What is it like to live in a castle in the year 2013? Like a fairy tale - or just really expensive? Eduard de Loë and his three brothers grew up in the Mheer castle in South Limburg. Today he lives in the German district of Kleve, on an estate he inherited when he was three years old. De Loë is one of the owners who participated in a recent UM study on the conservation of historical estates in Limburg. The Dutch government proclaimed 2012 the Year of the Historic Country House. The aim: to raise awareness of historical estates in the Netherlands, and to call attention to the conservation of this important cultural heritage. With more and more owners struggling stay afloat financially, this was considered all too necessary. The Province of Limburg and the Limburg House of the Arts therefore commissioned a study into the major issues faced by the owners of these sites. The research was led by Joop de Jong, programme director of the MA Arts and Heritage and board member of the Limburg Castles Foundation. “There are over 50 estates in Limburg, most of which are in private hands and occupied by the owner”, he explains. “Then there are those now used for catering and tourism, such as the estates managed by the hotelier Camille Oostwegel. And a number are owned by organisations like the Limburg Landscape Foundation and used as museums or offices. What seems clear is that the present grant schemes and licencing regulations are far too complicated. And the decentralised approach, which leaves the individual municipalities to implement policy, is not working well.”
Costly property De Loë couldn’t agree more. The Mheer castle has been in the hands of his aristocratic family since as early as the 14th century. When his father moved there from Germany in the late 1950s, the castle was in an abominable state. “He spent 50 years restoring it, partly with grants but largely with his own money. If we’d had to finance it fully from our day-to-day income, the castle would have been a ruin right now. As for the future, we have major concerns about how we’ll continue to finance the property. I have three brothers; all of us have jobs and do this as well. We spend far too much of our already limited time dealing with regulations of the different authorities.” “Our research shows that almost all owners put in a great deal of free labour and their own money into conserving their properties”, says De Jong. “The main problem is that this costs much more than it’s worth. The annual maintenance costs for the buildings as well as the gardens are average around €100,000 per year. At most 25% of this is covered by grants. The owner is the largest backer, and has to cough up the remaining 75% himself.”
Napoleon At the Mheer castle, some of the outbuildings are rented out, the grounds are leased and part of the main house can be hired for receptions or dinners. But all this is just a drop in the ocean, and doesn’t come close to covering the real costs. As De Jong explains, “In the Netherlands and Flanders, many estates were split up under the Napoleonic law of inheritance, because they had to be shared among all children. In Germany - with the exception of the Rhineland - the Napoleonic law was less strictly applied. Because estates were passed on only to the eldest son, they didn’t have to be chopped up into pieces.” De Loë: “This was part of Napoleon’s attempt to reduce the influence of the landed gentry. The consequence is that today, it’s easier for estates in Germany to be self-sustaining than those in the Netherlands.” Family tradition If the property is such a burden, why hold on to it? “It’s the family tradition, and it’s quite an emotional thing”, says De Loë. “The house has been in our family for centuries and my brothers and I don’t want to be the ones to turn out the lights. Even as a child, I was aware that a castle is also hard work.