public. People can wander around the outside and peer through the windows, but you get used to that. I do everything – it’s a very strange job. I look after the house, label the exhibits, clean, give tours, sort out the garden and do a lot of administration. I don’t mind the vacuuming, but I’m not so keen on the paperwork. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades. Basic woodwork comes in handy. It’s a fairly solitary life, but people can appear at any time so you have to be prepared to drop everything. It wouldn’t suit everyone.

It’s a friendly house with a personality, which I know sounds strange. People think it must be spooky – we get ghost hunters – but I think the house likes me. During the lockdown earlier this year, it felt very odd. The house doesn’t like to be empty. It creaks more when there’s nobody around. It’s cold and dark and damp, but that’s all part of the fun. I think this is the job I was born to do.’

A gardener at Chatsworth planting and maintaining the gardens

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Dr Stephen Pickles, Owner & Custodian

Bidston Lighthouse
Wilding Way, Wirral

‘Back in 2010 we were living in a three-bedroom semi in Manchester when my wife, Mandy, searched online for Grade II-listed buildings within a 30-mile radius of the laboratory where I worked. Bidston Lighthouse came up. We put in an offer and found ourselves owning a lighthouse! We sometimes think we were meant to have it.

Dr Stephen Pickles, owner and custodian of Bidston Lighthouse.
Dr Stephen Pickles, owner and custodian of Bidston Lighthouse.

As a child growing up in Australia, I used to dream of having a weather room
on top of a tower; that dream came flooding back to me when we saw the lighthouse here. It looked rundown and foreboding, but it was striking – like something out of Mordor from Lord of the Rings.

The present Bidston Lighthouse was built by Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in 1873 and served as Liverpool’s principal lighthouse until 1913. The first lighthouse on Bidston Hill was built much earlier, in 1771, further from the body of water it lit than any other lighthouse in the world, ever. Bidston was the birthplace of a revolution in lighthouse optics – the tower housed the biggest reflector of its kind. When we moved in, we soon realised we’d taken on more than we’d bargained for. I wondered if other people were in a similar position so searched online and found the Association of Lighthouse Keepers – a community of 800 retired lighthouse keepers and lighthouse enthusiasts. One of my first posts on the forum was: ‘We’ve got a leaky lighthouse, how do we fix it?’ I have a lot of buckets that I move around!

Bidston Lighthouse tower is privately owned but often opened to the public.
Bidston Lighthouse tower is privately owned but often opened to the public.

There are great views in all directions from the lamp room, so we thought we might turn it into a lounge, but as we came to realise the historical significance of the site we didn’t want to just keep it for ourselves.

I’m so many things to this building: tour guide, web manager, janitor, owner – it’s a wonderful privilege and also a terrible responsibility! The upkeep is expensive. The glazing in the lamp room needs replacing and the copper roof will need some repairs soon, too. I feel as though I’m not telling my story anymore, I’m telling the story of the building, a story which has to be told. In many ways, my own purpose has been subsumed by that of the lighthouse.’ bidstonlighthouse.org.uk

The history of Bidston Lighthouse

Liverpool had a problem: ships approaching the port couldn’t be seen because Bidston Hill was in the way, so a look out tower was incorporated into the 1771 lighthouse. Flag runners were employed to watch for ships from there and then run along the hill and raise the correct company’s flag on a wooden pole, warning of its arrival. It meant supervisors in the docks could get their workforce ready to unload the ship. At one point there were over 100 separate flagpoles stretching for half a mile along the hilltop. This system was replaced in 1826 when a semaphore-based telegraph system was introduced, followed by an electric telegraph system in 1861.


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David Scott, Custodian

The Homewood
Portsmouth Road, Esher, Surrey

‘The Homewood is a work of art – a striking building designed by architect Patrick Gwynne (1913-2003) at the age of 25 for his parents. Towards the end of his life, he gave the house to the National Trust. We’ve been here for over 12 years. Before, I was
working in a city banking job, but when our daughter was born in 2006 I decided I wanted a change and applied for the role of live-in custodian.

Custodian of The Homewood, David Scott and his family.
Custodian of The Homewood, David Scott and his family.

I think of Patrick every day. He wanted the house to be lived in so it wouldn’t become static. I was pruning rhododendrons the other day and I found one of Patrick’s little Dymo tape labels – a time capsule from the past. Every time you open a cupboard, you find a note from him. He completely informs our lives. The swimming pool is a crazy shape and my theory is Patrick didn’t want it to be covered – it’s hard work clearing the leaves out in the autumn, but it looks far more beautiful this way. He also installed sloping windowsills so nobody could put anything on them!

A view from the garden of the exterior of The Homewood, Surrey. The Homewood is a Modernist house built in 1938 by architect Patrick Gwynne.
A view from the garden of the exterior of The Homewood, Surrey. The Homewood is a Modernist house built in 1938 by architect Patrick Gwynne. National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

The house is a dramatic presence. It’s not austere modernism – square and boxy – it’s flowing, English modernism, with textured walls and lots of detailing. It’s a drama that reveals itself slowly. All the main rooms are on the first floor, and a lot of people gasp when the living room door opens because there are 12 metres of glass and views into the tree canopy. It has wooden floors, so if friends come over in high heels, we ask them to leave their shoes in the hall. In our family, there are five of us – myself, my wife and our daughter, the dog and the house. We always have to think of the house!

Steps down to the garden, over the swimming pool, at The Homewood, Surrey.
Steps down to the garden, over the swimming pool, at The Homewood, Surrey. National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

I love the garden, but it’s an all-year- round obligation. Then there are National Trust personnel and contractors to manage. The alarm always malfunctions when you’re on holiday abroad, and if the roof is going to leak, chances are it will happen when there is snow on the ground. You have to be calm in a crisis.’ nationaltrust.org.uk/the-homewood

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The Countess of Carnarvon

Highclere Castle
Highclere Park, Newbury

‘My husband, George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, inherited Highclere in 2001 when his father (Lord Porchester, 7th Earl of Carnarvon) died. It was first opened to the public in 1988.

When Geordie first asked me to Highclere for a lunch party, I didn’t know I was going to end up marrying him, or running the place! I hadn’t given much thought to what running a stately home entailed. It’s quite a big enterprise – I have lots of lists, tasks and meetings. My husband acts as chairman and I’m CEO. Before this, I worked at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The Countess of Carnarvon and her husband George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon.
The Countess of Carnarvon and her husband George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon.

There’s been a home here for at least 1,200 years. The earliest written record is 749AD, when there was a building here owned by the Bishops of Winchester. I have a sense of continuity that the place and the landscape gives me, as well as the house. It’s an amazing privilege to live here. When you drive in the park, you think: it’s so beautiful. But it’s not mine. It’s just ours for a while.

We plant trees. I was admiring an immense cedar tree the other day, which some amazing person planted 250 years ago. It’s good to remember to plant a tree for somebody else to enjoy in 200 years time. Nature is important to me.

We have a farm and my husband and I love gardening. There isn’t much privacy here, but I’m one of six sisters so I never had any privacy growing up. There are rooms that aren’t open to the public, but when nobody’s here, we use the library and so on.

Sometimes the weight of it all is immense; it’s an immense house. There are 300 rooms and everything always needs mending! At the moment the water tanks above the tearoom need fixing.

The library, well known by fans of TV drama Downton Abbey.
The library, well known by fans of TV drama Downton Abbey.

It was so odd during the Covid-19 lockdown – quiet and empty. I don’t think the house has ever been closed down like that before. A lot of the rooms were dark. I didn’t open the shutters because otherwise I would have had to close them all again and it takes too long. It’s been a business catastrophe. We’ve been through recessions before, when business contracts, but usually only by 20 per cent. Our turnover this year will have fallen by 80 per cent. It’s like going over a cliff without a parachute. We were working 12 hours a day, seven days a week at one point to reallocate tickets. It was exhausting.

I don’t look backwards though. Every day is another beautiful day. John Clare wrote: ‘And what is life? An hourglass on the run’. That’s where I start. It’s a troubled, brittle world. Lots of things don’t matter, but how you treat people matters. Kindness matters.

Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, and his wife Emma are wonderful friends. Highclere and homes are about heart and people, not just stones, so in that way, we’ve brought Highclere into the minds and hearts of many people. It’s an anchor of reassurance and we’ve managed to share that. That’s what England’s visible history is about.’ highclerecastle.co.uk

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Lucy Hutchings, Head of Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace
East Molesey, Surrey

‘As a little girl, I always dreamt of playing in castles. Before becoming Head of Hampton Court Palace, I worked for English Heritage for 10 years, before managing Dover Castle.

Hampton Court Palace is a world- renowned heritage attraction, so when this job came up, I jumped at the chance. I came on a research trip and I remember walking into Base Court and being in absolute awe – goose bumps up my arms. I knew it was where I needed to be. I’ve been here for two years now and it was the best move I ever made. Coming to work every day is an absolute joy. You’re surrounded by some of the most incredible history. Everybody learns at school about Henry VIII and his six wives – that happened here! It’s so important to make time to just stop and absorb what’s around you. Sometimes I stand in Base Court and wonder what it looked like 500 years ago. What did it smell like? How noisy was it?

Lucy Hutchings, Head of Hampton Court Palace.
Lucy Hutchings, Head of Hampton Court Palace.

I moved on-site permanently in March and, while I do live in a palace, my humble lodgings are quite ‘studenty’ – a lot of my furniture is in storage. I live right next door to the palace and my commute is a 30-second walk from my front door to the office. Part of the building is a holiday cottage, a Landmark Trust property, so visitors can come and stay.

One of the perks is having the keys and being able to roam at my leisure. There are over 1,300 rooms here to explore. Usually I’m busy managing the palace, but in lockdown I had a good nose around, which was eye- opening. I’m an absolute wimp, so half the time when exploring I have to take somebody else with me because there are some really creepy parts, and it’s renowned for being haunted. About 50 per cent of my staff here have experienced things they can’t explain – doors slamming, hearing footsteps and so on.

The Great Hall sits at the very heart of the Tudor palace.
The Great Hall sits at the very heart of the Tudor palace.

The palace is open to the public, but there are places to hide away and pretend that you have a normal life if you need to. I’m strict about not working from home, ever. Since moving here, I’ve taken up jogging. I can now do a few circuits of the East front gardens without passing out so, I’ve improved! We usually welcome one million visitors a year and I manage a team of 150 people. As great as it was having this place to myself, it doesn’t feel alive without people. It was lacking the energy that comes from having people enjoy the spaces. We’re delighted to welcome everyone back.’ hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace