Gazing upon the stern might of Blencathra mountain, rising almost 3,000 foot into the cloud above England’s Lake District national park, it’s easy to understand why ancient Britons believed the peak was the home of Afallach, the Celtic god of the underworld.
Less easy to credit is that this mountain is the stage on which the great, ongoing psychodrama of English life—class—is being painfully acted out.
But since the mountain was put up for sale (PDF) by its aristocratic owner—the Eighth Earl of Lonsdale—earlier this year, it has become the focus of a vicious, bidding war, pitting vaguely conceived, faceless billionaires against feisty locals, outraged at the high-handed behaviour of its owner.
The sale of Blencathra—known locally as the Saddleback for its double-peaked profile—has also provided the latest instalment in a very public family feud involving deathbed amendments to wills, shocking allegations of sexual abuse and the eternal bogeyman of the British upper classes; death duties, as inheritance tax is known in England.
While British lords are known for their eccentricity, even by the forgiving standards of the dotty British aristocracy, Hugh Lowther, the Eighth Earl of Lonsdale, is exceptionally unusual.
Before his father died, the dishevelled, slipper-wearing, chain-smoking Earl drove trucks across Europe for fifteen years after he was effectively cut off by his father, the Seventh Earl.
These days, he lives in a farmhouse on the Lonsdale estate with his third wife, and reportedly inspects properties on his estate with a home—made drone, rather than calling out to them in person.
His father, the Seventh Earl—or ‘Lordie’ as he is still known in the Lake District—was a far more conventional figure. Revered and dutiful, he fought (and was injured) in World War II, and succeeded to the tile in 1953. He rescued the Lowther estates from ruin through a series of canny business decisions after they were brought to the brink of bankruptcy by the profligacy of a predecessor known as the Yellow Earl, because he insisted that everything on the vast Lowther estate be painted yellow, including his extensive fleet of cars.
“I will never speak to another Lowther in my life. Ever. Ever. I have had this throughout my whole life. I will have nothing further to do with them.”
‘Lordie’ sacrificed the ancestral pile, Lowther Castle (a money pit), cut down vast swathes of forest for the valuable timber used in the post-war reconstruction boom, and sold the town of Whitehaven which the estate owned. For generations, Lowthers had been close with royalty, and Lordie was a close friend of Prince Philip, who would go carriage racing on the estate.
He was, in short, a pillar of the establishment.
The Seventh Earl was, therefore, displeased when his always-different son, Hugh Lowther—who has described his father as ‘the epitome of hell’—chose as his first wife a railwayman’s daughter who was a student nurse.
Hugh—known as “laa Lordie” or “little Lordie” in local circles—supported himself by getting a license to drive trucks and spent much of the next two decades hammering down the motorways of Europe in a heavy goods vehicle. He still holds a valid HGV license, and transports guest between drives at his shoot in a huge truck.
Matters between father and son deteriorated further when the son reported his father to the police, accusing him of having sexually molested him when he was a child (the claims were never tested in court).
Continuing the cycle of revenge, in 2006, his father, on his deathbed, amended his will with an ‘illegible mark’ to disinherit his son of his vast fortune—and as a result Hugh Lowther was for several years locked in a bitter family feud as he sought—and ultimately succeeded—in overturning his father’s last ditch attempts to cut him out of the £325m ($539m) family fortune.
A year after his father died, Lord Lonsdale launched a legal action against the estate’s trustees, his half-brother, Charles Lowther, a cousin, Viscount Ullswater, and his stepmother, Caroline Lowther, claiming he had been disinherited “in all but name” and was unable to benefit from income generated by the 72,000-acre Lowther Estate.
Viscount Ullswater, a former equerry to Princess Margaret, said at the time, “The trustees have in no way tried to disinherit Lord Lonsdale,” and said they were merely trying to reduce inheritance tax, and were “managing the estate for the benefit of the 8th Earl and the family”.
In 2009 the two sides settled, but Lonsdale told the Telegraph in a recent interview: “I will never speak to another Lowther in my life. Ever. Ever. I have had this throughout my whole life. I will have nothing further to do with them.”
Now the extraordinary saga of the loopy Lonsdales has once again exploded into public view as the Earl seeks to sell off Blencathra to the highest bidder to settle the inheritance tax occasioned by his father’s death
Lonsdale provoked howls of outrage after he put the 2,700-acre block of land on the market earlier this year with a guide price of £1.75 million ($2.9 million). The payment of death duties on the Lonsdale estate—said to be worth as much as £9m—has dragged on for so long in part because of the aforementioned feud.
The block of land up for sale is located right on the edge of one of Britain’s most stunning national parks, the Lake District. The hill-walking, kagool-wearing, right-to-roam public—who are to a man not members of the upper classes—professed themselves disgusted, having wrongly believed the mountain to be part of the national park and therefore publicly owned.
The Earl, however, has blithely insisted Blencathra is his to sell, and that having already sold ‘a Turner for £1.4 million’, the alternative to selling Blencathra was to evict tenant farmers and sell their lands instead.
Blencathra is indeed the property of the Earl of Lonsdale, but it’s not exactly a great investment. Although it is technically private property, walkers will always be allowed unfettered access to the gorse-covered hillside under British law.
There is very little a new owner would actually be able to do with the land, other than graze a few sheep on it, as the area is protected from development. Indeed, so well protected is it, that British charity The National Trust, which owns a dazzling portfolio of land and stately homes—decided not to bid for it.
The agents have expressed the hope that someone might buy the mountain—a peak which inspired to verse the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—as a ‘work of art’.
Lonsdale, in his Telegraph interview, was more forthright. He said he hoped to sell the mountain to ‘some daft Russian’ who wanted to ‘show off’.
Within weeks of the mountain going on the market, Lord Lonsdale’s land agents announced with some fanfare that it had been sold to a private individual, only to be forced to backpedal after a hastily-formed community group, the Friends of Blencathra, said it had raised matching funds and succeeded in getting the mountain designated as a ‘community asset’, meaning the sale to a private individual is much less straightforward, as certain criteria guaranteeing public access will attach to the mountain.
Class resentment in all this was unconcealed. The locals took particular umbrage at the fact that “the mountain is being marketed as if it were a piece of jewellery, or a landscape painting.” The Friends of Blencathra was set up by local woman Debbie Cosgrove, who was aghast at the prospect of the mountain becoming an oligarch’s plaything.
She told The Daily Beast that she is hopeful the ‘Friends of Blencathra’ bid will be successful as their charitable status means Lord Lonsdale would not have to pay swingeing inheritance tax of up to 40% on the proceeds of the sale.
“We have firmed up our offer,” said Ms Cosgrove, a Londoner by birth who first climbed Blencathra as an 11 year-old on a school trip and now lives in the area.
Ms Cosgrove told The Daily Beast she believed they would be the successful bidder for the mountain, but sources with knowledge of the deal said that the mountain was in fact still likely to be sold to an unnamed private individual. Rumors that Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal was bidding to buy the mountain have been denied.
John Robson, Managing Director of H&H Land and Property which is acting for the Earl, told The Daily Beast: “We are moving towards exchange of contracts, however until the time contracts have been exchanged, negotiations with all parties are ongoing. In addition no further announcements are likely to be made by H&H Land and Property until contracts have been exchanged.”
The Earl refused to comment to the Daily Beast despite several requests for interview through his land agent.
In the absence of his words, it seems only fitting, then, that the final word should go to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote as follows, in the fragment, ‘A Thought Suggested by a View of Saddleback in Cumberland’:
On stern Blencathra’s perilous height
The winds are tyrannous and strong;
And flashing forth unsteady light
From stern Blencathra’s skiey height,
As loud the torrents throng!