Apparently, I’m the Basil Fawlty of the English country house

    12 January 2016

    ‘Spend your time & money elsewhere,’ ran the headline on the anonymous TripAdvisor review of Provender House in Kent. This was after a tour conducted by the house’s owner, Princess Olga Romanoff, and which concluded with tea served in front of a Tudor fireplace.

    ‘Princess Olga has got to be the most rude, self-important & ill-mannered woman that I have ever had the misfortune to meet,’ wrote the reviewer. ‘The venue is hardly a palace and nothing more than a large shabby detached house. Olga herself lives in couple of meagre little rooms… & unlike real royalty or even aristocracy has to carry out personal tours of the house for around a tenner a throw. Pretty demeaning & embarrassing. Does not even have the manners or breeding to use the word pardon but to just keep barking the word ‘what’ at everybody, such is the self-importance.’

    Pardonne-moi. But I can say with some certainty that Nancy Mitford — author of Noblesse Oblige, the guide to ‘U and Non U’ posh lingo — would be sick into her napkin (as opposed to ‘serviette’) if she read the above. As Peter Fleming wrote in The Spectator when her guide to ‘U-Slang’ was published in 1956, he hoped her definitive guide would serve the national interest by creating a ‘classless’ lexicon of communication in which all say ‘Pardon’ and none say ‘What’. He was being ironic, obviously.

    In other words, the TripAdvisor reviewer had got it wrong. But being wrong counts for very little on TripAdvisor. The Massachusetts-based global travel business, which claims to be the world’s largest ‘user-generated content’ travel site — freely admits this. Their own screening guidelines for ‘review moderation’ states: ‘We post an average of 16 reviews and opinions every minute… therefore it would be impractical for us to check the details of reviews.’

    Such is the tyranny of TripAdvisor’s reviews of Britain’s historic houses — an integral part of the UK’s heritage tourism that contributes around £20 billion a year to the economy — that the owner-led stately home or historic house personal tour is now under threat.

    I’ve been giving tours of Upton Cressett Hall in Shropshire, where I live, since I was 15. But it’s now reached the point that when I see a punter take out a notebook during a tour I grit my teeth like an actor who shudders when he sees a particularly poisonous theatre critic sitting in the front row. On one infamous occasion three years ago, I ejected a party of 30 Worcester Townswomen’s Guild members after several of them were rude during the tour. The problem started when an elderly member of the group marched up to me by the front door and snapped: ‘Are you staff? Where’s the toilet?’

    The perennial toilet question is the curse of anyone who opens their house to visitors and a subject of almost obsessive interest to TripAdvisor reviewers.

    ‘I’m not staff,’ I replied. ‘We don’t offer any public lavatories in the house. But if it’s urgent, you can use the private loo under the stairs.’

    There was no word of thanks from Senior Worcester Woman. She barrelled towards the loo as if it were a public convenience at Waterloo station. When she emerged, she then pulled the front door shut behind her, locking me out along with the rest of her party. My gardener’s six-year-old son had to squeeze through an upstairs window via a ladder to open the door. To cap it all, the self-styled ‘team leader’ approached me at the end of the 45-minute tour and said I owed the woman an apology. Oh, and they wanted a discount, too.

    ‘Why don’t you all just kindly leave?’ I said. ‘You can keep your money. In 30 years of giving tours, your group is the most objectionable and rudest I have ever encountered.’

    Inevitably, they retaliated on TripAdvisor with multiple ad hominem attacks and our local ranking was downgraded. One post said I needed to learn some manners, while another criticised my temper. ‘Mr Cash has a very short fuse,’ she wrote. Oddly, the local media furore greatly increased numbers for the rest of the season. People wanted to see this country house Basil Fawlty in action.

    The owner-led English country house private tour has been a staple of English touring since the 18th century, when all that was required was a knock on the front door and a visiting card to the butler or footman. More often than not, the owner would take pride in showing the stranger around. Today, thanks to TripAdvisor, the owner-led tour is an endangered species. Not only is it almost impossible to have unfavourable reviews removed (even if you are the ‘contributor’ and want to correct a mistake), but as the owner of an attraction you have no choice about whether you are listed and ranked. After opening up your private garden to raise money for a local charity, you can wake up the next morning and find your herbaceous borders under attack on the website. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of people who have an enjoyable time at your house tend not to bother writing a review.

    I was at a house party recently given by the owner of a stately pile that is open to the public. As we sat in the candlelit Great Hall, our host made a somewhat unusual request to his assembled dinner guests: ‘Instead of writing a thank you letter, can you please write us a good review on Trip Advisor?’

    I know how my friend feels. I’d like to think my anecdotal house tours, and the efforts of my wife when it comes to providing our gatehouse holiday renters with a local ‘Shropshire hamper’, are a welcome change to the National Trust style of bossing people about in themed Victorian costumes with recorded speeches.

    But apparently not. We’ve had several complaints about our parading peacocks, which we have long regarded as adding to the Elizabethan aesthetic of our gardens. We are now down to just one — a white peacock called York — after a holiday rental client threatened to report us on TripAdvisor for ‘noise pollution’. Re-housing the guests for two nights cost us £350, but the effect of a ‘Peacock Hell’ review on our rental business would have been worse.

    What TripAdvisor’s class warriors fail to grasp is that much of the heritage tourism industry is about survival rather than profit. Most reviewers seem to think that anybody who lives in a Grade I-listed property open to the public must be a wealthy aristo. But this is far from the case. According to English Heritage, 47 per cent of people who live in listed buildings are in social classes A and B, with the rest being in classes C1, C2 and D. In other words, the preservation of our heritage is a classless vocation. And many who, like us, open their gates for teas and tours run our properties at a loss. Yet one review (‘A Stranger to Customer Care’) accused us of ‘unbelievable greed’ in charging £12.50 for a tour of the house and gardens and home-made cake and tea served in a medieval tent.

    I don’t subscribe to the mantra that just because somebody has handed over £10 it gives them the right to abuse their host and behave as if it is a hotel. The late Duke of Devonshire always used to refer to Chatsworth day-trippers as ‘our guests’, and just as polite guests don’t abuse their hosts — even if the bathwater is lukewarm — so paying guests shouldn’t think the customer is always right. Not in a private house. When you enter somebody’s home, the social rules and expectations are different from staying in a resort.

    With the attacks on historic house owners now getting increasingly personal, many of us are considering phasing out the owner-led tour and switching to a virtual tour on a tablet with earphones. This would be a great loss to English tourism. For anybody who wants to experience one of the best theatrical set pieces of the real English summer, an owner-led tour of a country house is about as quintessentially English an experience as it is possible to find. And, incidentally, as far removed from the Disneyfied world of Downton Abbey as any American tourist can hope to get.

    But with the entire theatrical cast of the UK heritage industry — from dukes to tea-room staff — now under online assault, perhaps my friend is right. Owners need to fight back. When I next have a house party I will leave a note in each guest bedroom: ‘No need to leave a tip — please write a good review on TripAdvisor instead.’