A MEETING between Lord Bath and Jimmy Chipperfield, held in November 1964, proved a turning point in the fortunes of the Longleat estate, writes Duff Hart- Davis. Chipperfield, whose family had been in the circus for generations, proposed that they should form a 50-50 partnership and together create a new kind of zoo, designed for motor cars, in which lions would be let loose in the steeply undulating parkland round the house.
At the time Bath was proposing to sink pounds 100,000 in a factory for producing garden pots, but he abandoned this idea in favour of lions. Fanned by hostile comments in the Times, public interest in the scheme built up rapidly as finishing touches were put to the new enclosures in the spring of 1966, and when the park opened at Easter the place was inundated by cars. During that hectic first weekend, the pioneers found that they had created a runaway success, and Bath himself went on the gate, eagerly collecting money in a satchel.
So the idea of the safari park was born. Rival landowners imitated it; some parks went under, and some survived, but none showed greater vitality than the original at Longleat, which flourishes to this day and has earned a very substantial amount for the estate. In later years many other species of animal reinforced the big cats, but the lions remain an unrivalled attraction.
The partners who thought up the venture made an odd-looking pair - the beanpole of an aristocrat, and the stocky little former trapeze artist who had been born in a mahogany wagon. But, although their backgrounds were entirely different, they got on famously.
Bath maintained a keen interest in the safari park right to the end of his life. A director of the joint company, he went to meetings and always had something to say - especially if the elephants had been damaging his precious trees. Apart from money, the enterprise provided him with a private supply of one commodity not easily obtained elsewhere - lion dung, which he swore by as a deterrent for keeping deer off his roses.