A daring aristocrat takes pride in 40 years of safari park success
By Simon de Bruxelles
WITH his snow-white beard, crimson crushed-velvet trousers and mauve hooded sweater, Alexander Thynn, 7th Marquess of Bath, looks more like an off-duty wizard than the proprietor of one of Britain’s most successful stately enterprises.
And in a way that is exactly what he is. Out of sight of most visitors to Longleat House, his Wiltshire stately home, Lord Bath has created his own magical kingdom populated by the visions inside his head and the memories of his 74 girlfriends — or “wifelets” as he calls them.
Chamber after chamber of his private apartments is decorated with garish three-dimensional murals inspired by everything from the “underwater world” to paranoia and scenes from The Kama Sutra.
The work is still going on after more than 40 years, interrupted by a project to create portrait heads of several hundred ancestors and 74 of his girlfriends, hung, in order of conquest, in one of his many spiral staircases.
These days Lord Bath, whose direct ancestor, Sir John Thynne, built the house in the 1570s, is more preoccupied with what he believes will be his greatest legacy — a vast autobiography chronicling in great detail his life from his birth in 1932 to the present day. So far, the 73-year-old Marquess has written more than seven million words, roughly equivalent to 80 average-length novels.
It is exactly 40 years since Longleat welcomed the lions that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and pay for the upkeep of the house. The idea of a safari park was originally scoffed at by, among others, this newspaper, which said that the “unbounded fecklessness” of the British public was such that the enterprise was bound to end in tragedy. So far no one has been eaten. Instead, the safari park has been an overwhelming success and the number of visitors continues to grow each year. Over the years the lions have been joined by tigers, giraffes, gorillas, zebras and wolves. Next in line to join the menagerie are warthogs.
Lord Bath has agreed to an interview to mark the anniversary. But he no more knows the number of lions (15) outside his window than the number of rooms in Longleat House — some say 365, though no one has bothered to count them.
“Ask me a question I know the answer to,” he suggests amiably, reclining behind a giant raised semi-circular desk that gives him a panoramic view of the penthouse he occupies when in Wiltshire. It is remarkably free of murals, a modern open-plan apartment in which everything from the Marquess-sized bed to the neatly arrayed contents of the kitchen cupboards is on display.
Papers and other debris cover the desk. On top of it all, open and face-down, is a large blue A4-size notebook titled Journal 126 in black felt-tip pen. This is where Lord Bath records every event in his life before it is edited, abridged and transferred via his laptop to his autobiography. He has three years to cover before he is up to date, but it will be a long time before anyone gets to read the more recent instalments.
To date, six volumes have been published, taking his story up to 1956 and his third year at Oxford. The rest of his account will have to wait until he and the other principal figures in it are dead.
He admits that he would love to see his masterwork in print, but says that it is not worth the risk of upsetting his wife, the French actress Anna Gael. He said: “My wife has assured me she will divorce me if I publish anything about our life together while she’s still alive.”
The couple married in 1959, which is when his life started to get interesting. As Alexander Thynn, later Viscount Weymouth, he pursued a bohemian lifestyle. His many girlfriends earned him the nickname the Loins of Longleat. It is not a reputation he tries to play down, joking that there may be other portraits to add to those of the girlfriends in the stairwell. “After all, I’m not dead yet.”
Where other stately homes have foundered, Lord Bath has been a firm hand on the tiller, despite distractions. Instead of just preserving the past he has been hard at work creating it for future generations.
His successors may regret it if they decide to rip out his murals. “I will come back to haunt them,” he said.
His shrewdest intervention was the suggestion to his father, the 6th Marquess, that they should set up the first safari park outside Africa. So when visitors encounter an eccentrically attired character shuffling along the corridors they should remember that they have met not the Loon of Longleat, but one of its lions.
GROUNDS FOR CONCERN
750,000 visitors last year 250 staff 40 lions when park first opened 2 Bengal tigers £120,000,000 Lord Bath’s fortune 2 children 74 “wifelets”
When the lions were introduced to Longleat 40 years ago, sceptics said that it could only end in tears.
But according to Keith Harris, the head keeper who has worked there for 30 years, no visitors have even been mauled let alone consumed — though there have been occasions when danger beckoned.
In one incident a middle-aged couple who thought that they had left the safari park set up their picnic table inside the tiger enclosure. Had staff not reached them in time Mr Harris says there is no doubt that they would have ended up becoming lunch, rather than eating it.