A quarter of the South Downs National Park – over 100,000 acres – is owned by just a dozen landowners, Who Owns England can reveal. The landowners include two Dukes, three Viscounts, one Baron, and two Baronets.
It’s a common misconception that National Parks in the UK are owned by the state. That’s the case in the US, where the Federal Government owns vast swathes of national parkland, like Yosemite and Yellowstone. But in the UK, public sector National Park Authorities (NPAs) own only a tiny fraction of the land within their jurisdiction; the vast majority of each National Park remains in private hands.
The South Downs National Park is 1,627km2, or 402,040 acres. Investigations by Who Owns England can reveal for the first time that a quarter of the National Park is owned by 12 huge landowners. What’s more, many of these landowning families have owned the same land for centuries. Levels of land ownership concentration in parts of the South Downs are almost certainly the same as they were in Victorian and Edwardian times. A fascinating academic study of historic land ownership over 100 square miles of the South Downs shows that just 3 large landowners owned 40-50% of the area under study in 1840, 1910 and 1940. Not much has changed since.
Mapping who owns the South Downs
To kick off the investigation, I first contacted the South Down National Park Authority, to ask if they had any maps of landowners within the NPA boundaries. It turns out they do: this map of landowners that the NPA has been working with to draw up ‘Estate Plans’, to help manage the park in environmentally beneficial ways.
It was a good start, but clearly showed only a fraction of the overall land ownership, and I felt sure there were plenty of large estates missing from it. So I dug further, looking at farm subsidy maps, Highways Act landowner deposits, and maps of English woodland grant schemes (a Forestry Commission subsidy that operated between 2005-2015). Piecing it all together, here’s the map I’ve made showing some of the largest landowners of this beautiful chalk downland:
Who are the biggest landowners?
At the heart of the South Downs is a cluster of very large aristocratic estates – the territories of ancient families dating back to the Norman conquest living next door to 20th century additions to the Peerage.
1) Viscount Cowdray – Cowdray Estate: 16,500 acres
Image: Cowdray Park; Wikimedia Commons.
The sprawling Cowdray Estate, the biggest single landholding in the South Downs National Park, belongs to the Pearson family, whose estimated wealth of £240m comes from publishing. The first Viscount Cowdray was given his peerage in 1917 by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George (whose son had been employed by the businessman). Lloyd George’s hatred of the old landed aristocracy and penchant for handing out peerages to newly-rich Edwardian industrialists ultimately led to the cash-for-peerages scandal.
New money, however, aped old money, and the Cowdrays soon acquired a huge landed estate of their own. The estate’s cottages remain to this day painted in a vibrant chrome yellow, a colour “chosen due to the 1st Viscount Cowdray’s connections to the Liberal party”. But the current 4th Viscount Cowdray is of a rather different political persuasion: he has donated £65,000 over the past decade to UKIP, the Conservatives and Vote Leave. At the same time, he also opposes fracking on his estate and in the wider South Downs.
Much of the Cowdray Estate appears to be registered in the name of the Rathbone Trust Company Ltd, a wealth management firm, according to the Land Registry’s Corporate & Commercial dataset. Why this is the case is unclear, but potentially for reasons of tax efficiency.
2) Duke of Norfolk – Arundel & Angmering Estates: 16,000 acres
Image: Arundel Castle, Wikimedia Commons.
“Since William rose and Harold fell, / There have been Earls at Arundel.” So reads a plaque in the shadow of the magnificent Arundel Castle, stronghold of the Earls of Arundel, whose proximity to power down the centuries eventually also earned them the Dukedom of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk is Earl Marshal of England, too, an ancient hereditary royal office that oversees coronations, state funerals and the College of Heralds, which grants coats of arms. The Duke’s own coat of arms is shown below.
With such grand titles comes a grand estate – several, in fact. A display in Arundel Museum states: “When the 15th Duke stood on the battlements of his newly repaired keep in 1910, he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that almost everything he could see in all directions belonged to him.” Although the Ducal estate is thought to have diminished in size since then, it is still said to span an impressive 16,000 acres. Part of this is the the Angmering Estate, next door to Arundel, “which extends to some 6,750 acres [and] forms the eastern half of the original Norfolk Estate… The Estate’s origins go back to the Norman Conquest.”
Image: Author’s photo. An Englishman’s home is his… castle.
3) National Trust properties across the South Downs: 15,151 acres
A range of National Trust properties and parklands are scattered across the Downs, including the Slindon Estate, Birling Gap and Drovers Estate. Their combined acreage (obtained by measuring the polygons in the GIS map files) makes the NT the third largest landowner in the South Downs.
4) Baron Leconfield (Lord Egremont) – Leconfield (Petworth) Estate: 14,000 acres
Image: Petworth House, Wikimedia Commons.
Petworth House itself is owned by the National Trust, but it remains the home of Lord Egremont (aka Baron Leconfield), who also retains control of the wider Leconfield Estate. The current Baron is an author of various history books, and his family estate also includes 3,000 acres in Cumbria.
5) Duke of Richmond – Goodwood Estate: 11,500 acres
The second Duke with extensive acres on the Downs is Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, the 11th Duke of Richmond. He is also inheritor of the Dukedoms of Lennox, Aubigny and Gordon.
The Goodwood Estate is stated on its own website to be 11,500 acres. Under the provisions of the Highways Act 1980, a map of the estate has been deposited with West Sussex Council. But they don’t publish them online for some reason, so I requested it from the council – you can see it here. I used this to trace the rough outline of the estate in the Googlemap above.
As this blog has previously revealed, Goodwood Estate Ltd got handed £379,085 in farm subsidies in 2015. Some of its woodlands have received Forestry Commission grants in the past, too. But what the estate is really famous for – and where it gets its real money from – is its panoply of sporting and leisure activities: horse-racing, golf courses, an aerodrome, and historic car racing at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
As one newspaper article about the Duke of Richmond puts it, he has “leverage[d] Goodwood’s formidable competitive advantages – the things that cannot be replicated elsewhere (except by other landed families, presumably): vast (and beautiful) space and a magnificent stately home”. But these modern businesses depend on owning land inherited down the centuries: “Even if they wanted to, it is difficult to imagine any company, oligarch or Middle Eastern princeling acquiring such an enormous chunk of southern England [nowadays].”
6) Viscount Gage – Firle Estate: 7,500 acres
Image: Eric Ravilious, ‘Chalk Downs’ (1935). Copyright expired as artist died over 70yrs ago
At the eastern end of the South Downs, beyond Brighton, is the Firle Estate – which runs to some 7,500 acres, according to this shooting website. As its owner, Viscount Gage, once recounted to Parliament back in 1997: “My family has farmed in East Sussex for over 500 years on the chalk farmland for which the area… is so well known.”
At the time of his speech, plans were afoot to finally designate the South Downs as a National Park, half a century after the original Hobhouse Report recommended it be made one. The noble Viscount was not quite so keen, however: “The administration of a new national park would be more expensive than funding the existing [conservation] board… It could invite the danger of bureaucratic managers unfamiliar with the region who might introduce a surfeit of unnecessary signs and huts which would detract from the timeless beauty of our South Downs.” Still, Viscount Gage is clearly keen on conservation; his land is one of those with an Estate Plan shown on the NPA’s map, above. And his ancestor, the 6th Viscount, fought against the ‘Londonisation’ of Sussex in the interwar period.
7) Edward James trustees – West Dean Estate: 6,350 acres
The West Dean Estate is the bequest of Surrealist poet and patron Edward James, now managed by an educational trust. James is depicted in a famous ‘portrait’ by Magritte (though it only shows the back of his head). Besides West Dean, he also acquired land in the Mexican jungle, where he created orchid gardens and surreal sculpture parks.
8) Goring family – Wiston Estate: 6,000 acres
The Wiston Estate has been owned and managed by the Goring family since 1743. Today it markets itself on its wines, reviving the Roman tradition of growing vineyards on the South Downs. Two companies farm it, both owned by the Goring family: Findon Park Farm Ltd, which received farm subsidies of £258,851 in 2016, and Wiston Farms Ltd, recipients of £101,552 in 2016.
9) Sir Sebastian Anstruther, Baronet – Barlavington Estate: 3,200 acres
The Barlavington Estate’s submission to a recent consultation reveals it to be 3,200 acres. Sir Sebastian Anstruther was embroiled in a dispute in 2010 over his plans to dig up 75,000 tonnes of sand on his estate every year, within the National Park boundary. The application looks to have been withdrawn following the public outcry.
10) Stansted Park Estate – 1,800 acres
This used to be owned by the Earl of Bessborough, but he died without male heir, so the house and estate was left to the nation – but to be owned and administered by a bespoke charity, rather than the National Trust.
11) Viscount Mersey – Bignor Park Estate: 1,123 acres
The source for this estate’s acreage comes from measuring the map polygon for the Environmental Stewardship scheme it receives. Though relatively small, the estate still pulled in £159,308 in CAP in 2016.
12) Sir Brian Barttelot, Baronet – Stopham Estate: 1,000 acres
As this article states: “The Barttelot family is one of the oldest in Sussex – able to trace their genealogy back to William the Conqueror’s invading force.”
TOTAL: 100,124 acres
A quarter of the South Downs National Park, owned by a dozen landowners.