One foot in the future
At Holkham Hall in Norfolk, Tom (aka the Earl of Leicester) is carrying on the family tradition of innovation and forward thinking. Tom Rowley pays a visit. Photographs by Benjamin Mcmahon
Depending on whose word you take, Basil, holkham hall’s resident parrot, is either a charming little creature – ‘one of t he family’, his picture sitting in the Long Library beside one of ned, Viscount Coke, on his first day at eton – or a menace, a feathered hoodlum who tears about terrorising tourists. once, his detractors say, he swung from someone’s earlobe; another time, he flew off and evaded the estate’s staff for 24 hours. either way, his sense of timing is wholly admirable.
it was almost the end of my first day at the hall, a palladian pile in a voguish corner of north norfolk beloved by the Royal family and the hundreds of thousands of commoners who holiday here, and i was nearly convinced this was the very model of a modern country estate. There was someone who called himself a managing director, there were organisational charts and an‘ estate strategy’ document. even his Lordship carried a walkie-talkie (‘ Yes, Celia, are you in your office, over?’).
Cue Basil. Five minutes of watching the bird attach himself first to the Countess of Leicester’s shoulder then to her chest, only to be prised off with a tea towel – ‘Let me go, Basil!’ – was enough to reassure me that there’s eccentricity here yet.
‘i have to have parrots ,’ said Lady Leicester, once the thing was safely returned to its cage. ‘i had a budgerigar when i was little.’
in spite of Basil’s best efforts, though, the truth is that things are indeed rather more professional than they once were. no longer are Britain’s stately homes a collection of crumbling old piles run by crumbling old aristos. in place of deferential land agents, a new breed of trained managers are now running the bigger estates, bringing with them a phalanx of marketeers and a bulging pad of motivational slogans. Lord and Lady Leicester – ‘Tom and polly, please ’– are still in charge at holkham, but they have long since delegated much control to their estates director, David horton-fawkes, who exemplifies this new class.
‘he loves reading his business-guru books ,’ said Lord Leicester, a youthfullooking 51- year-old, who wore an hawaiian shirt and jeans to dinner. ‘he’s got one called First, Break All the Rules.
‘i didn’t want to employ a land agent to be in charge, i wanted to employ an MD. Just because we’re based on t he land and have got a big house doesn’t mean that we are old-fashioned.’
hor ton-fawkes, who brought his new approach first to Althorp and then to the Lowther estate in Cumbria, has banished chairs from his office (‘i can’t stand long meetings’) and does not wear a tie. Forty years ago, he concedes, his predecessors would have had a ‘larynx
made of t weed’. Now, he boast s, ‘we reckon change is great’. Since 1945, the year Brides head
Revisited was published, Britain’ s stately homes have been under threat. In those post-war years, much of their land was sold off to fund repair sand hundreds were broken up entirely as owners stumped up death duties.
In response, they set about opening up to the public. Every decade since, the most successful estates have dreamt up new ways to balance the books: first, they converted disused stable blocks into offices to rent, then came farm shops. In vogue now are festivals, exhibitions and outdoor events, from chamber music concerts to triathlons. Chatsworth’s current exhibition, House Style, is sponsored by Gucci.
Before the war, Holkham was easily the largest lowland estate in England, its park centred around the imposing 18th-century hall, built by the first Earl of Leicester to house the treasures he collected on a six-year grand tour of
‘Because we’re based on the land and have a big house doesn’t mean we are old-fashioned’
Europe. Then the fifth earl–Tommy Leicester – sold off land, some of it to Sandringham. ‘When [my father] took over in 1973, every single facet of the estate was losing money ,’ said Lord Leicester .‘ If Tommy wanted a nice month on a yacht in the Med, a wood was chopped down and he would go.’
By the time he died, the estate had lost a third of its land, but, at 25,000 acres, it remains vast. To keep it going, the current earl and his father, who died in 2015, have employed many of t he same tricks as other country houses. There is a caravan park and a hotel, a new farming exhibition and regular cycling events. A £4.5 million redevelopment project – including a new café in a former stable block (all duck-egg blue paint and light wood ), offices for the jeweller Monica Vinader and a wedding wing – has just been completed. This summer, Tom Jones and UB40 will perform in the g rounds. In 1996, farming contributed more than two-thirds of Holkham’s income; now, it accounts for only a quarter.
Among the most profitable of these new businesses is the car park. Lord Leicester remembers his horror when Horton-fawkes decided to build a new children’ s playground in the grounds, at a cost of £80,000. ‘I said, “£80,000! How much are we going to charge each child?” David said we’re not going to charge them anything. I said, “What?!”
‘But he was ahead of the game. I bump into friends who say ,“We had such a good day in the park – we can put our two sprogs on there for two hours and we can have a coffee and they’ re happy as Larry. We’ve bought a season car pass.”’
About 50,000 tourists visit the house each year, to walk through its magnifi- cent state rooms or admire paintings by Rubens and Poussin, but four times as many come to the café or the playground, and 800,000 walk along Holkham’s famous – and vast – beach. Most of them need somewhere to park.
‘Even 20 years ago, hall admissions would have been the driver ,’ said Horton-fawkes. Now, ‘the idea of being given a glimpse into His Lordship’s bedroom is of absolutely no interest to anyone any more. [The hall] is irrelevant. I once said to his father, “You’re not in the stately home business, you’re in the carparking business.” He looked appalled.’
From their respective standing desks, Horton-fawkes and Lord Leicester have recently been exchanging pithy emails
about Brexit. ‘In two years’ time, when we’ re trading with Serbia …’ HortonFawkes might snark. ‘ Yes, and Canada and Australia and America,’ comes the riposte from His Lordship. Holkham, like the country itself, is divided over the merits of leaving Europe.
‘David was a big Remainer,’ explained Lord Leicester. ‘I was a big Brexiteer. My family has a long history of democracy: the founder of the family fortune, Sir Edward Coke, stood up against King James I for the primacy of common law and was sent to the Tower of London for a bit to cool down. His son, John Coke, was an ardent Round head during the Civil War. I voted on the democratic deficit in Brussels.’
Horton-fawkes does not invoke his ancestors to explain his opposition to leaving. He simply thinks it could be bad for business – especially for the estate’s 22 tenant farmers. ‘It’s going to get difficult,’ he said. ‘It will affect our tenants and it will affect us. We’ re thinking what we can do to help them.’
Even Lord Leicester admits, ‘I voted a bit like a turkey voting for Christmas, because of the subsidies that we get .’ Few believe the generous subsidies afforded by the Common Agricultural Policy will survive Brex it: they could well be cut, or specifically earmarked for environmental projects.
Any changes to the regime will only increase the need for country houses to look elsewhere for profit. ‘The ability to generate additional income through diversification will become vital,’ said Charles Trotman, senior rural business adviser for the Country Land and Business Association .‘ You will see a far greater shift of landed estates going into diversification. You could say they have seen the writing on the wall.’
Yet Lord Leicester is more concerned about a longer-term threat to the estate: climate change. Since taking over the running of Holkham, he has installed a biomass boiler (which runs on wood rather than oil or gas) and an anaerobic digestion plant, which breaks down animal and food waste to produce biogas. There is a 100- acre solar field and Monica Vinader’s offices are heated by sevenand-a-half miles of pipes that snake
Top Holkham Hall is set in 25,000 acres of estate land, which includes farms, play areas, cycle paths and a pub. Right The Marble Hall, which is actually constructed mainly of Staffordshire alabaster.
Above Lady Leicester with Basil, the badly behaved pet parrot
Above Produce from the estate, including honey and seeds, is sold in its shops.
Above right The Victoria Inn – pub, restaurant and rooms – is set between the main house and the beach.
Right The Walled Garden’s six acres are the estate’s latest restoration project
Right The vast expanse of Holkham beach is backed by sand dunes and pine forests