Meet Lady Arran the new president of Devon County Show
PUBLISHED: 11:53 07 March 2016 | UPDATED: 11:53 07 March 2016
Matt Austin _
Her mother did it, so did her grandfather and great-grandfather, now the Countess of Arran is taking up the Presidency of the Devon County Show. And, as she tells Sharon Goble, she's also handing over the running of her family estate in North Devon to her daughter. It's all change at Castle Hill…
Lady Arran surprises me when she greets me in the stately drawing room of her palatial North Devon home wearing cowboy boots. The real deal, as it turns out. The boots, she tells me, are a present from a Texan shooting party on a short break at the estate. She’s obviously rather delighted with the gift.
Castle Hill, like any historic home, is an expensive place to run. “These houses have to work. There’s never a day when there isn’t somebody here mending something,” she says. The shooting parties and corporate events help foot the bills, as do weddings and opening the gardens to the public, but it’s clear that Lady Arran really rather enjoys all the various ventures which help the house pay its way and is a warm and welcoming hostess.
She immediately endears herself to me by asking if I’d prefer a mug of tea to the rather delicate cups the butler had set out (“Yes, please!”) and telling me her first name is Nell. Then, while two of her dogs nestle up to her, Lady Arran (as I feel more comfortable calling her) tells me about becoming this year’s President of the Devon County Agricultural Association and its flagship event, the Devon County Show.
“I’m honoured to have been asked. I rather thought I’d slipped under the net!
“To me, it means an association with the whole of the county and all the things that the show brings to Devon. I was thinking about this last night when I went to bed…it’s really farming, friendships, family fun. I believe the Devon County Show brings all of this to life over those few days. There’s so much for people to do in Devon, it’s a magical place, and the show is a great shop window for us.”
2016 promises to be a momentous year for Lady Arran for another reason too; she’s moving out of the ‘Big House’ to make way for her daughter Lady Laura and her husband James, who are taking over the running of the estate. They’re upping sticks from London with their four young children.
“It’s called succession! My mother did it for us and built this charming house, where we are moving to. It’s called the Garden House and it’s a bungalow - but it’s not just your everyday bungalow. It’s really a small replica of this house and I think my husband and I will be very happy there. It’s just down the drive so I hope near enough to be helpful to my daughter and far enough away not to interfere.”
She’s looking forward to seeing the Big House come alive with the little ones and is not the least bit worried about them bashing into the antique furnishings: “There’s a very nice simple side of Castle Hill for a family, which is very important.” She’s also looking forward to having more time to help out in the garden, which has been her great passion during her stewardship of the estate: “I love bringing fresh flowers ainto the house. If I was reincarnated, I’d like to be a flower arranger!”
Lady Arran’s interest in horticulture, agriculture and the great outdoors is deep-rooted. She’s one of three people from the South West who sit on the Prince’s Council, a small group advising the Prince of Wales over the Duchy of Cornwall: “I think he looked around the table and thought, what are we going to give her to do? I’m the only woman and my role is to visit the wives and families to get a picture of how things are for them, because so many of them are running small businesses as well as their farms. It’s been a fascinating time and a real privilege over eight years to have visited around 120 Duchy farms.”
On home soil, she’s currently trying to find a vicar for five rural parishes including the family church of St Paul’s in Filleigh. To that end, she’s about to head off to meet the vicar in nearby South Molton for a coffee and chat.
With her daughters, her down-to-earth attitude and interest in local affairs, Lady Arran rather reminds me of Downton Abbey’s Countess of Grantham (minus the American accent). Perhaps she read my thoughts because as the butler sweeps the elegant entrance porch to make it spick and span for our photo shoot, Lady Arran makes a reference to him being “nothing like Carson”.
Will she set a trend and wear her Texan boots to the county show, I ask. “Well, I could if it’s a damp day but as it’s in May I’m rather hoping the weather will be fine!”
Lady Arran: these are a few of her favourite things…
1. Being with her grandchildren - “They say such hysterical things and we have a lot of fun!”
2. North Devon - “When I drive along the link road and see that patchwork of fields I think ‘I’m home again!’ ”
3. The cattle at the Devon County Show.
4. Simonsbath on Exmoor.
5. The Calvert Trust, a former Fortescue farm and now a multi-activity and riding centre for people with disabilities.
6. Special places on the Castle Hill estate like Easter Close, when the spring flowers are out, and the rebuilt 18th century Kennel, with its incredible views.
7. Spending time in the drawing room at Castle Hill.
8. Visiting Joucas in Provence in the summer - rolling hills, peace and seclusion.
A Devon tradition
Lady Arran is the 14th generation of the Fortescue family to live at Castle Hill.
Lady Arran’s great-grandfather, the Rt Hon Earl Fortescue, was the first member of the family to become Show President in 1923.
His son followed in his footsteps in 1950 and Lady Arran’s Mother, Lady Margaret Fortescue, became President in 1989.
The Devon County Agricultural Association was formed in 1872 to undertake promotion of the Devon County Show. The show was held at various sites around the county until 1956 when it established a site at Whipton, Exeter. It moved to Westpoint Arena in 1990.
This year’s Devon County Show is from 19-21 May. For more information and ticket details, visit devoncountyshow.co.uk