If you miss the entrance to Bowood House, the Wiltshire home of Charles Petty-Fitzmaurice, the ninth Marquess of Lansdowne, you might find yourself in the middle of a pristine golf course. You haven’t gone too far wrong; this also belongs to Lord Lansdowne. But it is a mile down the road, through the village of Derry Hill, that you will find the gates of Bowood House, the grand Georgian pile that has been in this family since 1754.
Lord Lansdowne, a sprightly 76, takes a seat at the grand desk in his study, where the walls are draped with maps of his 4,000-acre estate, and sips his coffee. Bowood has been his home since 1972, after his father «b——- off » back to Scotland to live at Meikleour, the family’s Perthshire estate.
He was never destined to inherit Bowood. Both estates had belonged to the fifth marquess, who was Viceroy of India from 1888 to 1894. He had two sons, Henry and Charles, who were set to inherit one each. «We never thought that Bowood would come into view at all,» Lord Lansdowne says. «It was the other side of the family.»
Charles inherited Meikleour, and when he was killed in action in 1914, it was passed on to Lord Lansdowne’s father, George. But when tragedy struck in August 1944 and both of Henry’s sons became victims of the Second World War within nine days of each other, George found himself the owner of Bowood, too. «Suddenly, my father, the second tier of the family, became the top tier,» Lord Lansdowne says.
Charles Petty-Fitzmaurice, the ninth Marquess of Lansdowne, inherited Bowood in 1972 CREDIT: HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY
Having lived in Scotland for most of his life, George struggled with life at Bowood. The grand house he inherited – with interiors by the famed architect Robert Adam and a park designed by Lancelot «Capability» Brown – was a monster.
It was built in 1725 by Whig politician Sir Orlando Bridgeman, then bought by the Earl of Shelburne in 1754, and variously extended. Indeed, the house was so gargantuan that he was able to demolish 80,000 sq ft of it in 1955 and still be left with a 50,000 sq ft.
«We never thought that Bowood would come into view at all. It was the other side of the family»
«It’s much neater, softer and more liveable now,» Lord Lansdowne says, adding that the demolition was essential. «My father had inherited sideways without any money from the family. He had to cut back and sell a lot of properties and other bits and pieces.»
The north wing of what remains contains a neat sequence of rooms, including a chapel still used for family services and a sculpture gallery. It is also home to the former laboratory where Dr Joseph Priestley, a theologian and tutor to the first marquess’s sons, discovered oxygen in 1774.
The laboratory is the focus of this year’s exhibition at Bowood, Priestley and Patronage, which follows the success of last year’s Capability Brown show organised to coincide with the landscape gardener’s tercentenary. This year’s exhibition features paintings and original documents from the family collection, including letters documenting dealings with Robert Adam, the furniture maker Thomas Chippendale and Priestley himself.
The north wing of the house contains a chapel still used for family services CREDIT: HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY
Lord Lansdowne has continued the theme of patronage into his own era at Bowood. In 1985, he took the decision to convert part of the estate into what is now a four-star leisure resort, commissioning architect Dave Thomas to design an 18-hole golf course. He doesn’t play much himself – «once a year, or something» – but opted for golf because of the sport’s popularity and because it was a relatively simple way of transforming the estate. Soon after, he opened a conference centre on site, followed in 2009 by a hotel and spa, with interiors designed by his wife.
Today, the house and gardens at Bowood are open to the public from April to November, offering an adventure playground, a Tractor Ted children’s farm and the Treehouse Café. There’s also a packed roster of events. So far this month there has been a walled garden tour with twocourse lunch, an Ibiza dance party and the Great British Prom with the National Symphony Orchestra. Next weekend is the inaugural Tractor Ted Diggers and Dumpers Weekend for tiny truckers, followed over the bank holiday by the return of The Great British Food Festival.
Bowood is where Dr Joseph Priestley, a theologian and tutor to the first marquess’s sons, discovered oxygen in 1774 CREDIT: HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY
It is these successes that Lord Lansdowne hopes to continue on the estate — even if, as he admits, few will come close to the discovery of oxygen. He shows little sign of retiring: his eldest son, Simon, is an academic, so he remains the chief executive.
Like many of his peers, Lord Lansdowne’s ambition is to safeguard the future of his estate. He doesn’t expect hand-outs from the Government to help with this, but he would like to see more money going to properties such as these. «We aren’t paid custodians. The Government is lucky to have us working away at it. If we weren’t doing it then it would fall back on to the National Trust or English Heritage.»
Regardless, he will continue the tradition of making extraordinary things happen at Bowood. «I don’t think many people have been mad enough to have developed a golf course, conference centre and hotel,» he says. «Maybe it’ll be proved a disaster, but I don’t know, we’re still here.»