Transforming Network Infrastructure Industry News

[February 16, 2007]

My doomed love affair with England's greatest house

(Evening Standard Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) WENSLEY Haydon-Baillie was once called Britain's Howard Hughes. Vastly rich and reclusive, he was an eccentric who had a following in the City. He ranked among Britain's wealthiest men and with his aristocratic good looks and connections - Prince Michael was a close friend and best man at his wedding - he was rarely far from the headlines.

Then Haydon-Baillie disappeared from view. After a series of financial disasters, nothing was heard of him. He might have stayed forgotten, but for a new book which lays bare the secrets of one of Britain's finest stately homes, Wentworth Woodhouse. Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds, The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, has reawakened many ghosts from the house's past.

Kindly earls, dubious heirs with a taint of madness and war-hero adventurers all owned Wentworth after inheriting it. Haydon-Baillie acquired it.

His tenure is part of the house's story, just as his own is woven into London's history in the last quarter of the 20th century. But more than six years have elapsed since then, raising the question - what became of Haydon-Baillie?

The answer lies within a complex tale of near-tragedy, heartbreak and skulduggery. Speaking about it for the first time, Haydon-Baillie told the Evening Standard how he lost Wentworth, his beautiful young wife and his fortune.

His net worth was once around GBP250million. He mixed with Establishment figures butwas always something of an outsider, regarded with reserve by some business contemporaries.

He owned not just one magnificent country house, but two, with a London home in Kensington Palace Gardens and one of the biggest and fastest yachts on the south coast. Today, he has a small flat in St James's - and the boat.

When everything else was taken away, he says, he fought to save his beloved boat. It is a crucial part of the story, he says, because it helped to save his life.

We met in the bar of the Cavendish Hotel, close to his flat. He is 63 and heavier than he appears in photographs taken before he disappeared. But he is still very much the man who dazzled a generation. Haydon-Baillie counted among his friends government ministers, City tycoons, aristocrats and royals.

He courted London's most desirable women, whisking them away for jaunts on his jet-black helicopter. His business connections gave him an entree to Downing Street and in the City he was widely admired as a creator of enormous wealth.

Sipping a Diet Coke, fiddling with a magazine article about his yacht he was anxious to show me, he looked back on those days and frowned. It ended, he said, because he had a complete mental breakdown.

Haydon-Baillie was renowned for his acuity. He was the son of a surgeon, born in Worksop and educated at a local public school, Worksop College. In the Seventies, he worked with Jim Slater at Slater Walker, the merchant bank that came to symbolise a get-rich-quick culture in the City.

When the bank collapsed, Haydon-Baillie came out with enough money to buy his own business. He secured a controlling interest in Watshams, a longestablished electrical engineering company that specialised in optical equipment used by the military.

THE company was failing, but Haydon-Baillie turned it around by developing its high-technology products.

The share price soared and he became the darling of the City. Then, as the Conservatives took power, he persuaded the government to give him a contract to market drugs developed at the top secret biochemical research establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire.

The government-funded research was directed largely at creating biological weapons, but the scientists also sought antidotes and cures. In the 1980s, they thought they had a cure for herpes, the sexually transmitted disease sweeping across Europe and the United States.

Haydon-Baillie's Porton International, the company he formed to exploit the government lab's discoveries, took off.

The City poured GBP76 million into it and at one point it was valued at GBP400 million.

He bought Newton Park, a Georgian property in the New Forest. His London home was Cope House, neighbouring Kensington Palace. Then, in 1986, he bought Wentworth Woodhouse. It had been in the Fitzwilliam family for 600 years, as Haydon-Baillie knew very well.

"I had always loved the house," he said. "I have a distant relation to the family and I just wanted to live there." At that time, Wentworth was controlled by a family trust that had sold a long lease to the local authority, Rotherham Borough Council. Most of the building was used as a college, but the family kept an apartment in the West Front.

Wentworth was the seat of the Marquis of Rockingham. Built in the 1730s as a statement of wealth, it has a frontage twice as long as Buckingham Palace, a room for every day of the year and so many miles of corridors, halls and passages that guests were given coloured confetti to a lay a trail that would lead them back to their rooms. It has, Haydon-Baillie said with some pride, no fewer than eight kitchens.

Marcus Binney, the architectural historian, described it as "unquestionably, the finest Georgian house in England".

Haydon-Baillie wanted it, but, he said, it took two years of secret negotiation with the family to secure it. He never actually bought it, but acquired it for his own trust . "I think I paid over GBP2 million," he said.

Now, properly restored, the house would probably fetch more than GBP100 million.

He used to fly up to Wentworth in his helicopter, often with Prince Michael.

The two men shared a passion for cars, boats and planes. There is a famous story of them eating beans on toast in Wentworth's Great Hall. Is it true, I asked? "Probably," he said.

When he acquired Wentworth, it was in a sorry state. The roof was threatening to collapse, there were magpies nesting in the wings, damp was everywhere and he had unwelcome tenants.

"The house was full of death-watch beetles," he said. "Someone once asked me if I felt lonely in such a big house and I said I wasn't alone - I had about a million beetles to keep me company."

He set about getting rid of them, and repairing the roof, dealing with the damp and restoring exquisitely carved stonework. Villagers, many of whom could remember when Wentworth had been home to a generous and kindly family, were thrilled.

"We thought he was going to be brilliant," said Martyn Johnson, a retired police detective whose father and grandfather had been local miners. We were all pleased to see the house back in private hands. There was nothing stuck-up or standoffish about Haydon-Baillie."

Porton International, although never as successful as many had hoped, did well through military contracts in the Gulf war of 1990-91. Haydon-Baillie was at the height of his success. He was one of Britain's most eligible bachelors and although he had a long romance with Mary, daughter of his friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, it ended.

Then, in 1994 at the age of 51, he shocked everyone, including his friends, by announcing he was to marry his second cousin, Samantha Acland. She was 26, and although related to an aristocratic family, had been brought up in a small terrace house in Cornwall.

SHE was incredibly beautiful," he said. "I was glad I had waited to marry, because she was perfect for me. We wanted to get married at Wentworth and although a bride and groom can't stay in the same house on the eve of their wedding we got over that because Wentworth is really two houses.

She slept in one and I slept in the other."

Prince Michael was his best man and Haydon-Baillie invited everyone in the village. Martyn Johnson said: "The invitations - 400 of them - were sent out from Kensington Palace. It was just like the old days when the family had the house. Mr Haydon-Baillie greeted everyone personally on the big stairs. There were 20-odd vintage Rolls-Royces lined up in front of the house. We had beer on tap and there was cricket on the lawn, just like there used to be."

When Haydon-Baillie left with his bride in the black helicopter, the crowd waved and cheered. "The helicopter came back, hovered over us and did a bow - it was fantastic," Mr Johnson said.

The couple returned to Wentworth where they were looked after by a staff that included a chef and a butler. "It is a perfect house for two," Haydon-Baillie said. "We were incredibly happy there."

This happiness was not to last. One of Haydon-Baillie's friends from the 1980s told me he began to show signs of compulsive obsessive behaviour. He stopped eating properly and would eat only coronation chicken - at breakfast, lunch and dinner. His behaviour became increasingly strange. What happened?

"I was cracking up," he said. "For years I'd been taking prescription drugs, tranquillisers, Mogadon, that sort of thing.

It seems they'd been building up in my body and then - bang - I collapsed."

It was 1998 and he was taken into hospital. Then, he said, there were serious doubts about whether he would pull through. "It was a complete breakdown," he said. "I had developed a depressive illness." He was hospitalised for three months.

"I went on to a recovery programme that I'm still following," he said. "It's been very difficult, but I think by next year I'll be fine."

As his health collapsed, so did his business and his marriage. He said a former associate had managed his affairs and, without his knowledge, had acquired debts he could not pay. At one point Haydon-Baillie teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. His Hampshire house went to settle debts, as did his London home. His unique collection of aeroplanes and jet engines was sold.

Still the debts piled up. A GBP97.50 bill for his television licence went unpaid.

He and Samantha parted. "There was a lot of strain," he said. "But she is a lovely girl and I'm still very fond of her.

She's remarried now and has a young boy. We're still in touch."

He came to an arrangement with his creditors, but his hopes of holding on to Wentworth were dashed. "I had a loan of about GBP800,000 on it - nothing, really - and I'd missed some interest payments.

It was very little, less than GBP25,000." The Swiss bank that was owed the money forced the sale of Wentworth.

Still struggling with his illness and facing the loss of his business, homes and marriage, Haydon-Baillie says he was lucky to survive. But he hung on to his ship, the Brave Challenger.

She had been built for the Greek tycoon Stavros Niarchos on the lines of a small warship. Haydon-Baillie had her fitted out in the finest wood panelling, with elegant staterooms and a high-tech bridge. She is powered by three Rolls-Royce jet engines and is still one of the fastest boats of her kind in the world.

"I think she saved me," he said. "When I was really at my lowest ebb I said to my doctor: 'Look, do you think I could go down to my boat and spend a night there?' He let me go and I stayed there alone. She was moored at Portsmouth and I loved it there, the solitude and quiet.

"I asked the doctor if I could spend a weekend and when I got back he said, pack a bag and move on to your boat. It's making you better. So I did."

He still spends long periods aboard the ship. One senses it has become a substitute for Wentworth. Does he miss the house? "Of course I do," he said.

"I have always had a passion for it."

Indeed, during the inquiries I made to trace Haydon-Baillie I heard he was engaged in secret efforts to get the house back. It is currently owned by Clifford Newbold, an 80-year-old architect from Highgate, who, villagers say, lives there alone.

Haydon-Baillie's money has almost all gone. How could he hope to own Wentworth again?

"I have been very frank with you," he said, "but on that subject I have absolutely no comment."

It was a reply that left me thinking there may yet be another remarkable turn to the extraordinary history of Wentworth Woodhouse.

. Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty (Viking GBP20) by Catherine Bailey.

Copyright 2007 Evening Standard. Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Europe Intelligence Wire.

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