When a stately home is hit by a pandemic and its staff get furloughed, there is nothing else for it but for those who are left to roll up their sleeves and muck in with its upkeep.
That was certainly the case for Simon Cunliffe-Lister and his family, who own Burton Agnes Hall, near Bridlington.
Simon, his wife, Olivia, and their five children, are no strangers to getting hands-on at the stunning Elizabethan visitor attraction, crafting decorations for the hall at Christmas from what they can find in the grounds and adding fun to outdoor trails with handmade features.
But the Covid-19 rollercoaster of opening and closing to the public over the past year has meant the Cunliffe-Listers going a step further and doing their own gardening in the vast grounds and finding new ways of offsetting the losses incurred by closing the house to visitors.
Olivia even reinvented an ice-cream cart she had found as a mobile pizza trailer, with wood-fired oven, to serve takeaway food to the visitors who could still enjoy the outdoor spaces at Burton Agnes, when restrictions allowed.
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Simon said: “It’s been a case of mixed emotions. It’s been very sad not to be able to have people in the house but it’s also been quite an uplifting time, looking after the whole place and getting to know it better ourselves.
“This time last year, myself, Olivia and the children (Islay, 14, Joss, 12, Otis, ten, Inigo, eight and Sholto, five) were pretty much doing the garden between us, we had our hands in the soil, pulling weeds and planting – and it was really hard work.
“There was a lot of responsibility on our shoulders when we are used to sharing that with the fabulous team we have here.
“It was actually great to get back in touch with the place as a family,” said Simon, who was nonetheless delighted to be able to welcome visitors back to Burton Agnes Hall this week, with the relaxation of the rules for indoor venues.
“We only had one brief opening last year, for a weekend orchid festival, before we went into lockdown, so the last time we properly opened our doors was for Christmas 2019,” said Simon.
“We’ve had to be creative and resourceful, looking to make something out of nothing when we have not been able to hold the seasonal events we would normally have done.
“We have been longing to open the hall again, we rely heavily on visitors to support the charity that maintains and looks after the place and it has been really challenging but by pulling together and with the Government’s support through the furlough scheme, we have made it through.
“In the first lockdown, with no visitors, and without that Government support, there would have been somewhere between a £100K to £200K deficit for the charitable trust that runs the hall.”
As it stands, Burton Agnes has been able to plug the gaps and broken even, taking forward some of the ideas that were created out of necessity (such as the popular pizza offering and a woodland Easter trail with scaled-up “birds’ eggs” to find) for future planning.
“We have got a really strong membership here and we have been delighted to increase that,” said Simon.
Burton Agnes Hall is now planning for a gardeners’ fair, from June 19 to 20, and a jazz and blues festival from July 9 to 11. Day tickets can also be booked now for entry to Burton Agnes Hall and Gardens.