This country estate used to be owned by the late Queen Mother's family, and The Prince of Wales played polo there in his days at Cambridge
Penny explains the historic importance of this Hertfordshire polo estate, which has just come to the market this spring
Today’s Country Life sees the launch of the most prestigious and most expensive country estate to hit the headlines in Britain this year, as polo-mad Jeff Godbold’s idyllic, 232-acre Woolmers Park spread on the banks of the River Lea, near Hertford, comes to the market through Knight Frank (020–7861 1065) and Savills (020–7409 8881) at a guide price of £30 million. These are difficult times, even for a property that has everything, but the agents are quietly confident that the estate will not only sell, but sell as a whole.
It’s not the first time that Woolmers Park has faced disaster and emerged triumphant, says Mr Godbold, who bought the historic estate from the Lucas family in the summer of 1997 and has spent the past 19 years, and a shedload of cash, renovating and improving the estate and its Grade II*-listed mansion.
‘In 1927, when country estates all over England were being broken up and sold off, Woolmers was about to be offered for sale in 50 lots, when the late Queen Mother’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, stepped in and bought it as a whole. They spent the best part of the year there, right up to the outbreak of the Second World War, only going to Glamis Castle, the family seat in Scotland, between July and September,’Mr Godbold reveals.
The Strathmores were one of many distinguished families to own the estate, which derives its name from the Wolmer family, who lived in the Hertingfordbury area in the 13th and 14th centuries. The present house, which stands atop a gentle slope overlooking the River Lea, dates from the 1730s and, by 1800, was owned by Samuel Whitbread the Younger, of the brewing dynasty, who enlarged and consolidated it by exchange of land with a neighbour, Lord Cowper of Panshanger.
According to the current sales particulars, the first nationally famous person to own Woolmers Park was the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, the so-called ‘Canal Duke’, who bought the estate in 1801 as a base from which to oversee a project designed to link the River Lea, a tributary of the Thames, with the River Ouse. He employed the county surveyor and architect James Lewis to rebuild the main house, which was further remodelled and extended by the Duke’s successor, Sir Gore Ouseley, who bought the estate in 1821.
As an entrepreneur, scholar, protégé of Wellesley in India, British Ambassador to Persia and foreign-policy adviser to the government of the day, he was deemed to be the most accomplished of the owners of Woolmers Park. Ouseley’s successor was William Herbert Wodehouse from Staffordshire, who bought Woolmers in 1842 and lived there for 60 years. He, too, was a scholar-squire, educated at Eton and Oxford, who occupied his time by composing Latin verse. Lord Strathmore died in November 1944 and, five years later, the estate was acquired by Arthur Lucas, a chartered surveyor and businessman whose passions were polo and hunting. That same year, he founded the Hertfordshire Polo Club at Woolmers Park and established a polo dynasty—notably through his son, John, and daughter, Claire Tomlinson, the first woman to play English high-goal polo. His club drew the game’s elite, including The Prince of Wales, who played there during his time as a Cambridge undergraduate.
Polo was still the focus of life at Woolmers Park when, in 1997, the estate was put up for sale by Lucas’s widow, Ethel. It was bought by Mr Godbold, a successful entrepreneur who lived locally and, by the age of 47, had built up a thriving officesupplies business, taken it public, sold out at the top of the market and moved into property development. On buying Woolmers, Mr Godbold not only acquired the Lucas family home and polo establishment, but their passion for ‘the sport of princes’.
A report in The Guardian announced him as ‘the new face of polo’ as, with characteristic gusto, he built up a string of ponies and applied himself to developing the Hertfordshire Club’s state-of-the art facilities, which now include four fields, stick-and-ball grounds, allweather arenas and five-star stabling.
He and his wife, Anne-Marie, embarked on a major renovation of the main estate house and buildings, which include a traditional gate lodge and seven cottages. Mr Godbold’s vision and his wife’s talent for interior design are evident throughout the grand Georgian house, which has been extended to provide 21,645sq ft of splendid living space. It now boasts five elegant reception rooms, a huge kitchen/morning room, a family room, a games room, a cinema, eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a two-bedroom staff flat, and a palatial indoor swimming-pool complex.
‘With no public rights of way and the house set right in the centre of the estate at the end of a mile-long drive, it’s hard to believe that you can enjoy everything the country has to offer so close to central London— from fishing on the Lea, where you can see kingfishers from time to time, to rough shooting in the park and woods and swimming in the outdoor pool. It’s been a magical time for us,’ reminisces Mr Godbold, who hopes that the next owner of Woolmers Park will enjoy the house and estate as much as he and his family have done.