Sweeping back to the country: John Broome is building a luxury rural playground and putting the shattered dream of Battersea power station behind him, writes Chris Blackhurst - Business - News - The Independent

Sweeping back to the country: John Broome is building a luxury rural playground and putting the shattered dream of Battersea power station behind him, writes Chris Blackhurst

JOHN BROOME is very proud of his lawn. At four acres, it is the largest finely manicured 'games' lawn in the world (the next biggest is at St Andrews); it can accommodate championship matches of croquet and bowls side by side; it was developed not by laying turf, but by spraying on germinated seed; it is mowed by hand by one man walking up and down for 54 miles.

By now, Mr Broome should have been speaking about the third successive record year at The Battersea, his theme park on the Thames at Battersea power station. As it is, he is extolling the virtues of a patch of turf at Carden Park, a country estate in Cheshire.

It should all have been so different. The Battersea was due to open on 21 May 1990 at 2.30pm. 'Don't come at 2.35pm or you'll miss it,' quipped Mr Broome at a ceremony to mark the power station's renaming by Margaret Thatcher in June 1988. By now, the theme park should have been accommodating visitors at the rate of 7,000 an hour at peak periods. They would be transported on a special 'Battersea bullet' train from Victoria. The project would be employing 6,000 people and be firmly established, in Mr Broome's words, as a 'palace of entertainment with seven floors of enjoyment on a 31-acre riverside site'. It would be 'the jewel in London's pleasure industry crown'.

Today, Battersea power station is an empty shell. It is the world's biggest brick building - so vast it could swallow up St Paul's Cathedral with ease, hold 500 Jumbo jets or take in Madame Tussauds 130 times over, gushed the hype around its planned conversion into 'Europe's largest leisure complex' at the time. Now it stands semi-derelict and roofless.

In February, Mr Broome, who was described by Baroness Thatcher as 'someone who could see the possibilities and commercial prospects with far greater insight than we more ordinary mortals', sold the site to George and Victor Wong from Hong Kong. Or rather, the Wong brothers agreed to buy out the debts on the development, estimated, with interest, at more than pounds 100m.

As for Mr Broome, who made his name developing Alton Towers as Britain's biggest theme park before turning his attentions to Battersea, he has gone home to Cheshire.

Even getting to see him these days is not easy. The man who once held forth, seemingly to anyone who would listen, about his plans will only agree to be interviewed provided the topic under discussion is Carden Park and Battersea is not mentioned - and a fax is sent to that effect. 'Write about Battersea', said Peter Rumley, who acts as Mr Broome's local public relations assistant and 'heritage manager', 'and we will sue you.' In the event, his master did relent and talk on the record about Battersea. But first, Carden.

SET in south Cheshire, on the slopes of the Peckforton Hills and overlooking the Dee Valley, Carden is a million miles away from the dust and grime of Battersea. Nevertheless, in terms of size and scope, it is its equal.

In the 1970s, Mr Broome moved from Chester with his family to Stretton Hall, a Georgian mansion on the edge of the 1,200-acre Carden estate. Once one of the grandest country estates, Carden had been falling into disrepair since its original half-timbered manor house was destroyed by fire in 1912. Overgrown and neglected, it was in a sad state by the time Mr Broome bought it, for an undisclosed sum, in 1987.

The new owner, in the words of his publicist, 'immediately realised the estate's potential and set about the creating of Britain's ultimate country retreat. A world-class luxury facility for the individual or corporate visitor, a vision of the future providing its guests with over 25 challenging sporting disciplines.'

For once, the hype is not wide of the mark. Modelled on The Boulders in Colorado - 'but better than that by a long way', purrs Mr Broome as we drive around in his Range Rover - Carden is an executive playground without equal.

The nearest equivalents in the UK are the country-house resorts of Gleneagles, Chewton Glen and Hanbury Manor. Carden, declares Mr Broome, will be different.

For a start, it will not aspire to their prices. 'Our mission statement is the pursuit of affordable excellence. In other words, five-star facilities at three-star prices.'

And it is much closer to the mass of the population. 'Forty per cent of the UK industrial base is located within one hour's drive of here. That's a much higher proportion than, say, Gleneagles,' Mr Broome says, with a look that suggests he cannot believe it either: 'It's over 20 million people.' The new Toyota engine plant at Wrexham, complete with golf-crazy Japanese executives, is just three or four miles away and Manchester airport, with its international connections, is a 40-minute drive. 'Anyone can have a fancy dream and start building,' he says. 'I'm not that way inclined. I've researched the market carefully, and I've got 20 years of experience in the leisure industry behind me.'

His market will be international, national and local. He has not missed a trick: he has acquired access to the list of the 13,000 gold card holders in the North-west, and they can expect to be hearing about Carden, if they have not done so already.

This is the real John Broome. For all his flamboyance, he is a stiff, cautious, edgy character. Impeccably turned out in a double-breasted City pinstripe, with ubiquitous silk handkerchief in the breast pocket and highly polished brogues, he cuts an incongruous figure in the countryside. His conversation, formal and hesitant at first, takes a while to warm up. He is a deadly serious businessman who made a fortune from Alton Towers and wants to be taken seriously again.

His problem is that for all his talk of careful analysis and market research, he operates on a different level from everyone else - always has done, always will - so that much of what he says has an unreal quality about it. Since Battersea, that illusory feel has acquired an extra dimension, so it is hard not to listen to much of what he says and smile. Which, on the evidence of Carden so far, is a great shame.

TO DATE, Mr Broome claims to have spent pounds 20m transforming its rolling acres. 'It's my own money, it's all my own money,' he says, in answer to the obvious question.

The sports on offer include croquet and bowls on the lawn, golf, fly-fishing, riding, game shooting, clay-pigeon shooting, falconry, hot-air ballooning, mountain biking, off-road four-wheel driving and archery.

The gates will open formally in July, but already staff from the likes of American Express and Ford have enjoyed Carden's corporate entertainment facilities. Despite the park's infancy, the Manchester Olympics Committee (member: John Broome) has selected Carden as the venue for the modern pentathlon, shooting, archery and fencing. IOC representatives have been to Carden and, says Mr Broome, they liked what they saw. Will Manchester win? 'We've got more of a chance than many people think.'

Individual membership of Carden, which entitles the holder to free use of all the facilities, is pounds 950 plus a monthly subscription of pounds 95 a month. Corporate membership is pounds 4,750, with heavy interest already, apparently, from such heavyweights as Glaxo, ICI and Unilever.

Currently, though, Carden is a hive of industry. Around 600 people and 100 machines are working on 17 building sites in the grounds. 'It will all be finished by 15 July,' says Mr Broome, who still cannot resist setting a deadline.

But so far, so good. Work is ahead of schedule. Builders are everywhere, digging roads, laying foundations, finishing a dramatic new entrance, complete with 'shopping village'. A new 87-room hotel is going up at breakneck speed, alongside renovated self-catering cottages.

Typically, Mr Broome's hotel, he claims, will not be five-star but a modest 'six-star' (every room will have mini-kitchen facilities, so you can do it yourself or call 'five-star' room service, hence 'six-star').

Whatever knocks he has suffered, Mr Broome has lost none of his flair for showmanship or grand ambition. As with previous projects, the size of the operation at Carden is mind-boggling:

30,000 trees have been planted;

14 miles of drystone wall has been restored;

5 miles of deer fencing has been erected and 400 red deer introduced to the park;

10 acres of vines have been planted, making Carden Europe's most northerly commercial vineyard, producing 45,000 bottles a year (it has been awarded the English Vineyards Association's Gold Seal of Quality);

20 million tons of silt were removed from the lake, which is now stocked with trout.

Mr Broome, says Dr Rumley, 'is a perfectionist in every detail'. He is not kidding. At times, Mr Broome's quest for perfection smacks of folie de grandeur. But in an age when others are cutting costs and corners, it can only be admired.

Take the hotel. It is being fitted out by 'the same people that did the Lanesborough', except the hi-tech plumbing system ensures that 'if all the rooms turn on their taps at the same time, they will get a full force of water - and you can't say that of the Lanesborough'. The bricks in the hotel are hand-made and the roofing slates second-hand, so that 'within six months it will look as though it is 100 years old'.

And outside, the drainage system is operated by computer, banks of earth have been constructed along the driveways to shield cars from view, and some of the buildings are sunken to prevent eyesores. The exotic plants in 'The Gloriette', a conservatory in the heart of the estate, have been installed with the assistance of curators from Kew Gardens.

His pride and joy, and Carden's piece de resistance, is the championship golf course and golf school, the Carden Academy - 'soon to take its place as the finest tuition centre in Europe'. The school-cum-driving range is equipped with video cameras that can film your swing from six different angles and impose a real professional's swing on top of yours. Ever wondered what it is like to play Amen Corner at Augusta or the 17th Road Hole at St Andrews? Carden has created miniature replicas of both.

'Nicklaus wants to come and Palmer is coming. It's causing quite a stir. Every shot in the world can be played at the Carden Academy,' says Mr Broome. The golf shop is stocked with cashmere jumpers, naturally. Are they made from wool supplied by Carden's own herd of cashmere goats? 'No, but we do send our wool to them.'

As we wander round, astonishing claims and details pour forth. The hotel 'will have 100 per cent occupancy from day one'. If it is only 55 per cent occupied, says Mr Broome, he is looking at a return of 24 per cent. The complex, which is already taking bookings for two years ahead, will employ a thousand staff serving a thousand people a day.

Crossing the car park, we pass three builders on their hands and knees replacing some tiles. 'I will not accept puddles anywhere, I will not. I will not have the place looking like a pigsty,' explains the lord of Carden.

Come July and the hoped-for meeting of the deadline, he will not be finished - not by a long chalk. He will then turn his attention to constructing a vast Palladian hall to replace the mansion that was destroyed in 1912.

JOHN LAWSON BROOME was born in 1943, the son of the headmaster of a preparatory school near Chester.

Broome Snr played football for Oldham Athletic, and his son has inherited his powerful, athletic build. Broome Jr went to Rossall School, a boarding school near Fleetwood. At 16, he was highest bidder at a public auction for a house that went for pounds 2,200. Unfortunately, his Post Office savings account contained just pounds 122 and the result was a sound thrashing. 'The beating he received taught him the folly of approaching business with a cavalier attitude,' said an old publicity handout, in all seriousness.

Before he married Jane Bagshaw in 1973, few people outside Cheshire had heard of Mr Broome. He was a flashy - the owner of the first car phone in Chester, no less - small-time property developer who also dabbled in local politics. Jane's father, Dennis, was an estate agent and owner of Alton Towers, a stately home that had seen better days but was something of a tourist attraction for its gardens and fun-fair.

The son-in-law resigned from the council and committed himself to turning the family business round. As with Battersea and, possibly, now with Carden, there were some who thought he was mad, spending pounds 12m installing new roller-coaster rides and upgrading acres of unfashionable Staffordshire. By the time he had finished a decade later, Alton Towers was the biggest single tourist attraction outside London, drawing 2 million visitors a year and making profits of pounds 10m. Then came Battersea, and disaster.

W E ARE sitting at the dining-table in Carden's restored 18th century Shooting Lodge. It is a sunny May day, yet the log fire is ablaze. The entry on the Shooting Lodge in the Carden brochure describes it as 'the perfect setting for business, for conferences, meetings, product launches and corporate hospitality'. Intriguingly, it adds: 'Incentives represent reward: Motivation to achieve, the realisation of dreams, Carden Park will provide all the answers.'

So what about Battersea? He takes a sip of Carden wine (given the choice between the dry and medium, he chose the dry, and he should know). 'I'm a character who likes to achieve first and shout later,' he says.

You must be joking. But hard as I try, I can see no hint of a smile. He pauses. 'I've stayed extremely quiet over what went wrong at Battersea.' He has. 'But I think it is an achievement in its own right to find partners to take out all the liabilities in a recession.' The Wongs, he says, 'came from over 700 inquiries from institutions and individuals in property-based areas who wanted to do a deal'.

At first hearing, all this sounds contradictory: achievement in finding partners at all; 700 inquiries? But what he is trying to say - and he does not express it very well - goes to the heart of what went wrong on Battersea.

When he bought the Sir Giles Gilbert Scott landmark, with its Art Deco interior, for a mere pounds 1.5m in 1988, he thought he was on to a winner. The site was massive, slap bang in the middle of London, on the river, away from houses. The only drawback was that the power station, with its four imposing chimneys, was a listed building. He could do what he wanted inside and around it but he could not knock it down.

The boss of Alton Towers, a genius at appealing to crowds, played to its strengths. Instead of moaning, he turned the building and its historic status into a virtue.

But his confidence was based on a severe miscalculation: the building was falling down; it had been built in the 1930s with only a 30-year lifespan in mind and its foundations were virtually non-existent. Forget installing rides and restaurants; suddenly he was obliged to spend millions propping it up.

There was worse. Blue asbestos was everywhere and the bricks had been eaten away by sulphur. What began as a pounds 34m project went out of control. The estimated costs rose to pounds 170m, then to pounds 240m when work stopped in March, and by the time Alfred McAlpine withdrew its machinery in January 1990, they were pounds 300m.

Mr Broome brought in partners and managed to persuade Wandsworth Council to agree to a revised scheme, to accommodate offices, hotels, shops and a leisure centre, as well as a fairground. In a phrase that now has a fateful resonance, the new proposal was approvingly described as 'another Canary Wharf'. It was not enough. He could not find extra finance and the project was mothballed.

At one point, Battersea Leisure, Mr Broome's Battersea company, owed its bankers pounds 100m. Under the confidential deal struck with the Wongs, they have lent Mr Broome the money to pay them off - although for nothing like that amount - and taken the site as collateral. Effectively, he has walked away without any liabilities.

But, he claims, the project cost him ' pounds 85m personally'. Restoring the foundations alone, he maintains, cost him pounds 37m. 'Nobody, not even a government agency or department, has ever spent as much money on a historic building as I have on Battersea.'

When he announced that deadline with Lady Thatcher present, he was setting himself a target of 22 months and six days to complete the fitting out of his theme park. As it was, he recalls ruefully, 'I had to spend 14 months just putting in 300 piles 600 feet deep to pin up the building.'

Who was to blame? He glowers. Not him: 'The original architects and the contractors all those years ago who didn't do it.' And some of his development advisers for not telling him soon enough. He has not, though, issued legal proceedings against them. 'I elected not to go down that route. I elected to get the site secure and the foundations secure and to do a fine deal.

'I could have walked away a long time ago at great personal benefit. Nobody should ever say I did. It is still up, it looks safe.'

So why has he not gone on the attack and said as much? 'Why should I? I believe in achievement on the ground, not in the press.'

His achievement, he says, has been to stick with it, and 'to bring in the right people, with the right pockets to see through the right project'. Contrary to popular belief, he has not left it, either. What will he be doing, exactly? The Wongs 'live a long way away, so I think it becomes a partnership, don't you?'.

He is assisting the Wongs - how, exactly, he will not say; he is a consultant to Kew Gardens; he is involved in the 'redesigning of airports' - again, details are not forthcoming; and has interests in 'other situations here and overseas'. They include 'something in the leisure field in Spain', but that is all he will say. He is not - and his non-inclusion in this year's Rich List should not be taken as any indication - a poor man.

Somehow, while Battersea was floundering, he found the money to start the ball rolling at Carden. Where it came from remains a mystery. In 1990, the sale of Alton Towers raised pounds 60m, supposedly for Battersea. Perhaps significantly, Mr Broome himself never said what the money was for.

Regardless of where the money came from - and it is a shock to find that a man who many in London regard as a busted flush is lavishing millions on a project 200 miles away - there is no denying him what should be a triumph in Carden. 'Is it not an achievement to survive, to still be there and to still have the opportunity to come back? I consider that to be a major achievement, don't you?'

On the way out, he warns that he 'can't cope with anyone who says I made a mistake at Battersea'.

He hands me a copy of the latest issue of Cheshire Life, to read on the train home. Inside there is a flattering two-page profile of 'John Broome Country Gentleman' and Carden. The author's name is familiar: Peter Rumley. There is no mention of Battersea.-

(Photographs omitted)

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