Astley Castle in Warwickshire has been associated with three Queens of England, inspired the writer George Eliot, and features a moat. Oh, and it only costs an average of £30 pounds (about $40) per person, per night. Can your holiday house say that?
No? That’s precisely why the 13th-century castle has become one of the most popular places among vacationers to rent in the United Kingdom. Yes, this piece of British history is now a holiday rental (in fact, it sleeps eight).
Lovers of historic buildings typically can only experience them as museums or tourist attractions. But why shuffle through those medieval hallways behind busloads of sightseers for an hour, when you could live in them privately for a week? This is the genius philosophy of The Landmark Trust, a UK-based heritage building preservation charity that rescues and restores derelict properties, then rents them out to history-loving vacationers. Think of it as Airbnb for time travel.
If Astley Castle doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can also bed down in an 1860s artillery fort, a late 19th-century former pigsty, and a castle built in 1243 by Henry III. While most of the Trust’s approximately 200 properties are located in the UK, it has also restored a few homes in France, Italy, and Belgium including Le Moulin, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s former weekend home following his abdication, located south-west of Paris. (If only those walls could talk; they would get a book deal.) There is also a Landmark Trust USA, established in 1991, and the Irish Landmark Trust, which was created in 1992.
According to the Trust, summer 2016 has seen a record 90% occupancy, and the average price across all properties was less than £50 ($60) per person, per night. Over 56,000 people stayed in Trust rentals in 2015. The most popular rental was the aforementioned Astley Castle, which won the 2013 RIBA Stirling prize for architecture. Other popular spots included the Clavell Tower, a four-story circular tower in Dorset built in 1830, and Belmont, a Georgian villa in Lyme Regis owned most recently by writer John Fowles.
The UK Landmark Trust, based in Berkshire, was founded in 1965 by philanthropist and self-confessed “buildings buff” Sir John Smith and his wife, Lady Christian Smith. The Trust’s goal is to save and restore buildings that don’t make the cut for National Trust preservation. Funding comes from individuals, trusts, businesses, and applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Last year 150 buildings were offered for consideration; the Trust picks two or three projects a year.
To qualify for Trust rescue, a property has to be historically and architecturally noteworthy and in dire need of some TLC—and have holiday potential. Once chosen, the building is researched, plans are drawn up, and historically accurate restorations are begun. Income from rentals goes toward maintenance of the building, and any leftover income goes back into the Trust.
Television likely deserves some of the credit for this recent trend in pre-modern living. Programs such as The Tudors, Downtown Abbey, and Outlander make living in castles and forts look exciting and sexy, even without modern plumbing. In the UK, the renter breakdown is 90% British, 5-6% North American, and the remainder European. In the US, vacationers are 60% American and 40% European. The buildings may be old, but the kitchens and bathrooms have modern plumbing. (There’s still no TV or wifi, however.)
One of the most magnificent homes up for temporary grabs in the US is Rudyard Kipling’s family home, Naulakha. Abandoned for fifty years and filled with raccoons when it was first purchased for $200,000, the US Trust has since spent $1.2 million to restore it. Now literature lovers can sleep in the same house where Kipling wrote such classics as The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous. You simply cannot do that at a fancy hotel chain.
“Our properties offer a one-on-one experience with history,” says Kelly Carlin, operations manager at Landmark Trust USA. “Parents tell us how happy they are to disconnect, to have their children playing hide-and-seek or volleyball, and doing things as a family.”
Carlin says that like its UK cousin, the Trust constantly fields offers to restore neglected properties and is considering expanding: Recently it was offered a 5,000-acre plantation in Virginia and an adobe in Mexico. Of course, sadly not every worthy building can be saved. What happens then? Landmark Trust UK said it doesn’t keep track of buildings that don’t qualify for help, but it notes that some properties reappear on a “potentials” list a few years after the first approach.
So in the meantime, Sire, your castle awaits.
Here are 10 of our favorite rentals currently available in the UK:
Le Moulin, 1700s, Gif-sur-Yvette