Richard Broyd

Any charity can be looked after with large and regular donations, yet no piece of Britain's heritage can be called secure until it looks after itself. And so it was, with this vision, after hearing of the appalling damage that the nation's country houses suffered in the 20th century, that Richard Broyd quietly set about quietly protecting them from the 21st.

Having made his fortune as an entrepreneur in recruitment, Richard founded Historic House Hotels in 1979 with the express purpose of sympathetically restoring old buildings, which would then pay for their own upkeep by admitting paying guests. First he took on Bodysgallen Hall in north Wales, which was shortly followed by Middlethorpe, near York. Later, he bought the lease to Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, where King Louis XVIII of France once spent five years living in exile after the revolution.

In an extraordinary gesture, Richard also insisted from the beginning that his plan was eventually to give away the entire company and its assets to the National Trust. When he finally did so, in September 2008, it turned out to be the largest single gift that the charity had ever received

Yet, by then, it was not the only thing that Richard had done for them. A committed supporter since his twenties, he stepped in with a major donation when it seemed that Capability Brown's first landscape garden, at Croome, was on the point of being lost. For the past 20 years, he has also acted as an honest broker between the charity and Stowe school in the process of agreeing for Stowe Landscape Gardens to be donated, and then painstakingly restored. In mid Wales, at the same time, he has given huge financial and personal support to the Hafod Trust, which is restoring the picturesque landscape designed by Thomas Johnes, and to the Welsh Highland Railway.

"Richard is a modest man, but he is tenacious," says the National Trust's director-general Dame Fiona Reynolds. "He has a passion for and deep knowledge of historic houses and landscapes that it would be difficult to match. He's very focused and determined, and gets big projects seen through. Once settled on a course of action, he is unstoppable."

And he would need to be. The restoration of even one dilapidated stately house and garden brings with it so many overlapping layers of complication and expense that the British countryside is littered with failed attempts. The placement of one water feature, say, could involve rehoming a family of badgers, which involves moving the car park, which involves clearing up a boundary dispute. And so on for the rest of your life. In a rare interview with the Telegraph, to mark his donation of the hotels, Richard once admitted that, "It does help if you don't know what you're doing." (As Dame Fiona also notes, Richard has "a sometimes wicked sense of humour".)

Today, the Historic House Hotels are thriving under National Trust ownership, which preserves them in perpetuity, as Richard had always hoped. Yet the man who made it possible continues to work privately and doggedly, without reward. As the hotels' guests stroll around their sumptuous corridors and gardens, most will be completely unaware of who it is they have to thank.