As I meet him ahead of this weekend’s Festival of Speed, the Duke of Richmond (formerly Lord March) is immaculate; freshly barbered, a well-cut brown linen suit, with matching socks and shoes shined like conkers, even his retro tortoiseshell spectacles match. For an ordinary bloke, this is an impossible standard, especially in the heavily ornamented main library of Goodwood House.
“Please tell me, Charles, that you don’t spend Saturday morning swanning around in a linen suit,” I ask.
He grins, but characteristically doesn’t answer, instead telling a long and scarcely credible story (which turns out to be true) about Edward VII setting the linen suit style at Goodwood horse races, which he attended with his mistress, Alice Keppel.
“They dye the fabric, not the yarn,” he says, switching back to linen. “So if you stain it and rub at it, you’ll ruin the suit; you just have to send it to the dry cleaner and hope.”
Who’d want to be his dry cleaner? The nobility don’t hang people for property crimes any more, but you really want to keep on the right side of this aristocratic entrepreneur/impresario. Not that it’s difficult, he’s very approachable.
It’s just that somewhere under the charm is the steel that in the last 25 years has established his family seat of Goodwood House as a cornerstone of the British motorsport season with the summer Festival of Speed and the autumn Circuit Revival, which back up the golf, horse racing and other events that support the sprawling West Sussex estate.
So how big has it got? He gestures, in a manner reminiscent of John Le Mesurier playing Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army. Well, how many people do you employ? “720,” he says, grimacing. “We started with 80.”
That was in 1993, with the first running of the Festival of Speed, a year before he took over running the estate from his father. It cost £100,000 to put on and Charles’s close-knit team expected about 3,000 people and got an estimated 25,000.
The rest, as they say, is history, but there have been some weird and amazing moments in the intervening 25 years. Here are some of his personal highlights of Festival of Speed fever…
1993: the badly parked Beatle
Charles namechecks the racing drivers who have been so key to the success of the event: John Surtees, Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney and Jackie Stewart among them.
“But in some ways the people I never imagined meeting were the not so obvious ones,” he says. “George Harrison, for example. It was the first year and I’m walking across the stables and there’s this bloody Rocket [a roadster styled like a 1950s grand prix racer] parked in the middle of everything. I had a slight moment of frenzy, because I’m trying to make the place look decent, and said, ‘Whose the hell is this? It’s ridiculous. Get it out of here; tow it away.’ And they said: ‘We think it’s George Harrison’s.’ And I replied: ‘You've got to be joking.’ But it was.
“And then I met him and, it shows how relaxed we all were then, I asked: ‘Do you want to drive up the hill?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, yeah, great, love to man.’
“He became a regular visitor and Atty [Charles’s daughter, Lady Alexandra Gordon Lennox] was just eight then and a big Beatles fan. I remember going to her and saying: ‘Darling, I think you should come into the large library, because George Harrison is playing the piano. And she said: ‘Don’t be so ridiculous,’ although in fact George was playing... the harp.”
1997: Thank you Dad - the year it rained
“It was our first really wet year,” says Charles. “It rained all three days solid and you couldn’t see the roads because there was just mud everywhere. It looked like Armageddon, like Woodstock, and I was very worried, because it looked awful. I went to see my father but he was very upbeat, saying what a great success it had all been and that I wasn’t to worry about the park.
“He said the old Sussex Down turf would recover by the time of the horse racing in August, and behold it pretty much was.
“It has never been ploughed so while it gets muddy, it recovers very quickly, although the compacting effect of the big structures is a concern these days and we spend a lot of time aerating the soil.”
2000: They’re taking this far too seriously - the gravity racers
“At first we thought the soapbox races were a really good idea,” says Charles, “and I loved them. In those days all the car companies were up for it. And there were all sorts of regulations, including that they couldn’t spend more than £1,000, there was a weight limit and the whole thing had to fit in a box, but what turned up were the most unbelievable pieces of high-tech equipment - General Motors even came and tested here...
“I was even disappointed when they said they’d run them four at a time; I thought we should run the whole bloody lot together, all 25. Then the day came and I was in batch two in my little Goodwood cart, and we were red-flagged within 50 yards. I got out and walked down and it was dreadful; one poor chap was being loading into an ambulance and there were crashed carts all around...
“The next batch came down and they did exactly the same; they never turned right. The weird thing is there was no noise, it was like being shot out of a circus cannon and, at Molecomb [corner], like watching people committing hara-kiri.
“We had to ban the models with in-line wheels, which were basically skates - I think the Williams one was touching 70mph in practice. Patrick [Head, Williams F1’s technical director] was furious, it was as though the FIA had banned them from a grand prix.
“I wish we still did it in a way, but I suppose it has run its course. I’m always rather touched by the fact that if you go to McLaren, there are all their Grand Prix winners lined up... and there’s the soapbox, too”
2004: Doors to arrival and cross check... the Boeing 747 display
“Tim Miller [a former Red Arrows pilot] had done an excellent job on [organising] the aircraft for us and he said he’d got a mate who flew for South African Airlines who’d developed a display and it was really exciting. After a bit of thought, we said yes.
“Well I was coming out of the door when it flew in and it was below the height of those trees. It was so big it looked almost stationary, with its flaps and wheels down it looked as if it was coming into land.
“I think they can fly at about 100mph without stalling and when it flew over Chichester like that, well, they must have thought he was going to hit the cathedral. It was simply extraordinary.”
2001: All-time high - Hemi Under Glass dragster
“So I heard about it and rang up Bob Riddle [the car’s owner], and said we wanted the car, and would he bring it? So he says: ‘Oh yeah, that sounds good.’ He’s such a lovely bloke. But then the Motor Sports Association [which sanctions motorsport events in the UK] got a bit jumpy about it, so we got the car over to do a little run here. And I took the children.
“It was a Saturday and I didn’t really think too much about it, we were just going to see it run, where’s the drama? So he fires it up and up it went and, golly, it was the best thing I’d ever seen. Amazing, just fantastic, we all loved it.
“Bob has bought the car back lots of times and I still love that car; it’s definitely one of my all-time highlights.”
1999: The record breaker - Nick Heidfeld
Former F1 racer Nick Heidfeld held the Goodwood course record in perpetuity with his scintillating 41.6-second ascent of the 1.16-mile, nine-turn course in a Formula 1 McLaren MP4/13 - it was one of the most exciting drives your correspondent has ever witnessed... Having stood for 20 years, it was eclipsed by Romain Dumas in the Volkswagen I.D. R electric car in 2019.
“Most disappointing for me is that I didn’t see it,” says Charles. “But at the same time it didn’t matter, because I heard it. And I absolutely knew, my God, it was like the whole place was electrified. Suddenly you hear this thing set off, hitting the high notes through every gear - it was different, almost weird because it was as if everyone knew what was happening, like with a great racehorse.
“McLaren had done a lot of work on it and Nick had been told to go for the record. And, you know, he was probably the only person in the world who could have done it. He was so young, just 18, and knew the car inside out and had been up the hill more times than anyone else so he knew it, but he didn’t have an F1 drive so he’d given it a lot of thought to how to improve his time up the hill.
“It’s a pity that had to stop, but these days the teams only come in for a day and don’t take it too seriously. It probably had to go though, apparently Nick hit 160mph on that top corner... It still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
This year and every year: Pick up the pieces and do it all again
These days Goodwood’s organisation for various events is so complicated that separate teams handle each one, leapfrogging each other, starting 18 months before each respective event.
“There’s a lot going on and there are lots of strands that are woven together,” says Charles. “So everyone here is very, very busy and we ought to work further ahead than we do.
“But I also like to think it’s a shared enthusiasm, the family and the public. This house has been open to the public since the day it was built, so there’s never been a code of keeping people out and that’s what makes the difference.
“People are generally appreciative, but since the beginning I’ve been asked why we are letting all these people into our garden. But it’s actually one of the best things for me and I say: ‘Well, it’s really that we’re all here together, because we enjoy the same stuff.’
“Besides, it’s no fun doing it on your own…”
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