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Earl of Derby aims to be seminar baron

WHEN IT comes to the family seat, the motto of the Derby family - Sans Changer (Nothing changes) - is so inappropriate that it borders on some kind of dynastic in-joke.

Knowsley Hall, on Merseyside, has been knocked about and reinvented about as often as any country pile in Britain: two huge wings with five libraries and a billiard-room were built in Victorian days and flattened in the 1950s. And yesterday another remarkable reincarnation emerged.

The 19th Earl of Derby (estimated wealth pounds 45m) has become a suitor to the corporate set, and, having lined the building with hidden cabling and high-speed data lines, wants to establish it on the seminar and conference circuit.

Set in 2,500 acres of parkland landscaped in the 1770s by "Capability" Brown, Knowsley lost all its grace after the 18th earl moved out in 1948, leaving much of it to the county police force to use. After 30 years the hall was in a dreadful state.

Now the present earl, perhaps anticipating corporate finance directors' fantasies about being lord of the manor, will only hire out the place for one event at a time.

For delegates on a self-development seminar, that means the chance to march from the huge drawing-room, where portraits of various earls hang from 1731 oak panelling, through the library which housed the menagerie built by the 13th earl and which was pulled down in Victorian times (it was a precursor of the estate's Knowsley Safari Park, founded in 1971 and home to the largest herd of African elephants in Europe) and into the mahogany library.

Fretful sales-conference delegates may not care to linger before one reminder of what happens to those displease the authorities: the oak stool on which the 7th earl knelt to be executed at Bolton in 1651 after his capture while fighting with the future Charles II at Worcester.

"Location fees" granting exclusive use of Knowsley range from pounds 750 for up to 50 guests for a day or evening to pounds 2,000 for 200 guests. Sleep like an earl for pounds 200 per night or marry like one for pounds 2,500 per day. "We've even had Brookside and Hollyoaks using it as a location," said the earl, who is even at home with the soap set. When it comes to aristocratic survival, these days, almost anything must go.