It takes a family to raise a village
Country Life UK|March 17, 2021
A hangover from the days of landed gentry, there are still privately owned villages scattered throughout the UK. What is it really like to be at the helm of a community, asks Alec Marsh
Alec Marsh

ONCE upon a time, not so many generations ago, it was common for a landed estate to own the nearby village—a fact often reflected in the name of the local pub and, sometimes, in the uniform architecture of the buildings. Quite how many such villages there once were awaits the dedicated labours of academic study, but what we do know is that now, of hundreds or even thousands, scarcely a dozen or so privately owned villages remain.

With soaring death duties, rent acts and collapsing land prices in the aftermath of the World Wars, vast tracts of land were sold off across the countryside and the villages went with them. There was no let up. ‘From the 1970s, most privately owned villages were sold piecemeal, often after centuries of ownership,’ confirms Jonathan Thompson, senior heritage advisor at the Country Land & Business Association (CLA). A few, however, are holding out.

Meet Sir Richard FitzHerbert, owner of Tissington near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. The village and estate have been in the family for 500 years and the house, built in 1609, has only ever been occupied by his relatives. Sir Richard, the 9th Baronet, inherited it all from an uncle he barely knew at the age of 25, in 1989. ‘It’s sort of my job,’ he responds, when asked what owning a village is like.

Unusually, Tissington Hall is at the centre of the village, with gates leading onto the street, rather than being at the end of a long drive. ‘We live here and we work here, and we work here and we live here, and you can’t get away from it,’ Sir Richard declares. Awarded the Bledisloe Gold Medal for estate management by the Royal Agricultural Society in 2006, he spends a lot of his time ‘battling the suppliers, whether that be broadband, electricity, water or the planners—the national park authority’. He admits: ‘These people make my job incredibly difficult.’

As well as renting out some 45 properties, the family has tenant farmers on the 2,000 acres and runs corporate events and weddings at the house. ‘Although I say I own a village, I own a community—and I’m responsible for that community,’ reflects Sir Richard. ‘That means you have to take certain decisions, which wouldn’t necessarily be commercial ones.’

Rents in Tissington are between 20% and 80% of market rates, he reveals, with retired longstanding staff receiving the best terms. ‘I would rather have a more community spirited tenant in the village, at a lower rent, than go for the top rent with someone who doesn’t get involved. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we have survived, apart from being incredibly lucky,’ muses Sir Richard. ‘But you have to work at it. This is a 24/7 job.’

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