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Keeping Up With The Aristocrats: What life is REALLY like for four upper-crust families

They have swimming pools, sweeping staircases and sprawling grounds, but a new fly-on-the-wall documentary series proves that life in an English stately home is far from a fairytale.

Upper-crust families who have inherited four of the nation’s grandest country piles offer a look at what goes on behind closed doors in Keeping Up With The Aristocrats, a light-hearted three-part ITV series beginning next week.  

It reveals the extraordinary amount of work – and cash – required to keep these majestic mansions up and running. And, unlike their ancestors, many of today’s blue-bloods are having to do the work themselves. 

For the reality is that many of today’s aristos are asset rich but cash-strapped and are kept awake at night worrying about how they’re going to make ends meet, just like the rest of us. Only they also have to deal with the embarrassing prospect that they might just be the generation that fails to keep up payments and must pass on ownership of a property that’s been in the family for hundreds of years. 

‘Having a stately home is a privilege,’ says Lady Emma Fitzalan-Howard, who lives in Yorkshire’s 126-room Carlton Towers, ‘but it comes with a big emotional price tag.’ It also comes with an actual price tag: Lady Emma and her husband Lord Gerard have to foot an annual £70,000 heating bill.

At Bridwell House, in Devon, for example, the Queen’s cousin Lord Ivar Mountbatten takes it upon himself to clean the 100 windows, preferring to do the work himself rather than waste money on a professional. It makes perfect sense, given upkeep on the property sets him and husband James back £100,000 a year.

Elsewhere at Provender House, in Kent, Princess Olga Romanoff, the great-niece of Tsar Nicholas II, reveals she  has already spent £2million on repairs and now offers £14-a-head tours in order to bring in the money needed for more. 

Even Alexandra Sitwell, 63, and her husband Rick, who have a full-time staff of seven to help run Grade I-listed Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, feel the squeeze and put the money made from their bestselling wine into luxuries like the swimming pool and Italianate garden. 

THE MOUNTBATTENS OF BRIDWELL HOUSE, DEVON

Getting stuck in: Appearing in the series is Lord Ivar Mountbatten, left, a cousin of both the Queen and Prince Philip who cleans the 100-plus windows of his mansion, 18th-century Bridwell Park in Devon, himself. The divorced father-of-three made history four years ago when he became the first British royal to enter into a same-sex marriage, with airline steward James

New endeavours: Bridwell Park comes with an ornamental lake, a Gothic chapel and a deer park, which, while beautiful to look at, are expensive to maintain. In the series, Lord Ivar and James try to earn a crust by organising a pop-up restaurant at the house in collaboration with French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, charging guests £165 a head for an exclusive dinner

New endeavours: Bridwell Park comes with an ornamental lake, a Gothic chapel and a deer park, which, while beautiful to look at, are expensive to maintain. In the series, Lord Ivar and James try to earn a crust by organising a pop-up restaurant at the house in collaboration with French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, charging guests £165 a head for an exclusive dinner

Royal relatives: Lord Ivar is a relative of both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh through his father, George Mountbatten

Royal relatives: Lord Ivar is a relative of both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh through his father, George Mountbatten

Appearing in the series is Lord Ivar Mountbatten, 58, a cousin of both the Queen and Prince Philip who cleans the 100-plus windows of his mansion, 18th-century Bridwell Park in Devon, himself. 

‘These places don’t run themselves and I’m the sort of person that I’d rather do something myself than pay for them to do it,’ Lord Ivar explains. 

The divorced father-of-three made history four years ago when he became the first British royal to enter into a same-sex marriage, with airline steward James Coyle. 

James explains: ‘Sometimes we’re at a drinks party and some old duffer will say, “who are you” and I’ll say “I’m Ivar’s partner” and they’ll say, “what business are you in?” and then you have to say, “the gay business”.’

The couple remain close with Ivar’s ex-wife Lady Penny, who even gave Ivar away on his wedding day. Their daughters Ella, Alix and Luli get along famously with their new stepfather. 

‘I lived with a woman for 17 years then all of a sudden not having a woman on my side, but a man, it was quite a big step,’ admits Ivar, adding: ‘We have a big, blended family.’

Bridwell Park comes with an ornamental lake, a Gothic chapel and a deer park, which, while beautiful to look at, are expensive to maintain. 

In the series, Lord Ivar and James try to earn a crust by organising a pop-up restaurant at the house in collaboration with French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, charging guests £165 a head for an exclusive dinner. 

Blended family: The couple remain close with Ivar's ex-wife Lady Penny, who even gave Ivar away on his wedding day. Their daughters Ella, Alix and Luli get along famously with their new stepfather. Pictured, the family together

Blended family: The couple remain close with Ivar’s ex-wife Lady Penny, who even gave Ivar away on his wedding day. Their daughters Ella, Alix and Luli get along famously with their new stepfather. Pictured, the family together

It is just one of the ideas Ivar and James has to try and make money to cover the £100,000-a-year it takes to keep the house running. They also have a cafe on site. 

‘A restaurant seems a natural progression from the cafe,’ says James, as they prepare to welcome Jean-Christophe to the estate. 

The chef puts the duo to work, making Lord Ivar clean the windows of the dining room twice and requiring three tablecloths on each table so it is soft to the touch. 

But all the hard work is worth it when the evening – attended by the rest of the aristos featured in the show – goes off without a hitch. 

‘After tonight, I think we’ve demonstrated that we can do it, we can pull it off,’ says James. ‘I would do it again… Just not tomorrow.’  

OLGA ROMANOFF OF PROVENDER HOUSE, KENT

Russian royalty: Princess Olga Romanoff (pictured) is a member of the Russian upper-classes, whose great-uncle Tsar Nicholas II was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. However she needs money to run her family's estate

Russian royalty: Princess Olga Romanoff (pictured) is a member of the Russian upper-classes, whose great-uncle Tsar Nicholas II was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. However she needs money to run her family’s estate

Majestic money pit: Twice married and twice divorced, Princess Olga, 71, lives at the medieval Provender House near Faversham, which she inherited 21 years ago upon the death of her mother (her father, Nicholas II's nephew, had escaped to England). By then the money had run out and it was a ramshackle wreck

Majestic money pit: Twice married and twice divorced, Princess Olga, 71, lives at the medieval Provender House near Faversham, which she inherited 21 years ago upon the death of her mother (her father, Nicholas II’s nephew, had escaped to England). By then the money had run out and it was a ramshackle wreck

Russian royalty: Olga is the great-niece of Tsar Nicholas II. Her family settled in England after being exiled

Russian royalty: Olga is the great-niece of Tsar Nicholas II. Her family settled in England after being exiled

Princess Olga Romanoff is a member of the Russian upper-classes, whose great-uncle Tsar Nicholas II was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. 

She’s also a cousin of the Queen, is related to Prince Philip and was once considered an eligible match for Prince Charles. But Princess Olga Romanoff is quick to dismiss the general perception of her moneyed class.  

‘I’m not your ordinary princess,’ she says. ‘At home you’ll find me shovelling s***, sadly, not eating caviar.’

Twice married and twice divorced, Princess Olga, 71, lives at the medieval Provender House near Faversham, which she inherited 21 years ago upon the death of her mother (her father, Nicholas II’s nephew, had escaped to England). By then the money had run out and it was a ramshackle wreck.

‘When I was a child, it seemed like there was a bottomless pit of money,’ she recalls. ‘And indeed there was until my grandmother died. Then my mother, poor woman, got into deep s**t and the debts just rose and rose and rose.

Putting herself to work: Olga remembers a time when there was a large staff to keep the estate running. 'I love the garden but I loved it more when we had people doing all this,' she says, mowing the lawn, 'and I could just lie in the garden'

Putting herself to work: Olga remembers a time when there was a large staff to keep the estate running. ‘I love the garden but I loved it more when we had people doing all this,’ she says, mowing the lawn, ‘and I could just lie in the garden’ 

‘I inherited the house and I realised the house was literally falling down. ‘It’s still falling down, £2.5 million later,’ says Olga dryly. ‘I had to sell some of our Russian heirlooms to fund it.’

Today she generates income by renting out a wing of the house via Airbnb and by giving £14-a-head tours to busloads of tourists.

Cameras follow Olga as she gives a tour to one group, making jokes about her late ancestor’s busts and pointing out a painting made for her by a late ex-boyfriend.  

Yet Olga remembers a time when there was a large staff to keep the estate running.

‘I love the garden but I loved it more when we had people doing all this,’ she says, running a lawnmower across the grass, ‘and I could just lie in the garden’.   

THE SITWELLS OF RENISHAW HALL, DERBYSHIRE

The anti-boring aristos: Other toffs in the show include Alexandra Sitwell, 63, who inherited the 17th-century Grade I-listed Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire where her family has lived since 1625. Pictured, Alexandra with her husband Rick

The anti-boring aristos: Other toffs in the show include Alexandra Sitwell, 63, who inherited the 17th-century Grade I-listed Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire where her family has lived since 1625. Pictured, Alexandra with her husband Rick

Rich with resources: The 500-acre estate boasts a Italianate garden and a vineyard with wine stocked in supermarkets

Rich with resources: The 500-acre estate boasts a Italianate garden and a vineyard with wine stocked in supermarkets

Other toffs in the show include Alexandra Sitwell, 63, who inherited the 17th-century Grade I-listed Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire where her family has lived since 1625.   

Her husband of 30 years, Rick, is a Bahamas-born businessman and former chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers who has thrown himself into running the 500-acre estate, which boasts a Italianate garden and a vineyard with wine stocked in supermarkets.

It is also full of builders. The  house is undergoing a massive refit to fix its ancient wiring and leaky plumbing. 

‘This has been a huge upheaval,’ Alexandra says of the major renovation, in a room surrounded by workers. 

For his part, Rick believes there is nothing worse than being ‘boring’. 

Time for tea! Baroness Alexandra Sitwell with her husband Rick host a picnic in the grounds of Renishaw Hall

Time for tea! Baroness Alexandra Sitwell with her husband Rick host a picnic in the grounds of Renishaw Hall

Staff: Unlike some of the other aristos, Alexandra and Rick have the benefit of a team of permanent staff members, including four gardeners, two housekeepers and a butler, David, pictured, who jokes he got into the business because of his father.

Staff: Unlike some of the other aristos, Alexandra and Rick have the benefit of a team of permanent staff members, including four gardeners, two housekeepers and a butler, David, pictured, who jokes he got into the business because of his father.

‘The one thing you don’t want to be is boring,’ he says. ‘And [you must] have manners. But boring… I’m afraid I’m too old. I just walk away if someone is utterly boring. I just disappear.’ 

He certainly leads by example. At one point he walks through the grounds in his slippers and dressing gown, offering his verdict on the state of the facilities.  

‘All looking good,’ he says. ‘Fountain is working. Swimming pool is a good colour.’

Unlike some of the other aristos, Alexandra and Rick have the benefit of a team of permanent staff members, including four gardeners, two housekeepers and a butler, David, who jokes he got into the business because of his father. 

He says: ‘My father was a pig farmer and then became a butler but he says it’s the same thing: you feed them when they’re hungry and you clean up their mess!’  

THE FITZALAN-HOWARDS OF CARLTON TOWERS, NORTH YORKSHIRE

Family legacy: There's also Lord Gerald Fitzalan-Howard, 59, whose father was the 17th Duke of Norfolk. When Gerald's elder brother Edward inherited Arundel Castle in Sussex, as well as 126-room Carlton Towers in North Yorkshire, he gave the latter to Gerald, who's lived there since 1991. Pictured, Lord Gerald with Lady Emma, his wife of 30 years

Family legacy: There’s also Lord Gerald Fitzalan-Howard, 59, whose father was the 17th Duke of Norfolk. When Gerald’s elder brother Edward inherited Arundel Castle in Sussex, as well as 126-room Carlton Towers in North Yorkshire, he gave the latter to Gerald, who’s lived there since 1991. Pictured, Lord Gerald with Lady Emma, his wife of 30 years

Breathtaking: The stately home, which sits in 1,000 acres, comes with a clock tower, three state rooms and a Venetian Drawing Room. While there are plenty of benefits to having that much space, there are also astronomical costs

Breathtaking: The stately home, which sits in 1,000 acres, comes with a clock tower, three state rooms and a Venetian Drawing Room. While there are plenty of benefits to having that much space, there are also astronomical costs

There’s also Lord Gerald Fitzalan-Howard, 59, whose father was the 17th Duke of Norfolk. 

When Gerald’s elder brother Edward inherited Arundel Castle in Sussex, as well as 126-room Carlton Towers in North Yorkshire, he gave the latter to Gerald, who’s lived there since 1991. 

Lord Gerald is also related to royalty – he’s a descendant of Anne Boleyn. 

The stately home, which sits in 1,000 acres, comes with a clock tower, three state rooms and a Venetian Drawing Room. While there are plenty of benefits to having that much space, there are also astronomical costs. 

The heating bill alone is £70,000 a year. 

‘People think that Gerald and I are very rich but the fact is we are absolutely not very rich,’ his wife, Lady Emma, explains. 

Fortunately Lord Gerarld is industrious and is always dreaming up new ways of earning money. ‘I’m always full of ideas, some good and some completely rubbish,’ confesses Gerald, 59.

By his side is Lady Emma, 60, who he credits with helping to ease the stammer which, alongside his dyslexia, made his school days so difficult. 

To bring in money the couple host weddings at Carlton Towers, which has 17 bedrooms for paying guests and six for the family. 

But Gerald is also teaching himself to smoke fish and meat in a shed he bought from Homebase, which he eventually hopes to serve to guests and he’s also planted a vineyard so the estate can produce its own sparkling wine.

The couple are thrilled when they put the stopper in the first bottle of sparkling and travel to Renishaw Hall to share it with the Sitwells.   

‘We made some really good wine,’ Lord Gerald says after flogging their bubbles at a local food and drink market, ‘and that’s very exciting. I think my Dad would be sitting up there, smiling.’ 

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