The Game’s on at Ragley Hall.
There are dogs everywhere at Ragley Hall. As I come through the back door, a labradoodle stands alert; upstairs, the lift smells deliciously of wet dog and then, through the green baize door in the Marquess and Marchioness of Hertford’s flat, a dalmatian called Emma rushes towards me, Lady Hertford in tow. It’s not the dogs I’m here to see but their papa, Lord Hertford, whose study, hung with portraits of his ancestors and with a table covered in maps, has the telltale signs of a new arrival: newspaper pages down in corners and a dinky little crate by the window. “We’ve just got a puppy, a red labrador,” he says, by way of explanation.
Dogs are de rigueur at Ragley, which is just as well as the estate will be hosting the extremely dog-friendly Game Fair at the end of July. This year marks both the 60th Game Fair and Lord Hertford’s 60th birthday. Since the CLA relinquished responsibility for the Game Fair in 2015, there’s a new set up in place that has the Hertfords alternating with the Marquess of Salisbury at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. This arrangement is now in its third year and, so far, has been a success. In 2016, Ragley hosted 107,000 visitors, which Lord Hertford was pleased with. “If we had had less than 90,000 that would have killed it, so that encouraged us to go at it again.” Last year, 115,000 turned up to Hatfield.
This year’s diamond Game Fair has all the usual attractions, from gundog shows to birds of prey demonstrations, fly-fishing competitions and, of course, miles of shopping. All of this will fit in nicely on the Hertfords’ 6,500-acre estate, nine miles from Stratford-upon-avon, off the A46. The house, a hoofing great stately, 15 windows wide, was built in 1680 and has been in the family since it was rescued from demolition by Lord Hertford’s father in 1940. Its location will, yet again, prove attractive to visitors. “Ragley is superbly situated,” he grins. “I can get from here to the M25 is about two hours.”
Harry Seymour, the 9th Marquess of Hertford, was born in 1958 and educated at Harrow. He eschewed university and instead took up a job on the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate at Boughton, 70 miles from Ragley, first as a shepherd then a gamekeeper. After that, he went to Cirencester Agricultural College, as it then was – “I think they made an error when they reinvented themselves as a university” – to learn about land management. There, he found a gap in his contemporaries’ knowledge: “I was miles ahead when it came to any practical work but a country mile behind when it came to book work.” After Cirencester, he moved to Texas to become a cowboy. “I wanted to do something agriculturally based but completely different, out of my comfort zone, and it was enormous fun.” As for what his father, Hugh, the 8th Marquess of Hertford, made of this: “I always took the attitude with my parents that I would tell them, not ask them, it’s easier that way.” He chuckles. “My wife and I got married 28 years ago – I just invited them to our engagement party.”
With Beatriz, his Brazilian wife, he has four children: Lady Gabriella, 26; William, Earl of Yarmouth, 24; Lord Edward, 23; and Lady Antonia, 19. William lives on the estate,
and, his father says, is terribly keen to get involved. “He’s very interested in the estate – it would be difficult if he wasn’t.” The trick for getting a father-son estate relationship to work is to find your own niche, Lord Hertford says. “My strength has always been my agricultural background and that has probably meant that I have not explored other avenues, whereas my father ran a business in central London as his main activity. He set up the farming operations here and employed a manager to run them. There are aspects of land management that are now considered important but were not important at all in those days, such as property. I doubt my father would have [understood] EPC ratings.”
Lord Hertford and his son do have some things in common – a love of hunting, for example, though Lord Hertford gave up riding five years ago. In 1987, he had a trike accident on the estate, breaking part of his back. Later, he was diagnosed with ataxia, a condition that affects co-ordination, balance and speech. This has left him wheelchairbound. “Riding a horse when you can’t walk is an interesting experience,” he smiles. “If you don’t expect to dismount very quickly, you shouldn’t mount in the first place.” But he’s very cheerful about the whole thing. “I was once sitting leaning against a fence, my horse having dropped me off and then buggered off, and I had a phone call to make. I was going to wait until I got back home and do it on the landline, but I made it sitting there. I called [him] up, and half way through he said, ‘How come I can hear birdsong, where are you?’ And I said, well I’m sitting out in the West Park, I’ve just been dumped by my horse, someone has gone to get a vehicle to pick me up, so I thought I’d make this call.”
Before all of this, he was a keen hunting man and remains a director of the Croome & West Warwickshire. Ragley’s portion of England is terribly good for hunting, he says. “We are blessed by being within 20 miles of about six or eight hunts and here, we’re in the Croome country.” His parents hunted with the Warwickshire. “I’m not quite sure why, and when I was a teenager I was mostly hunting with the Warwickshire and had a few days with the Heythrop. The Warwickshire’s soil is predominantly heavy clay and the Heythrop is quite light. I had always heard that a horse that can do a day with the Warwickshire can do two days anywhere else. One day I realised that was actually true was at the end of a day with the Heythrop. I looked around at what was a very diminished field by that time, and realised I was the only person on the same horse that they had been on to start with. And my horse was still going.”
He has never been into shooting, although, “My father shot and my two sons shoot, my agent shoots, my farm manager shoots, some of my trustees shoot – pretty much everybody except me. But it’s very good to invite people to come and have a day’s shooting.
“On the days when I was not able to go hunting I’d be invited to go and shoot but because I was more horse-orientated than gun-orientated I never got into it, and I was always a hopeless shot. [William] is into both but guns more than horses”, and his daughters are the opposite, “more into horses, not guns”. Lady Hertford doesn’t shoot but can ride, though she doesn’t. “Her upbringing,” Lord Hertford says, twinkle in his eye, was “the polar opposite of this. She grew up in Rio. When women get married, they often change their name but my wife has changed her entire life to be here.”
Like many country folk, Lord Hertford is concerned that the anti-shooting lobby might, like the anti-hunting lobby, win the hearts and minds of the public. “Being in Warwickshire, we don’t have grouse moors but there’s a huge economic value in grouse shooting, that’s why people do it. Equally there is a huge economic benefit to the local communities in pheasant and partridge shooting, and the community needs to tell that story more. I think many shoppers, though not all, are conscious of food miles and animal welfare. I think the next big thing is going to be plant welfare – people are interested in where things come from.”
As for educating townsfolk about country life, this skirmish continues. “I think it might be unwinnable,” he says, “but that’s why it’s important to hold events such as the Game Fair and to have them in a central location.” Estates are increasingly becoming “familyorientated,” he adds, “very few farms and estates employ other people, so it’s important to show that we’re open, to showcase what we do.”
The 60th Game Fair will be held at Ragley Hall, Warwickshire from 27-29 July
It’s important to hold events such as the Game Fair, and in a central location
The Marquess of Hertford (above) will be hosting the Game Fair at his Ragley Hall estate (top)
The mural on the South Stairs at Ragley Hall; the Game Fair is returning to the Warwickshire estate again in 2018 as part of a new arrangement whereby it alternates with Hatfield House, Hertfordshire