AS BEACONS go, the one that was lit last week in one of Belgravia's beautifully tended private gardens was small but perfectly sited. After all, this was the "final dramatic link" in the chain of beacons lit across Britain to publicise today's Countryside March, and what better place for a flame than on the land of the man who has bankrolled the movement? "By kind permission of His Grace the Duke of Westminster," said the invitation to the VIP press conference at Grosvenor Gardens North.
Despite this, the man who is called Gerald more than His Grace was nowhere to be seen. Never mind, the party could go on without him. "Champagne?" asked a young woman wearing a yellow T-shirt saying "The Voice of the Countryside". Another hovered nearby with canapes (sausages rolled in honey and mustard) decorated with hedgerow flowers. The VIPs stumbled over each other inside the striped marquee. But where was the duke? "Oh, this is nothing to do with him," said an organiser. "Except that he let us use the garden, of course."
It's the kind of thing that the shy, chain-smoking duke would like us to believe. Last week he was not giving interviews. "He doesn't want to personalise the situation," said his spokeswoman at Grosvenor Estate Holdings in Mayfair. Yes, he would be going on the march. He feels strongly about the issues and also wants to support those of his staff coming down from the rural estates. This is another understatement. The duke helped set up the Countryside Movement years ago - before anyone could have seen what it has become - and has given it pounds 1.3m in the form of an unsecured loan. Without him, today's march might never have happened. And the money doesn't hurt. "He never expected that the money would be given back," said his office.
At 46, the duke is the fifth wealthiest man in Britain, worth an estimated pounds 1.7bn. Unlike so many other aristocrats, he knows how to hang on to his property assets. Though not academically bright - he has two O-levels - he is good at adding up and has the gift of being able to listen to, and follow, good advice. The Sunday Times Rich List reported last year that his company's pre-tax profits were up 17.3 per cent to pounds 23.5m. The duke owns all the shares in the company via several trusts. Assets include 300 golden acres in Mayfair, the 22,500-acre Abbeystead grouse moor in Lancashire, and 13,000 acres of farmland near his Eaton Hall family seat in Cheshire. Not to mention the odd property in San Francisco, Vancouver, Paris and Madrid.
He won't be drawn on whether the pounds 1.7bn figure is accurate. "I cannot discuss it. It's not something I dwell on," he has said. "We are rich in terms of property and the quality of property. It is not something that concerns me. Never has. Not interested in material things. Honestly. It would drive me bonkers if I thought too deeply about it."
Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor may be rich but he is not grand. An old friend of his says: "The key to both him and his sisters is that they were brought up in a very remote part of Northern Ireland in a simple, rural, unaffected and unspoilt way. It wasn't until he was in his teens that it began to dawn on him that he was heir to this unimaginable fortune."
The duke remembers his childhood on Ely island in the middle of Loch Earn as idyllic, frugal and isolated. Enniskillen, the nearest town, was six or seven miles away. "Popping down to the corner shop to buy sweets was a bit of a safari," he said. "It was a wonderful foundation for life. I am a country person by birth and inclination."
He thought he would end up farming beef in Northern Ireland. Then his uncle died and his father inherited. "We had never talked about it," the duke says. "The great thing was that my father allowed me to be a child, without thinking that I was going to a duke, or that I should be different from my next-door neighbour." His father was ill for eight years before he died in 1979, leaving Gerald to run the estate when he was still in his teens. Life was never to be simple again.
Some believe he has never really got over the fact that he is different. A friend remembers going up by train to visit him in Chester, thinking she would be picked up by chauffeured limousine. Instead, it was just Gerald in a battered Land Rover and baggy corduroys. His total devotion to the Territorial Army - in which he is a colonel - is attributed in part to the fact that he joined as a trooper and worked his way up. "It is something that he himself has earned. It has nothing to do with being a duke," said a friend.
"His position seems to be a burden and a responsibility instead of a source of fun," says another friend.
He is, in fact, almost a poster child for the aristocracy. The family has not, however, always been so squeaky-clean: the second Duke was a wild man who married four times, introduced Coco Chanel to tweed, partied with Noel Coward, hated democracy and loved the motor car (during the war he equipped a unit of 12 armour-plated Rolls-Royces).
The second Duke had to resign the Lord Lieutenancy of Cheshire because of his matrimonial irregularities. No chance of that with Gerald. In fact, the only thing remotely scandalous about him is the ongoing saga of Eaton Hall which is, by all accounts, a bit of a dog's dinner. There have been a succession of houses on the site, including one by the architect of the Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse. That was pulled down in the 1960s, however, and replaced with a "frankly brutalist" building known as the White Elephant. About eight years ago, the duke decided to do something about this, but, instead of knocking it down, he simply reclad it. The result is a sort of out-of-proportion red-brick chateau. And that is putting it kindly.
One suspects he doesn't care too much. His worries revolve much more around responsibilities. Last year he had to withdraw from some of his scores of charities on doctor's orders. Some called it stress, others nervous exhaustion. He certainly has a bit of the Princess Diana about him (his wife is one of Prince William's godparents) and one Christmas took his two eldest daughters to visit the poor drug-addicts of Liverpool. "There is a whole different world out there and I want to open their eyes to it," he said.
Undoubtedly his other children, a young son and another daughter, can expect the same.
Unhappiness of his own began at Harrow, which he hated. He did not make a single friendship there that has endured and says that the single- sex education left him terrified of women for years. His wife, Natalia - known as Tally, slipped by through sheer familiarity. (He had known her since she was seven). Isolation has been an undercurrent for the rest of his life.
"Even now, one has very few friends," he says (he has a habit of referring to himself in the impersonal singular). His own children go to a co- ed private school near Eaton Hall. He makes a special point of trying to be home by 5pm - sometimes flying up to Chester in his private Cessna from London - to eat dinner with them.
The duke is said to have four passions in life - his business, his charities, the Territorial Army and his family - but a fifth would be the countryside. In this, as in most things, he is a progressive with a strong traditional streak. In a recent interview with the environmental magazine Resurgence, for instance, he sounded as green as could be. "Nature is holistic," he says. "We as homo sapiens are no more important than the deer in the park. We are living together and we depend on each other. We have got to treat our countryside better. We think, in our arrogant fashion, of homo sapiens as being the dominant species. This is wrong. We are only dominant because we invented gunpowder and the JCB and the blasted motor-car. We are not dominant over nature. We must never take that view. All our efforts to control nature will prove futile."
Yet he remains a paternalistic (some say feudal) landlord who is not above controlling his tenants and who is adamantly opposed to the right to roam. "Private" signs pepper his estates. He and the Ramblers are not friends. "I do not really feel that I own this land," he has said. "This land has been in our family for the last 900 years and it will, hopefully, continue to be in the family for the next 900 years. It would be inconceivable for me to dispose of it. I do not have a sense of ownership. It is a sense of duty and responsibility."
That is what drives the Duke of Westminister. His is not a political power base - he resigned from the Conservative party in disgust over its policy on leaseholds. He is, it seems, a free radical and he has the means to be. Not that he is likely to admit to it. The word "Private" is not just stamped on his land but also on the soul of the man who wanted to be a beef farmer and ended up the richest aristo in Britain.
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