Bantham's new owner Nicholas Johnston tells Devon Life of his hopes and dreams for the seaside village.
PUBLISHED: 15:41 19 January 2015 | UPDATED: 15:41 19 January 2015
He's the man who popped down to Devon…and bought a multi-million pound estate. In an exclusive interview for Devon Life, new Bantham owner Nicholas Johnston tells ALEXIS BOWATER of his hopes and dreams for the place
Less than 24 hours after meeting the new owner of Bantham I am stripping in front of him and gingerly paddling into the December-cold waters of Bigbury Bay to get a suitable Devon Life-style shot.
Our photographer can’t make it so I’m unwisely but enthusiastically in charge of the Nikon. It’s not a pretty sight as I crouch like some soggy bottomed paparazzo at the feet of King Canute…or, to give him his proper name, Nicholas Johnston, revealed late last year as the surprise new owner of the estate.
This pretty, breathtaking corner of the world – part of our very own county – is constantly and irresistibly part of our maritime heritage. Bantham holds a place in the hearts of those who know and love it which makes them powerfully and vociferously possessive and protective of it.
I’m one of them. When (false) rumours first began circulating that a Russian oligarch may well have been plotting to purchase it I was leading the sandy surfer-led sit-down neoprene-clad protests on the road by Jenkins Quay - well, in my imagination I was: that demonstration was well-planned, let me tell you!
So it was with some trepidation that I went to meet Nicholas in a back room of a South Hams pub one dark night just before Christmas.
But all bets were off within a few sentences as this charming, debonair, romantic, driven, adventure-loving, Filofax-carrying ex-Etonian businessman revealed himself to be absolutely perfect - what a match, you couldn’t have dreamt it up.
Thank goodness for the Sunday morning last May when his wife Linda was away with his children Anastasia, Lucas and Titus. For it was then that this man, with a self-confessed low boredom threshold, had the time to read The Sunday Times front page story about this shoreline sale.
And he read it at his home on the Great Tew Estate in Oxfordshire, where he’d been nurtured by his family from the age of 12 to make a large estate work successfully, with diplomacy, drive and dynamism.
Bantham, and the Evans Family who had owned it for 100 years, needed a buyer like this. Familiar with the area following idyllic holidays as a child with his mother, he decided there and then to head down to Devon and takes a look.
“It caught my imagination,” he tells me. “I came down the following weekend and had a really good look around and just thought: “My god, this is idyllic and charming and gorgeous and actually spiritually very aligned with Great Tew.
“They are very similar in a funny sort of way: some people who own their own houses and others more beholden to the estate, a mix of artisans and all sorts of different peoples - and the social composition, the politics that goes with it, is quite well known to me.”
Then, more passionately, he adds: “Just on lots of levels it appealed to me and, and I am not sure I am allowed to swear on your thing but it is also (expletive deleted) beautiful, so therefore there is a point where you get taken in inevitably by the raw beauty of an amazing place which I felt I understood. It is the kind of language that I understand and it appealed on all sorts of different levels.”
And Bantham’s new owner also makes a reassuring public pledge that under his stewardship there will be no development, no change, no music festivals and no more houses, but maybe some tidying up. “One thing that they (the previous owners) really wanted to do was to protect the coherent, long-term holistic nature of it so on lots of levels it worked really well,” says Nicholas.
I didn’t expect ‘spiritual’ or ‘holistic’ references in an interview about a multi-million pound land deal. But it’s delightful and it’s fitting. For this is a magical estuary environment. Where sea and shore meet river to create a surfing estuary break revered and unlike any other in the world. Where the strong east end rip off the beach acts like a maritime ski lift carrying experienced surfers back out.
It not only stretches from west of the river Avon to beyond Thurlestone golf course but encompasses secret beaches to the east, rock pools below towering cliffs where you can find cowrie shells and waters so clear blue they will take your breath away.
Later we zoom over the famous dunes in a souped-up, ‘manly’ golf buggy, more regularly driven by his estate manager Ryan, who is delighted with his new boss.
“It could have gone horribly wrong, not just for me but for the entire village,” says Ryan. “As soon as I met Nicholas, I knew he had the right attitude the right demeanour and the right pedigree. To tick all the requisite boxes that I wanted to tick. As soon as I met Nicholas I wanted him to buy the estate.”
What a relief then that the stars aligned and he did. What a perfect marriage of man and environment. “I kind of take life as it hits me,” he says. That must make Bantham a knockout.