Something intriguing was taking place in the green and pleasant land of Oxfordshire last Thursday. As David Lammy and Michael Gove arrived at the sandstone-fronted, 18th century estate of Ditchley Park, it became apparent that swathes of Westminster had surreptitiously moved to one of the UK’s finest estates for two days. With its clock tower, sprawling lake and Romanesque architecture, the rich and powerful were here to talk Brexit.
The Observer dubbed it the ‘secret Brexit conference’, and alleged the event centred around the title: ‘How can we make Brexit work better with our neighbours in Europe?’ ‘It was about moving on from leave and remain, and what are the issues we now have to face,’ a source told the newspaper.
There were politicians, including shadow defence secretary John Healey and former Tory chancellor Norman Lamont; businessmen, including John Symonds, chair of the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline; and bankers, such as Goldman Sachs’ managing director, Oliver Robbins. Together, they discussed how the government can ‘reduce the some the current frictions’ that have seriously damaged UK exports to the EU, according to the Observer. ‘The summit papers referred to the need to move on from “the current mix of antagonism and nostalgia to excitement about what the future could bring for the UK and for Europe,”’ an insider told the newspaper.
Commenting on the event, a Tory insider told Tatler, ‘It’s good that politicians are able to talk about the failings of Brexit behind closed doors, because they certainly aren’t talking about them publicly. It seems entirely sensible, not surprising, that we should be having such discussions. I think it’s a good thing and well intentioned – it looks to be.’
Another Westminster insider told Tatler, ‘It’s surprising Gove can share a room with Lammy after some of the things he’s said about the Brexit project. It indicates that brexiteers are being more honest about the shortcomings of Brexit, alongside the fact that Labour are clearly in the ascendancy and need to be in the conversation.’ Was Ditchley, therefore a meeting of equals? ‘It seems that Labour is taking a far more balanced, pragmatic approach now they approach Government,’ the source goes on. ‘Labour leadership would be less dramatic than what they espouse as opposition due to the nature of trying to govern different factions, and maybe the Ditchley Park conference is a reflection of this.’
Ditchley Park has long been a place of private socialite retreat; with its heavy foliage and lack of a visible access road. Now, according to its website, it is a venue for ‘private conferences’. None led by a more eminent character than Sir Winston Churchill, surely. The former two-time Prime Minister visited the historic property 13 times in the early years of the war, where he met the presidential envoy Harry Hopkins in his efforts to win American support. Indeed, he used the manor ‘when the moon was high’ as a secret base during the early years of World War II.
Initially built in the Elizabethan era for Sir Henry Lee, a champion of Elizabeth I, King James I himself later hunted at Ditchley in 1610. Antlers from his hunt hang in the Saloon to this day, along with brass plaque which recounts the hunt from the stag’s perspective. The house was rebuilt in 1722, by the Second Earl of Lichfield.
Later, in the 1930s, wealthy American socialite and MP Ronald Tree and his wife Nancy Lancaster – who went on to become a famous decorator – bought the property, which they redecorated it in partnership with Sibyl Colefax. They held a magnificent ball in celebration of their arrival. The late Duchess of Devonshire wrote of this period, ‘In my long and spoilt life I have been to many beautiful places and met many fascinating people but I have never seen the like of Ditchley and Nancy.’
Nowadays, the park is home to the Ditchley Foundation, which aims to promote international (especially Anglo-American) relations. The late Queen Elizabeth II visited to plant a tree to mark the launch of the charity in 1959.
In 2002, butler Rick Fink founded his own Butler Valet school at Ditchley. Courses include ‘everything you could possibly need to know about how to be a world class butler or valet,’ according to its website. Ditchley Park was also used to film scenes from the first episode of the final series of Downton Abbey.