Talks add to country house's rich history

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The Independent Online

There can be few more appropriate settings than Weston Park for the latest efforts to save the flagging Northern Ireland peace process.

The website promoting the 17th-century Shropshire mansion proclaims that politics and tragedy have featured prominently in its rich history.

Tony Blair was struck by the elegance and tranquillity of the house and grounds when the Government chose it as the venue for a meeting of the G8 group of world leaders in 1998.

The leaders, including Bill Clinton, held their main meetings in the Orangery, full of exotic wild plants, and lunched in a dining room adorned with paintings by Caravaggio and Van Dyck. They broke off from talks to stroll in the gardens landscaped in the 18th century by Capability Brown. Mr Blair enthused afterwards: "The G8 summit retreat at Weston Park proved a delight. The heads were struck by the beauty and charm of the house and the park."

Its secluded 900-acre setting also meant that jittery security chiefs were able to keep their charges well away from the demonstrators attracted by any gathering of presidents and prime ministers.

Weston Park was therefore an obvious venue when Mr Blair decided to mount a fresh attempt to end the wrangling between Northern Ireland's leaders, away from the politically charged settings of London, Belfast or Dublin.

Although Weston was mentioned in the Domesday Book, the present house dates back to 1671 and has been home to the Earls of Bradford for more than three centuries.

Distinguished guests over the years have included Benjamin Disraeli, a great admirer of its parkland, and King George V's daughter Mary, the Princess Royal, who chose it for her honeymoon.

P G Wodehouse paid his own tribute by basing Blandings Castle, the setting for several of his comic novels, on Weston.

The present Earl of Bradford is best known for running a traditional British restaurant in Covent Garden, holding hardline anti-European views and turning his home into a highly profitable business venture. He turned over the estate to a charitable trust in 1986 to avoid paying £8m in death duties. Today he lives in a modest home on the estate and owns the local pub, The Countess's Arms.

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