The news that the Glastonbury Festival may be relocating from a Somerset farm to the storied Longleat Estate in Wiltshire has returned the focus to the aristocratic owner of Longleat, Lord Bath, the eccentric bearded aristocrat popularly known as the ‘Loins of Longleat’ due to his habit of maintaining both a menagerie of big cats and an informal harem of girlfriends he refers to as his ‘wifelets’.
At their peak, these wifelets totalled 75 in number and he was said to sleep with one on each side of him.
Sex-mad Lord Bath, who is said to have a fortune in excess of £150m in the shape of his 10,000-acre estate, wears kaftans and fezzes and is one of the most recognisable modern British eccentrics. Happily, perhaps, he is said by his biographer, Nesta Wynn Ellis, to have a low sperm count.
Eccentric? To be sure. But how does Bath measure up against some of other other great British eccentrics of the aristocracy?
Sir John (‘Jack’) Leslie
Sir Jack Leslie, who died earlier this year at the age of 99, became famous as the Lord of the Rave after he developed a love of nightclubs.
Jack was a prisoner of war in the Second World War and when hostilities ceased, he returned home to run the ancestral estates in Ireland. However, his journey into sedate old age took an unexpected turn when he visited the local disco near his home and fell in love with EDM.
Jack celebrated his 85th birthday in 2001 by travelling to Ibiza to party at the club Privilege, then the world's biggest nightclub and was the subject of two documentaries about his clubbing exploits, Lord of the Dance and Uncle Jack and the Boom Boom Music.
He said of the experience: "People were worried at first and said these discos might be rough but they are the absolute opposite. Everyone is so nice to me.
"The boys keep bringing me pints for some reason and the girls keep taking me out to dance and kissing me. It's wonderful. The people are fantastic and it seems to amuse them I'm there. They say they hope they're like me at 85. One boy threw his arms round my neck and told me I was his idol."
A nightclub was named in his honor in Clones, Co Monaghan, and there is a facebook page where clubbers can share their memories.
"It is such fun watching people dancing and the music gets in your bones and makes you get up and dance,” Sir Jack once said, "I get up and I leap around just as I feel like. When I hear the boom boom it electrifies me. I can leap up and down, and it's as if my ankles were electrified.”
Old Sir Tat
Sir Tatton Sykes, commonly known as Old Sir Tat, was described as one of the three must-see sights of Yorkshire, along with York Minster and Fountains Abbey.
A noted pugilist, horseman and this writer’s great-great-great grandfather, his home, Sledmere House in Yorkshire, boasts one of the largest and finest private rooms in England, the remarkable first floor library.
But Old Sir Tat, the fourth baronet, had a disdain for books and used the library instead as a personal gym, rising at 5.30am every morning and strolling 4 miles up and down the room before taking his regular breakfast; a glass of stout and a pint of double cream.
His son, the fifth baronet, also Sir Tatton, had a strong belief that good health was related to a consistent core body temperature and in pursuit of this would dress each morning in seven coats. As he went about his day and warmed up, he would peel off a coat and cast it to the ground wherever he stood. The village boys would earn a penny each time they returned a coat to the back door of the big house.
Old Sir Tat, who had a habit of walking sixty miles to the Doncaster races once a year, was a much loved master, and on his death, the locals erected a monument to his memory in Sledmere village.
Robert The Fox
Irish huntsman Robert Watson was a prolific slayer of foxes, but on January 30th, 1879, he had an epiphany when his horse fell at a hazardous fence and broke its neck. According to the author and historian Turtle Bunbury, another horse, jumping next to him, met precisely the same fate, while a third horse dropped dead just as it reached the fence.
This somehow served to convince Watson that he would one day be reincarnated as a fox.
Watson--whose grandfather is credited with/blamed for killing the last wild Irish wolf at Myshall, Co Carlow--was master of the Carlow and Island Hunt so he had some knowledge of what foxes like.
His family lived at Larchill in Co Kildare, where, in readiness for his reincarnation, Bunbury writes, “Bob designed a knobbly grass-covered mound, shaped exactly like a foxes' earth, and whacked it bang in the midst of Larchill's beautiful Arcadian Gardens. He pitched a rough semi-columned temple on top and ensured the mound was full of useful escape tunnels, each one carefully tapered so that a fox could zip through, but a slightly bigger hound could not.”
Shrewdly, in his last will and testament, Watson future-proofed his reincarnation and banned fox-hunting, in perpetuity, at Larchill.
The Gentle Mole
The fifth Duke of Portland—William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott--earned the nickname “the gentle mole’ for his habit of digging subterranean tunnels all over his estate, Welbeck Abbey.
One tunnel, starting near the stables, which ran for a mile and a quarter, can still be seen today and was big enough for a special carriage used by the fifth Duke of Portland.
According to a local history website, the fifth Duke of Portland was far from mad. In a time of abject poverty in Worksop, Mansfield and district, the Duke's excavations were in fact a ‘make-work’ project, “providing a living for 15,000 workmen for 18 years at an annual cost of £100,000. The subterranean work included the digging of flood dykes and millponds.”
Bentinck--who at one stage developed a passion for digging glass-topped tunnels tall enough for fruit trees--is said to have been the inspiration for Mr. Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, who says that “there’s no security, or peace or tranquility, except underground.”
His most ambitious project was a 10,000 square-foot Great Hall dug out of the clay. He painted the ceiling to look like a sunset, “and carved out beautiful bull’s-eye skylights to let in the sun.”
However, the Duke, a recluse (surprise surprise) never invited anyone over. “He preferred to use it as a solo roller-skating rink,” according to Atlas Obscura.
Arthur With No Arms and No Legs
Not for nothing did the the Long Riders’ Guild describe Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, the hereditary high king of Leinster, as “the most astonishing equestrian explorer of the 19th century.’”
For, although his arms were mere stumps, only just able to meet across his chest, and his legs virtually non-existent (a curse laid on his mother Lady Harriet Kavanagh was blamed) he completed an astonishing 5,000-mile journey from Ireland to India via Norway, Russia, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Whilst being born with no arms and legs might deter some of us from pursuing a career on horseback, Arthur spent several months on arrival in India working as an official government dispatch rider on the west coast before returning (by sea) to manage the estates at home.
His saddle can still be seen today at Borris House.
Arthur, who produced four sons and three daughters, did not see himself as unusual. On visiting a friend in a remote part of the country he was heard to remark: “It's extraordinary. I haven't been here for ten years, but the stationmaster recognized me instantly.”