Petty guests, rude public: you’re not getting a tour of my house

Negative attitude from online users made me unwilling to show my house to visitors.


One of the TripAdvisor’s anonymous reviews of the house contained the “Spend your time & money elsewhere” title. The review was posted after the tour around an amazing house was done, including a tea party in front of a huge beautiful fireplace. The rude reviewer complained about everything, even the owner’s using “what” instead of “pardon”.

Pardonne-moi, but I can only say that the owner — a wonderful Nancy Mitford, who is the author of Noblesse Oblige, and the guide to “U” and “non-U” lingo — would be highly unsatisfied with the review presented above. I remember Peter Fleming who mentioned in in The Spectator that he was hoping that Mitford’s guide to posh slang (1956) would become a national feature. This is because the guide creates a lexicon that doesn’t include classes in it, a “classless” one, where everyone says “what” instead of “pardon”. 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. Its screening guidelines for review moderation states: “TripAdvisor has millions of reviews . . . therefore, it would be impractical for us to fact 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 about £20 billion a year to the economy — that the owner-led stately home or historic house personal tour is under threat.

I’ve been giving tours of Upton Cressett Hall in Shropshire, where I live, since I was 15. However, it has 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.”

We’ve had several complaints about our parading peacocks

There was no word of thanks. 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 climb a ladder and squeeze through an upstairs window 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 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 Basil Fawlty in action.

The owner-led 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. Today, thanks to TripAdvisor, the owner-led tour is an endangered species. Not only is it very difficult to have unfavourable reviews removed from the website, but as the owner of an attraction you have no choice about whether you are listed and ranked.

After opening your private garden to raise money for a local charity, you can wake up the next morning and find your herbaceous borders under attack online. The problem is exacerbated because most 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. 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 TripAdvisor?”

I know how my friend feels. I’d like to think my anecdotal tours and the efforts of my wife in providing our gatehouse holiday renters with a 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 down to just one after a holiday rental client threatened to report us on TripAdvisor for “noise pollution”. Rehousing 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. 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” — we charge £12.50 for a tour of the house and gardens and home-made cake and tea served in a medieval tent.

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 getting increasingly personal, many of us are considering switching to a virtual tour on a tablet with earphones. This would be a great loss to tourism, but perhaps my friend is right. 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.”
The full version of this piece appears in Spectator Life,