Cothay Manor Garden

Channel 4, in the UK, did a programme on Cothay Manor Garden this evening. Mr Alastair Robb (78) and Mrs Mary-Anne Robb (68) spend £40,000/year on running the house and only get £15,000 from opening the garden to the public. Mrs Robb said, rightly, that ‘most National gardens have lost their soul’ and that running the garden as the National Trust do would wreck its character. They have four children who say ‘we don’t want to spend every waking hour working, as you do’. But the parents gave the property to one of the children, to ‘keep it in the family’ and preserve their life’s work. Not all the other children were happy with this, understandably.  Ruth, for Channel 4, suggests the solution re the income is to organize events (like sculpture exhibitions) to attract more visitors and make more money. I saw this tried in several gardens last summer, including Chatsworth, Hatfield House and Mellerstain, and thought the sculpture and the gardens did nothing for each other (or for the  income at Cathay). Ruth also persuaded them to build a cafe-restaurant, which made the Robbs their first ever profit, with visitor numbers up from 5,000 to 15,000. Giving the property to one child, hopefully 7 years before the parents’ death, saves £1m in inheritance tax on a £3m property. Interesting.

8 thoughts on “Cothay Manor Garden

  1. Adam Hodge

    Having visited Cothay this summer, one is left with the impression that
    a] the garden and house have plenty going for them, enough to warrant investing in the services of a less than busy gardening correspondent/journalist to work on a lot of PR, getting oodles of pictorial articles published around the world-Japan, USA, France, Italy etc etc . not to mention plaguing bus tour companies in the UK to get it on the tours map..THE new place to visit ! This should aggressively up the footcount.
    b] They now have the premises to serve food, they just need to use some more imagination offering a fair range of tempting looking scoff, especially to the grey pound. Currently it looks more functional and austere than tempting. [I had what turned out to be a very expensive smoked salmon sandwich, the bread was fine but it was a mingy bit of SS, compared to other hostelries.] As TT advises..forget sticking modern art in the garden, polish up its unashamadly unique quirky character and promote it as the un-discovered next Sissinghurst.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I think there is a need for specialist consultants, with experience of visiting many gardens in many countries, to advise on visitor marketing and management at historic gardens. It would require a different skillset to that required for the ‘internal’ management of a garden, just as retail marketing is a different skill to retail management. Approaches could range from low-cost low-revenue low-impact (like Rousham) to high-cost high-revenue high-investment (like Warwick Castle) to conservation-grade management (like Katsura). With luck we would then get much more variety than in the typical National Trust approach (though, in fairness, the NT has more than one approach). Visitor managers could also offer a site management service which involved opening a garden for a day or a week per year – perhaps when the owner was on vacation. The UK has a great many notable gardens which are never open to the public.

  3. Adam Hodge

    Tom I think you are right, but as the Robbs have indicated, they are very short of moolah so the Specialist Consultant type person you refer to is probably beyond their fiscal comfort zone for the time being.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I’m not so sure: if they have been losing £25,000/year for a decade then a percentage of this on consultancy would have been a very good investment. To deal with a similar problem at Belmont Park in Kent they commissioned an expensive design from Arabella Lennox Boyd. It has its virtues, as our reviewer notes, but I think their visitor numbers are similar to those at Cothay Manor. I think advice from a garden visiting consultant would be a good investment – if they want more visitors.

  5. Pete


    it’s much harder for a private house/garden than it is for the National Trust don’t you think? The average visitor to this type of property will likely already be a National Trust member. Given the price of entry to some of these properties your average punter is going to choose National Trust properties or properties associated to the HHA scheme every time.

    Cothay shoots itself in the foot a bit because the house is not really open. Groups visits are fine but hard to organise unless you live locally. Even if the house is open at bank holidays then they would get a lot more visitors and more revenue. I do appreciate it’s there house and they can open it as they see fit.

    For a truly private property you need to have a USP or the property will be missed as the tourists head to the local National Trust.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree that the National Trust has become a very successful marketing organization.It has too many resemblences to a franchise operation. But in this ‘business’ numbers are not everything and the profit and loss account is more significant. For example, I really admire the way Rousham is run. The costs of admitting visitors are very low, because they use an ‘honesty machine’. The atmosphere is very calm and appropriate. Sometimes, the NT also uses this approach.

  7. Pete

    I would agree about the franchise operation remark, I wish there was more freedom for local management. I’m reading James Lees-Milne’s diaries and the contrasts are huge – quelle surprise. Actually some of that spirit still survives at places like Boarstall Tower where you are shown around by the resident.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Perhaps we should follow in Egon Ronay’s footsteps and identify the worst managed National Trust gardens.
    I may have gone on a bad day but I visited Sheffield Park last summer with warm memories of having been there 15 years ato and 30 years ago. On my first visit, it was not so far from the quality of a private garden; 15 years ago, on a hot afternoon, it was busy but splendid; last summer, I found the garden centre and restaurant in excellent condition. But the gardens around the house looked tired and over-used. The woodland garden was over-tended and being fitted out with a board walk which might have been made with some planking they could not sell in the garden centre.


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