Our host at Hatfield
Lord Salisbury is looking forward to welcoming visitors to this year’s Game Fair, to be held at his ancestral home, the resplendent Hatfield House
Eleanor Doughty speaks to Lord Salisbury, the owner of Hatfield House, site of this year’s Game Fair
One thing you should know about Robert Gascoynececil, the seventh Marquess of Salisbury, is that he is not a labrador fan. Instead, his gundog of choice is the mild-mannered clumber spaniel. Three years ago he was given one by his wife, a rescue dog named Linc, short for Lincoln.
Linc is about to have a very public outing as dad is hosting The Game Fair on their home turf of Hatfield House, in Hertfordshire, at the end of July.
Hatfield, the Jacobean childhood home and favourite residence of Elizabeth I, set in a 42-acre, 17th-century garden, has been in the Cecil family since 1611. While “we don’t have any Rembrandts,” Lord Salisbury says, “and, as one of my daughters keeps saying to me, ‘we’re not Chatsworth, you know’,” there’s a magical archive, in which the first draft of the execution warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots lies. “Lambeth Palace library will tell you that it has the first draft but it isn’t, actually, it’s the second,” he says proudly.
The Hatfield estate has about 1,000 acres and at Cranborne in Dorset, the family’s other estate, there are about 5,000 acres. Would Lord Salisbury like a few fields more? “Of course! Wouldn’t everybody like more?” he chuckles. But making money from land is difficult, he admits. “You need an awful lot of land for it to be a really rich inheritance but, all other things being equal, I would always like more land. Chance would be a fine thing.”
In any case, Hatfield is the perfect location for the 2017 Game Fair, being 22 minutes from London’s King’s Cross by train and just over an hour from Peterborough. Roughly 120,000 people are expected during the three days of the fair and Lord Salisbury hopes that as many as possible will come by train. “It will break rural England’s habit of a lifetime but Hatfield station is 10 minutes walk from the showground.”
Lord Salisbury’s life, on and off the field, has been nothing short of extraordinary. He first learnt to shoot pigeon with his father’s “very gloomy” head keeper, Lake. “He used to take me out when I was about nine or 10 and we used to sit for hours and get very cold. Every time I hit a pigeon, which was about once in every 12 shots, because I was very unlucky, he would upend a cartridge to show that I had actually hit one and then shake his head.” His father, the sixth marquess, was a keen shooting man and gave each of his seven children a pair of guns for their 21st birthday. “My great-grandfather gave our guns to the Home Guard in 1940 and, of course, we never saw them again. In 1946 or something my father bought up a load of smart pairs of guns for virtually nothing, and we were the beneficiaries.”
After an education at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, Lord Salisbury – then Viscount Cranborne – was elected member of parliament for South Dorset in 1976, the seventh consecutive generation of his family to sit in the Commons. He served as an MP until 1987, before joining the Lords in 1992. In 1994, he was made Leader of the Lords, before taking a leave of absence in 2001 and succeeding his father as Lord Salisbury in 2003. Politics does not so much appeal these days. “I was lucky to get in when I did, before the internet, and lucky with my constituency, who were extremely nice to me. I was there at the best time.” What is encouraging, he says, is that standing for election is still desirable – to others. “So long as people believe it is an honourable profession to which they can aspire then we’re in good shape.”
Being an MP and keeping up life in the countryside is harder than it sounds. “One of the difficulties about being in politics is that you don’t do anything except politics,” he says. “Weekends tend to be rather taken up.” Now aged 70, his hunting days with the Portman, the Beaufort and “occasionally in Ireland” are long gone, he chuckles. “I was the world’s worst horseman. I used to spend more time in a ditch than ever on a horse.”
But he still shoots. “People are kind enough to ask me away and we shoot at Hatfield. We try and encourage wild birds and do all the GWCT stuff.” He is, of course, president of the GWCT.
The best shoot day, he says, would take place at home – where else? “It would have
‘I used to spend more time in a ditch than ever on a horse’
to be at Cranborne or Hatfield, with the maximum variety of game, challenging birds and agreeable company.” As for the best shot he knows, “it’s not me, that’s for sure,” he laughs. “I only once found myself in the same party as His Grace, the Duke of Northumberland. I wasn’t in the next-door butt to him but I saw a rain of grouse coming down over his head and very few coming down over mine.” His wife’s family were “pretty showy shots”, he says, naming his father-in-law, the late Bill Stirling, and his brother-in-law, Archie, the owner of the Keir estate in Lecropt. “I’ve been lucky enough to see some people who were very expert. When it’s well done it’s tremendously elegant.”
My style is not terribly elegant, I say. Lord Salisbury laughs. “Join the club!”
Having voted “no” in the 1975 European communities referendum, he remains an arch-brexiteer. “I was very happy that the vote went the way it did.” Brussels, he says, is a shackle and we now have the opportunity to reinvent the countryside, “rather than trying to make do with negotiated compromises... which try to apply to agriculture in Sicily and the Shetland Islands, two slightly different places.”
If we are to make a success of Brexit, “we’ve got to ask ourselves what sort of country we want to be”. This, he says, should be a “free-trading, outward-looking, welcoming country, which has powerful representative institutions, which can adapt more easily than the ancien ržgime in Brussels, [which] is incapable of change.”
Future generations will not thank us if we get Brexit wrong, he says. “I suspect that one of the great dangers will be that we won’t be bold enough. This is a once-in-a50-year opportunity to reset our whole rural policy. It’s not just farming and conservation, it’s how do you stimulate the rural economy? How do you make sure there’s enough infrastructure so that businesses can flourish in rural areas? How do you have an effective housing policy?”
Brexit, he says, is an opportunity to “harness our newly found independence and develop a more coherent rural policy beyond farming, forestry and conservation”.
And conservation should not be a boxticking exercise. “Rather than saying, ‘these are the details imposed from above’, [it would be] much better to say, ‘I’d like to see an increase in ground-nesting birds and let’s do that by results.’ It encourages people to be innovative and see if they can find better ways of achieving results, rather than a way that is put down by some Whitehall mandarin.”
The battle for hen harriers remains fraught. “The pro-shooting lobbies do a very good job encouraging our side, just as the anti-shooting lobbies do a good job encouraging theirs,” Lord Salisbury says. “But there’s not much persuasion going on by one side or the other. The only way forward is to concentrate on peer-reviewed research and build your recommendations to government for policy on that. At least [then] there’s a basis for exchanging views based on something more than mere opinion or prejudice.” The issue of raptors “excites enormous emotions. One of the difficulties is that nature’s balance has tended to be pretty good. Then man intervenes and you get to a moment where there are imbalances in the animal kingdom, which do need man’s careful intervention to put the balance back again.”
But where hunting is concerned, Lord Salisbury is not so hopeful. “I’m extremely pro-hunting,” he says, “but if I had to bet… there will no doubt be a free vote but whether the government would give it time for a subsequent bill is rather more doubtful. There is going to be an enormous amount to do and hunting may not be such a high priority.”
By the time The Game Fair rolls into Hatfield, we may be closer to a resolution. But regardless, come rain or shine, Lord Salisbury will be there with Linc by his side. “I’m nervous but quietly confident, I think,” he smiles.
Lord and Lady Salisbury (left) are ready to welcome visitors to Hatfield House (above)
The beautifully tended Old Palace Garden. Top: the sculpture Renaissance before the north front