The man moving about in front of me is tall and rangy, and has a full head of hair that you might describe as foppish were it not for his distinctly un-languid manner. Lord March, current resident of the Goodwood Estate – which has been in his family since the 17th century – is a bundle of energy and clearly one of life’s enthusiasts.
Private View has gained access to his inner sanctum – a smallish room on the first floor at the back of Goodwood House that’s rammed with memorabilia. ‘Oh, these helmets are fun – this belonged to Tom Kristensen [the retired Danish racing driver and nine-times winner of Le Mans]. How cool is that? He gave me that personally. And Richard Petty’s hat is just up there.’ He points to a cowboy hat that once belonged to the famous American stock-car racer – the most accomplished driver in the entire history of the sport.
There are model cars everywhere (‘All of them are cars we’ve had at Goodwood’), black-and-white photos of his racing-driver grandfather and many original posters on the walls advertising the competitive races the estate’s track held in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The place feels more like a teenage boy’s den than the nerve centre of an internationally renowned brand. But then Charles Gordon- Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara, has managed to do something quite remarkable by turning his childhood passions into a thriving business, and significantly, in so doing, ensuring a future for one of Britain’s largest country estates.
If you have heard of Goodwood, it will most likely not be because of the house itself, with its fine-art collection of Canalettos and Stubbses, its Gobelins tapestries, fireplaces and furniture by William Kent, and beautiful Sèvres dinner service, much of which was specially commissioned. Instead, it will probably be because of the events that are hosted here every year. The Festival of Speed, held in the grounds around the house – a celebration of motor racing and automotive design from Formula One to NASCAR, rally, Can-Am and bikes, and the only place in the world that brings together such a significant representation of motorsport; the Goodwood Revival, a celebration of vintage held at the circuit, to which guests wear period dress, and the vehicles that compete are from yesteryear; or horse racing – in particular, the annual Qatar Goodwood Festival, popularly known as Glorious Goodwood, on the course that overlooks the Sussex Downs in one direction and the long descent to the sea in the other, is considered by many to be the most picturesque flat-racing venue in the country.
It’s possible, too, that you may have heard of other things the estate offers: a boutique hotel, flying lessons at its World War II aerodrome, an organic farm, a golf course and, latterly, DJ sets held at the racecourse. All of which contribute to the idea of Goodwood as a hub of modern-day entertainment built around an ancient family home.
I suggest that what this peer of the realm has in fact achieved is to cleverly find a way to keep alive and thriving what is essentially an anachronistic institution – the English country house – by reimagining it as a kind of super-upmarket venue. Lord March should be congratulated on creating a new role for the historic country estate.
‘Well it’s not exactly new,’ he corrects me. ‘Yes, we do horse racing, motor racing, golf, flying, shooting and cricket, but what’s unusual about Goodwood is not only did our family love these sporting activities and participate in them themselves over the past 300 years, but they also shared them with other people.’
In 1802, for instance, the 3rd Duke of Richmond introduced horse racing to Goodwood for the amusement of local army officers. Race week proved so popular, it was soon dubbed Glorious Goodwood and it became an annual tradition that has continued ever since. Arguably, what makes Goodwood unique today is the unprecedented access visitors have to drivers and cars, jockeys and horses, house and estate – essentially, they get to share the experiences of the family.
Where motor racing is concerned, it was Charles March’s grandfather, the 9th Duke of Richmond, known to everyone as Freddie, who brought the squeal of rubber and the smell of petrol to the grounds. A renowned amateur race driver, after World War II, he created a circuit out of the track that ran round the perimeter of the airfield at Goodwood, RAF Westhampnett, which had seen service in the Battle of Britain. On its opening in September 1948, Freddie March sped around the track in a Bristol 400, to the delight of the 1,500 spectators who had come to see Britain’s first professionally organised post-war motor-racing event.
‘In my grandfather’s day, the drivers would stay in the house,’ recalls Lord March. ‘The racing took place during the Easter weekend, so they’d come on the Saturday night for a party, rest on the Sunday, then race on the Monday.’ For a 10-year-old boy, he says, these men, like Graham Hill and Jim Clark, and even Juan Manuel Fangio one year, were god-like figures. ‘I was always off getting autographs.’
On a tour of the house and its surrounding buildings, Goodwood gradually gives up its secrets. The 1st Duke of Richmond, the illegitimate son of Charles II by his French mistress, Louise de Kérouaille, originally rented it to enjoy fox hunting with the nearby Charlton Hunt, then the most fashionable in the country, before, in 1697, buying the house.
The Kennels, now a members’ club, were built in direct view so the Duke could see his beloved animals; later, before it was even installed in the main house, central heating kept the hounds warm. Today, tucked away at The Kennels, there is still a stack of dog bowls bearing the names of their canine owners: Inca, Dolly and Kelpie.
‘The whole point of Goodwood was to entertain,’ explains my host. In the 18th century, the estate was extended from a small hunting lodge and, from then on, it specialised in hospitality. Sport was the principal form of entertainment – game shooting and fox hunting in the autumn and winter months, and fishing, horse racing, tennis, cricket and croquet in the summer. Guests would stay for a long weekend or a number of weeks at a time. ‘They’d have big parties, play cards and do weird things to amuse themselves, like weigh each other’ says Lord March. Indeed, the house has three bizarre books in which dinner guests’ weights were recorded, accompanied by comments such as ‘with shoes after dinner’ or ‘with boot, whip & cap’. On 21st July 1814, the Duke of Wellington weighed in at 11st 4lb.
But, from the 19th century onwards, it was horse racing that really drew the visitors, and still does to this day. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who first visited Goodwood in the early 1860s, was a frequent summer guest for race week. Others who accompanied him might include his wife, Princess Alexandra; his mistress, Alice Keppel; and his son, the future George V. Because royalty is very much part of Goodwood’s history.
‘The Queen often visited when I was a child,’ explains Lord March. ‘Prince Philip used to play polo and she would come to watch the horse racing. Her mother was very close to my grandparents when she was young and she’s always been affectionate about the place because she spent such a lot of time here. There was always a party – in those days, we used to have a race on the Wednesday night and then a Regency Ball.’
He still hosts balls in the famous ballroom. There’s one at the end of June for the Festival of Speed for around 1,500, and another for the Goodwood Revival. He can seat 600 for dinner and often invites bands to perform for the guests. ‘We hosted the first night of the Roxy Music reunion tour, we’ve had Blondie, the Eagles, the Pretenders and Kaiser Chiefs.’
It’s a tradition that dates back to the 19th century, when the 7th Duke would hire an orchestra for dancing. More recently, there have been themed balls – from the Russian Revolution to the Rocky Horror Show – and last year, Waterloo, for the anniversary of the battle: ‘We had everyone arrive in carriages.’
This theme was particularly appropriate, since a family secret is documented in an oil painting that hangs in the house. Entitled ‘The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball’, it shows the famous event at which Lord Wellington received news of Napoleon’s advance. The ball was held by Lord March’s ancestor Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond, whose husband, the current Earl’s namesake, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, was commander of a force that was protecting Brussels in case of attack by Napoleon. Wellington is said to have borrowed a map from Lennox, determined to meet his foe at Waterloo.
Other surprises in the house range from the intimate – a library in The Kennels that is full of the family’s old Penguin paperbacks with their multicoloured spines – to the historically significant: ‘We have the earliest written rules of cricket, from 1727, in our archives, and even before that, in 1702, a game was played here. The 4th Duke lent Thomas Lord a lot of money to buy the ground that would subsequently be named after him: Lord’s,’ explains the peer.
Then there is the simply eclectic. The walls of Goodwood’s Egyptian Dining Room are lined in warm, pale brown veined marble, it has a white marble fireplace featuring black Egyptian deities and there are gold Egyptian motifs on the black wooden door frames. ‘We’ve restored it in the past few years,’ says Lord March by way of explanation.
‘There were stories and pictures of how it had looked, but it had been covered up. We stripped it – they’d painted straight onto the marble – and there it was. It was designed in 1804, after Napoleon had invaded Egypt. He’d taken with him an artist called Vivant Denon, who had done all these wonderful engravings there that had helped form a lot of people’s first impressions of the country. James Wyatt, the architect of the room, used them as inspiration. We’ve got the Denon books in the library – they’re huge – and you can see in them all the scarab references.’
Why was it painted over? ‘Edward VII didn’t like it at all, 100 years later. They took a lot out – all the door cases and Egyptian details – and painted the room red and hung portraits on it.’ So the King said he didn’t like it and the family disguised it? ‘Yes,’ he laughs.
House guests certainly can be demanding. What, I wonder, in his opinion, is the trick of good hospitality? ‘I think the secret to entertaining is knowing how much to give people to do, and how much to let them get on with it themselves. Everyone likes to be left alone a bit. And it’s nice to do things for them that they wouldn’t normally do for themselves, like giving them breakfast in bed.’ It’s also, he says, about the chemistry of grouping people together.
In an attempt to give others the chance to replicate this kind of thing themselves, another secret of Goodwood has just been unveiled. Across the road is the magnificent 10-bedroom Hound Lodge. Once one of the most luxurious dog houses in the world – it was where the hunt hounds were kept after The Kennels was refurbished – it is the latest example of how this remarkable estate is continuing to build on its 300-year heritage of entertaining. Staying here offers a pretty special experience for both the host and their guests, with impeccable service from a dedicated butler.
‘The idea was to reflect some of the lodges the family had owned in Scotland, and also to celebrate all things to do with Goodwood and dogs,’ says the Earl. ‘It still has the actual kennels and exercise area in front of the building.’ Indeed, guests are welcome to bring their own canine friends with them.
‘The experience is akin to that of the smartest house parties of the 19th century: you are free to enjoy yourselves as you desire, with the entire Goodwood Estate on your doorstep.’
For further information, visit goodwood.com. Peter Howarth is the former editor-in-chief of Esquire and Arena magazines