Me And My Home: Christopher Foyle

The chairman of Foyles bookshop lives in an abbey, surrounded by the memories of kings, queens and monks - not to mention assorted ghosts and an organ once played by Handel. He talks to Christopher Middleton
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The Independent Online

Christopher Foyle lives at 12th-century Beeleigh Abbey, on a 400-acre estate beside the river Chelmer, near Maldon, in Essex. He's the chairman of Foyles bookshop, in Charing Cross Road, and he also runs his own worldwide air-freight business, Air Foyle Heavylift, transporting everything from emergency aid to military tanks.

Christopher Foyle lives at 12th-century Beeleigh Abbey, on a 400-acre estate beside the river Chelmer, near Maldon, in Essex. He's the chairman of Foyles bookshop, in Charing Cross Road, and he also runs his own worldwide air-freight business, Air Foyle Heavylift, transporting everything from emergency aid to military tanks.

I have always loved Beeleigh Abbey, ever since I first came here as a child, at the age of two. My grandfather William [who founded Foyles with his brother Gilbert] bought the place towards the end of the Second World War, and it was always a great adventure to stay here. At 12 or 13, I used to dine with my grandparents, and we would drink Châteauneuf du Pape and play cards; it was all terribly grown-up and exciting.

When my grandfather retired, my aunt Christina took over the business, and eventually came to live here. For 10 years, as a young man, I had worked for her at Foyles, but when I found that a salary of over £1,600 and any position of responsibility were eluding me, I decided to leave the company and try my luck in the outside world.

I'd learnt to fly gliders at the age of 15, and had always loved planes, so I decided to set up a small air-taxi service, which I then built up into a slightly larger fleet. We began operating freight services for big firms such as TNT, and in 1989 struck a deal with the Russians to fly Antonov AN124s, the biggest planes in the world.

I'd never considered going back into the family firm until I came to see Christina, six days before she died [in 1999], and she made me a director of Foyles on the spot. Not that she gave us this house. Apart from a few minor bequests, she left her entire £60m estate to what is now the Foyle Foundation, a charity set up to dispense grants for learning, education, health and the arts in Britain. As for Beeleigh, I persuaded the trustees to let me buy it at the market rate. It's wonderful living here - a responsibility, but not a burden.

My wife was very supportive of our coming here. She'd always imagined we were going to be Londoners for the rest of our lives. But now she's got over the shock, she's really fallen for this house.

We've done quite a bit of work to it since we bought it - in fact, the builders have only just left. The first job was to get rid of the smell. My aunt Christina was quite eccentric, and she let her 12 cats urinate and defecate wherever they liked. We had to rip up floorboards and remove whole sections of plastering - it took two years before we finally got rid of that lingering odour.

We've put in new plumbing and central heating, and we've re-tiled the library roof. Sadly, I couldn't afford all the books that my grandfather had collected: Shakespeare first folios, beautifully illuminated medieval texts and the like. I bought 40 per cent of them in terms of volume, but only five per cent in terms of price; the rest were sold at Christie's for £12m.

A lot of the upstairs floors were rotten, and we've replaced them with reclaimed Victorian oak timbers. On the ground floor, we've imported limestone flagstones from France. There's also a four-poster bed in one of the upper rooms that used to belong to James I. It's got his face carved on the headboard, and the eye of God looking down on him; all very beautiful, except we found that the wooden canopy was on the point of collapse, and could have seriously damaged anyone sleeping underneath it.

We've got ghosts - I've never seen them, but after my aunt died, and the place was empty, the night watchman had a frightening experience. He was convinced that there was breathing coming from behind an oak door, and that he heard someone sneeze.

When we took the house over, there were nine bathrooms, but we found that unmanageable. So now we've got six bedrooms and six bathrooms. We mostly divide our time between the kitchen, what we call the "pink room" (though it's not pink any more) and the calefactory, or warming room. This is a large, pillared room, once the only one in the abbey where the monastic rule allowed for a fire, and where the members of the order would gather. They weren't allowed to talk, though - that was only permitted in the parlour.

The organ in our chapter room is dated 1740, and not only do we know that it comes from the Foundlings Hospital in London, we've also discovered that Handel frequently played it there, and may well have composed his Largo on it.

We know, too, that King Edward I and Queen Eleanor came here to celebrate a mass in September 1289, and that in 1540 the Abbey was given by Henry VIII to Sir John Gate, who was beheaded in 1553 for supporting the monarch's ex-wife Lady Jane Grey. The one mystery we would like to solve, though, is the whereabouts of St Roger's heart. Roger Niger de Bileye was born in Beeleigh and went on to become Bishop of London. When he died, his heart was sent, as was the custom, to the place where he was born. We've looked through all the records, but we have no idea of its exact location.

We've now started to turn things around at Foyles. We've refurbished, we've computerised and we've changed my aunt's bizarre employment policy, whereby if anyone stayed at the firm for more than a year, she would forcibly move them on. We showed a profit last year for the first time in seven years, and next month we're opening a second London branch in the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. And I've appointed a chief executive officer, so I shouldn't have to put in quite as many hours.

Who knows? I may even end up emulating the achievement of my grandfather, who was president of Maldon Angling Society, and yet could say that, despite many happy hours on the river, he had never caught a fish in his life.

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