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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - THE CUT -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.