CALIBRE Interview: Lord Cowdray, Cowdray Estate

His contemporary approach has transformed a traditional 16,500-acre estate into a high-end hospitality experience, but Lord Cowdray is determined to continue focusing on his vision to keep his family estate on the map as an international destination, while celebrating its history and heritage.

CALIBRE: Why do you think people are fascinated by country estates like Cowdray?

“As we’ve seen from the success of programmes like Downton Abbey, there is so much interest in British history, our traditions and how we used to live. Most people love an element of escapism from their own lives at some point, no matter how glamorous or stressful their world is, so to visit somewhere completely different can be incredibly appealing. There’s nothing better than escaping to the English countryside after a stressful working week and being surrounded by stunning scenery.”

CALIBRE: Do you think there is a misconception that the British aristocracy have an easy life?

“It’s very easy to see the beautiful houses, large estates and glamorous events, without having an appreciation for the vast amount of hard work, planning and costs involved. Running a business like Cowdray involves a huge team and well-planned activity that takes place all year round, in order to maintain our high standards and encourage more people to visit Cowdray. Not only that, but the renovation and restoration costs for period properties are incredibly high, so we need to ensure we’re able to protect and enhance our historic estate to allow people to enjoy it for generations to come.”

CALIBRE: How has the estate management changed since you inherited Cowdray?

“We need to run the estate like a business, rather than a family home; while we still live at Cowdray, it’s important for us to manage it as a commercial enterprise, so we can continue generating revenue and look after the estate for years to come. The size of the business has certainly affected our management approach. Traditionally, the estate would have employed a few people to manage the estate, farm and woodlands. Today, our team has grown substantially to include numerous departments, including HR, marketing, events, retail, sporting activities and catering. It’s a big team effort.”

CALIBRE: Will historic homes and country pursuits always have a place in society?

“They’re such an important part of our heritage, supporting the tourism sector and providing employment for local people, so I believe they will always play a key role in society. However, as the guardians of these great estates, we have a responsibility to keep them running and ensure they remain in good condition, so it’s important to keep diversifying and making them relevant to people today, in order to attract more visitors.

“It’s the reason why we decided to transform our original home, Cowdray House, into an exclusive-use venue for a wide range of events including country house weekends, corporate retreats and weddings. It was the right decision, as it’s helped us to modernise the business and turn it into both a luxury rural retreat but also a sustainable business, which will ensure the future of the house. Our guests can enjoy country house events, dinner parties, play golf, shoot clay pigeons, explore the grounds, watch polo and eat food produced from the estate, while staying in our unique properties.”

CALIBRE: Speaking of dinner parties, who would be your five dream dinner party guests?

“We’ve been privileged to have hosted many well-known visitors at Cowdray over the years. My dream dinner guests would be: The Dalai Lama, Kahlil Gibran, Winston Churchill, Ringo Star and Spike Milligan.

CALIBRE: What would be on the menu?

“We produce a lot of venison on the estate, which we often serve to our guests, as it is very tasty and healthy. As we are passionate about sourcing local ingredients wherever as possible, the vegetables would depend upon what is in season; my favourite is local asparagus.”

CALIBRE: What does a typical day in the life of Lord Cowdray involve?

“Health and wellbeing are really important to me, so after I wake up around 7 – 7.30am, I meditate for 20 minutes, before exercising for an hour. I’ll then have breakfast with my family, which usually consists of a health juice or muesli.

“My working day starts by meeting the heads of the estate teams to discuss how the past week has gone, before agreeing the priorities for the coming week. During the polo season we’ll visit the grounds to see how things are progressing. Depending upon time, I’ll take a walk in the woods behind the house or on the South Downs. I generally spend a day a week in London attending meetings about the estate or with the charities of which I am a trustee and in the evening after a family dinner, I may watch television and then read for an hour before turning out the lights.”

CALIBRE: How does life at Cowdray today compare to years gone by?

“Cowdray was traditionally a rural working estate, with farming, forestry and field sports being the main focus. Alongside other traditional sporting pursuits – shooting and fishing – polo became a major activity thanks initially to my Grandfather and then laterally my father, who, after returning from the war, turned Cowdray Park into one of the most famous polo clubs in the world.

“Today, Cowdray is world-renowned as the home of British polo and the British Open, playing for the Gold Cup, is a key event in the English summer social diary, which makes us very proud. The team works tirelessly to maintain its place at the very pinnacle of the sport, both nationally and internationally, attracting more than 25,000 visitors during the culmination of the tournament in July.”

CALIBRE: Do you play polo?

“I love to watch polo, but sadly I haven’t ridden a horse for many years. Polo is such an important part of our family’s history and seeing thousands of spectators watching matches at Cowdray is always wonderful to experience.”

CALIBRE: As well as the commercial aspects of the estate, Cowdray has nurtured a more holistic side in recent years. Have you always had a passion for wellbeing?

“Wellbeing has always been an important part of our ethos – both personally and across Cowdray. My family has been interested in holistic lifestyles for years and we all regularly practice yoga and meditation, so we were excited to turn our interest in wellness and healthy living into a number of ventures across the estate.

“For example, our wellness centre offers classes including Pilates, yoga and meditation, plus private consultations by a range of therapists in our therapy rooms, as well as longer retreats. We’ve also created a wellbeing programme for our staff, so they can enjoy a more holistic lifestyle, including a running club, fitness classes and fortnightly massages. It’s just one example of how we’ve brought a new, unique approach to a previously traditional country estate.  It’s a community, not just a workplace.”

CALIBRE: You split your time between living at Cowdray and in Ibiza. How do they compare?

“Cowdray is where our heart is, whereas Ibiza is our holiday home. I love spending time in Ibiza during the summer, where I can enjoy yoga and other mindfulness activities (not to mention the weather), but Cowdray is where I’m happiest.”

CALIBRE: What’s the secret behind Cowdray’s success?

“Our team. We’re a people business and Cowdray couldn’t survive without our dedicated 200 full-time employees and 150 seasonal workers, who work tirelessly to maintain the exceptionally high standards we pride ourselves on. We must be doing something right as 15 members of the team recently celebrated 25 years’ service and one employee will celebrate his 50th year with us in 2020. We’re heavily invested in looking after our staff, so to see so many of them reaching such impressive milestones is incredibly rewarding.”

CALIBRE: How are you preparing for the future?

“It’s an exciting prospect to look ahead at how we’ll continue growing the estate. We have plans to build 20 luxury tree houses on site, launch a new wedding venue and open more holiday cottages. I’m sure there will be plenty of other ventures over the next few years, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

“Our son Peregrine is also starting to become more involved in the running of the estate, as he’ll take over eventually and write his own chapter in Cowdray’s history.”


All photo credits Chris Orange

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.