How Graham made his pile

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The Independent Online
Graham Whitlobe is a millionaire. He is only 35. Ten years ago he was a penurious student of architecture. He was looking forward to a career as a penurious architect. Yet now, after starting his company called Living in the Past, he is a millionaire. How did it come about?

"It all started," he recalls, "when I was out for a bike ride with my girlfriend in the Cotswolds. I was in my early twenties. I was very much in love. Looking back, I realise now that I was very much in love with myself, but that's normal with young men ....

"We'd been talking about my future as a poverty-stricken architect and about how she would marry me if I got into something more profitable, and I said that architecture was an honourable and noble profession, and she said, no it wasn't, it was just knowing how to get through loop-holes in planning regulations and getting away with minimum expense (you've probably had this conversation lots of times if you're an impoverished student of anything). Anyway, we happened to park our bikes by a little cottage called The Copper Beeches.

"Well, in a pause in our wide-ranging discussion about our future, I idly looked round for the copper beeches after which the house was named and saw none. There were a few buddleia bushes and one sycamore - there's always one sycamore, isn't there? - but no copper beeches. It made sense really. The cottage was probably built about 200 years ago, and the trees after which it was named must have died a long time back.

"Just then, the cottage door opened and the owner came out, and she saw us looking at the name and said how sorry she was that there were no longer any copper beeches there, and she would give anything to have them back again. So I asked her why she didn't replant some, and she said it was too much bother and would take too long ....

"Well, I was thinking about this the next day, and it suddenly occurred to me that there was a contradiction here. She said she would do anything to get the trees back. But actually getting them back was too much like hard work. Then I thought: what if someone else did the hard work of replanting the trees? And charged a small fee?

"So the next day I went back and offered to do it, and she accepted like a flash. I went and got some advice from a friend of mine who was studying tree surgery, and within two days she had a new row of young copper beeches in the right, historic place. I was paid and everyone was happy.

"I was especially happy when I found I had stumbled on an untapped mine of nostalgia. Millions of people seem to live in houses which are named after vanished objects, usually trees, and in 95 per cent of cases it is perfectly possible to replace that object, or restore it. It's just that the householder never bothers. So I formed my firm, Living in the Past, and started calling on every house called Cherry Tree Cottage or The Yews or The Laurels, offering to make their address an honest one by replanting the requisite tree or bushes.

"Of course, I didn't point out that they could become honest much more economically by just changing their name. Pubs do this all the time, and nobody seems to worry. Even in small towns you find pubs suddenly changing from the King's Arms to the Sprat and Carrot, and after two days' protest everyone gets used to it. But nobody ever seems to chance the names of houses. Even when the use changes, they preserve the old name, which is why in villages you get so many second homes called The Old Shop or The Old Schoolhouse or whatever. No, they would much rather get the trees replanted to fit the old name of the house. Which suited me fine, of course."

Whitlobe went through one period of uncertainty before his firm settled down to fame and fortune.

"Yes, I made the mistake of claiming in an ad that we could restore any house to the image of its name. It wasn't too bad when we had people living in places like The Old Bakery and The Old Brewhouse coming forward, and actually prepared to pay the cash to have their places put back on a baking or brewing footing. But when someone came to me who lived in a house called Sea View .... "

Whitlobe falls silent at the memory. Was it so very difficult to restore the sea view?

"Yes, it was. The man lived 1,000 feet up in the Sussex Weald, and his ancient view of the sea was now blocked off by a new hospital development. I felt unable to knock the hospital down. He sued me for breach of promise. We settled out of court. Thereafter I was more careful. Anyway, meanwhile I had discovered a more lucrative opening."

Tomorrow: more secrets of the nostalgia industry!