Building Bridges / Telegraph Magazine
Vice-Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, husband of Princess Anne and son-in-law of the Queen, has driven alone in his Land Rover Discovery from Gatcombe Park, his Gloucestershire home, to the Shropshire town of Ironbridge. He has no assistant, no security, and is casually dressed in a green Barbour-style coat, open shirt and burgundy trousers. “Call me Tim. Everyone else does,” he says affably as we shake hands on a pleasantly mild and sunny spring morning.
Tall, straight-backed, and with an air of authority that befits his naval background, Sir Tim proceeds to inspect the extensive, £3.6 million conservation work being performed on the Iron Bridge that gave the town its name, spans a narrow gorge above the River Severn and is one of the jewels of English Heritage, the organisation he chairs.
Completed in 1779, it was the first single span bridge in the world to be constructed not of timber or stone, but of cast iron – 378 tons of the stuff. It was built by a local ironmaster, Abraham Darby, to showcase an engineering revolution that soon spread to the rest of Europe. It became a pre-eminent symbol of the industrial revolution, and would probably have survived just fine had the gorge not narrowed over the past 240 years, causing stresses and cracks in the bridge’s elegant arches.
“It’s such an important site in the history of England and Britain and the world,” Sir Tim remarks as we duck through the scaffolding in which the bridge is presently encased. “The word ‘iconic’ is hugely overused, but if you can’t use it here you can’t use it anywhere.”
He likens Ironbridge to an 18th-century Silicon Valley. He jokes with some of the men cleaning the ornate ironwork: “We have a naval saying – ‘If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, paint it!’” Ever the naval officer, he also gently reprimands me for holding the rungs, not the uprights, while climbing down a ladder.
The inspection over, we repair to a flimsy pre-fabricated building that serves as the worksite office so I can conduct a rare interview with Sir Tim. This is the more arduous part of his visit. Speaking to journalists is “not my favourite occupation,” he admits with a smile, but he is making an exception for the Telegraph Magazine because he is keen to talk about the transformation of English Heritage.
A heavily-subsided quango until 2015, it is now racing to become a
a financially independent and completely autonomous charity by the time its steadily diminishing government support ends for good in 2022. “That is quite a tall order,” Sir Tim says, but all is going to plan so far. “We are on the path towards financial sustainability.”
English Heritage is nowhere near as big or well-known as the National Trust. It is the custodian of what Sir Tim calls a “hodgepodge” of approximately 420 monuments, buildings and sites that loosely tell the history of England and for which the government had progressively assumed responsibility since 1882. They include Roman ruins, medieval villages, ancient forts, castles, abbeys, gardens, statues, a windmill and even a Cold War bunker.
The organisation nonetheless expects to recruit and fete its millionth member sometime this summer – up from 800,000 since its ‘privatisation’. “My guess is champagne will be involved,” Sir Tim chuckles. Last year it attracted a record 6.5 million visitors to the quarter of its properties that charge admission. It also generated a record £103 million in revenues, of which just £14.6 million was from the government.
“The secret is presenting our sites in a more interesting and accessible way to the public, so more people want to visit them and go away having had a better experience and tell their friends and want to join us as members,” Sir Tim says.
That is certainly part of the story. English Heritage is investing a one-off, £80 million parting gift from the government not just on maintenance and conservation, but on upgrading tea rooms, gift shops and other facilities. It has built a new visitors’ centre at Stonehenge to replace the previous monstrosity. It has commissioned a dramatic new £4 million footbridge to the island castle of Tintagel in Cornwall. This summer it will open two new interpretation centres on Hadrian’s Wall. From Easter, a temporary walkway will for the first time enable visitors to inspect the ornate underbelly of Iron Bridge close up – a facility English Heritage would never have offered as a quango.
Elsewhere English Heritage properties seek to attract visitors with jousting knights, hide-and-seek areas and musket firings, but Sir Tim rejects the charge that they are being ‘Disneyfied’. “We’re about making them accessible and interesting,” he insists. “We’re not about turning them into theme parks.”
English Heritage’s new independence has also made it much easier – and imperative - to obtain grants. “In the old days we would have looked for grants,” Sir Tim says, “but there was always this problem that we were a government body so (people would say) why would the government want grants to pay for things. It was always a bit of a struggle. Now I think the message is clearer about what we are. We are very distinct and very separate from government and we need support from the public to help us survive.”
For the Iron Bridge conservation project, for example, English Heritage secured a million-euro grant from Germany’s Hermann Reemtsma Foundation. The Foundation said it regarded the bridge as a “potent reminder of our continent’s common cultural roots and values” in what it called “the current climate”, but Sir Tim is prudently evasive when I suggest the grant is a direct consequence, or silver lining, of Brexit. “I’m not sure I want to link it to Brexit at all,” he replies.
Independence has forced English Heritage to become more innovative and commercially-minded in other ways, too.
It secured another £50,000 towards the cost of conserving Iron Bridge through its first ever crowd-funding project. It pro-actively solicits donations and legacies. It now seeks corporate sponsors – Unilever, for example, helped it clean two centuries of grime from the magnificent bronze statue of an angel and four horses on top of London’s Wellington Arch. It rents its properties out for films, corporate events and weddings – ‘Darkest Hour’ was partly filmed at Dover Castle and Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire, and ‘Victoria and Abdul’ at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Osborne also hosted its first gay wedding last summer.
Does Sir Tim’s royal status helps when it comes to soliciting sponsorship or donations, I ask? “I’ve always tried to do what I do as me rather than because I’m connected to the royal family,” he replies. “If because of who I’m married to that makes people a little bit more interested in what I do, and that means I can talk to them about supporting us, that’s no bad thing, but I don’t actively exploit it.”
As an English Heritage commissioner since 2011, Sir Tim was an enthusiastic proponent of the organisation escaping the shackles of an increasingly parsimonious government. “There’s a change of mindset, undoubtedly,” he says. “There’s nothing like having the incentive of financial sustainability to force you to try something new to see if it’ll work and we’re certainly doing that.”
English Heritage is a strong supporter, albeit with a few small qualifications, of the government’s proposed new tunnel to carry the heavily-congested A303 beneath - instead of past – Stonehenge, which is by far its biggest money-spinner and subsidises many of its other properties.
Sir Tim believes the tunnel will be “hugely beneficial” to Stonehenge, and sounds positively impatient with the continued opposition to a project first mooted in 1989. “There are some objections which are raised through a lack of understanding,” he says. “Those that worry about the archaeology of the World Heritage Site don’t need to worry. We will do all the archaeology. We will make sure we don’t damage any part of the site.
“Others worry the lighting of the tunnel will impact on the ambience of Stonehenge. Exactly the opposite is going to be the case. We will take away the lighting of the traffic and the lighting of the tunnel won’t be visible at all.”
English Heritage is lobbying to display the 950-year-old Bayeux Tapestry at Battle Abbey, on the site of the Battle of Hastings, when France lends it to Britain in 2022 or 2023.
Sir Tim shies from controversy. He downplays reports that his organisation is locked in a fierce battle with the British and Victoria and Albert museums for that privilege, saying merely that “it will be an interesting debate over the next couple of years about where it goes”.
But he acknowledges that hosting the medieval masterpiece would be “financially productive”, and proceeds to expound “a very strong case for it going to Battle. That’s where the battle (of Hastings) took place, and creating a building there to house it so people can see the tapestry then walk out on to the battlefield scene would be great.”
He expects support from Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary and Hastings MP, and adds: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get people to go out of London and see something different to London?”
English Heritage has also secured the support of private philanthropists to fund London’s 150-year-old Blue Plaque scheme, which was suspended in 2013 because of deep government cuts.
Is it acceptable, I ask, that just 13 per cent of the plaques honour women? “No, it’s not,” Sir Tim replies. “The problem for us is that the scheme depends on members of the public nominating people, and we’re very much encouraging them to promote more women.”
The same goes for ethnic minorities, though English Heritage did recently erect a plaque in Haringey for Laurie Cunningham, the first black footballer to play for England. “We have to turn that around,” he says. He blames what he chooses to call a “subconscious bias” against minorities and women, diplomatically avoiding the emotive terms ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’: “It’s not very helpful to look back at circumstances 50 or 100 years ago and apply modern labels to them”.
Sir Tim receives no salary for chairing English Heritage. He does the job because he enjoys it, and not as a royal duty. I ask, a little mischievously, whether transforming it from quango to independent charity is a bigger challenge than, for example, intercepting weapons shipments as a patrol boat commander off Northern Ireland during the Troubles; or running the vast and varied property portfolio of the Ministry of Defence; or even marrying into the Royal Family with all the loss of privacy that entailed (intimate letters that Sir Tim wrote to Anne when he was the Queen’s Equerry and she was still married to Captain Mark Phillips were famously leaked to a tabloid).
Somewhat to my surprise he takes the question in his stride, and answers quite candidly. “The hardest time was in the lead up to our marriage, and in the early weeks and months of our marriage where there was a lot of scrutiny,” he says. “I think I’ve got used to it. I don’t suffer it in anything like the same intensity as the Prince of Wales, or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge or Prince Harry.”
Unprompted, he continues: “We’re coming up to Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding. They will go through a very intense period of media coverage and it’s tough. It is difficult for them.” Is that fair, I ask? “That’s a bit like asking whether it’s fair that it’s rained all night here on our wonderful project,” he replies. “There’s not a lot you can do about it.”
Does he have any advice for Meghan? “She’s absolutely great and she certainly doesn’t need any advice from me, but the simplest advice for all of us is ‘just be yourself’. If she does that she’ll be fine,” he says.
We turn to sport. He sails and plays tennis, but unlike his wife and step-daughter Zara, both Olympic equestrians, he does not ride - “It’s a very dangerous activity and I leave it to much braver people than me,” he deadpans. Like Anne he is a passionate supporter of the Scottish rugby team, which leads to “very enjoyable conversations” with his son-in-law, Mike Tindall, who played 75 times for England and has the crooked nose to prove it.
But Sir Tim wrenches the conversation back to English Heritage as the interview ends. Family membership is great value for money at just £99 a year, he says. “You either buy one and a bit tickets to watch England play football at Wembley or you buy family membership of English Heritage. Your choice is between a year of fun or 90 minutes of anxiety.”
A private and somewhat self-effacing man, more courtier than prince, Sir Tim dislikes being photographed even more than being interviewed. He poses briefly and reluctantly for a bare minimum of pictures and then he is off, duty done, striding purposefully across the magnificent Iron Bridge to pick up a pork pie for lunch before driving home.