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Hektor Rous breathes new life into Henham Park

PUBLISHED: 10:46 19 March 2012

Hektor Rous at Henham Park

Hektor Rous at Henham Park

Archant © 2012

Henham Park in Suffolk has been in the Rous family for nearly 500 years and is now in the care of Hektor Rous, son of the sixth Earl of Stradbroke. He told Sheline Clarke about his passion for the park, now home to the Latitude Festival, and why welcoming more people to enjoy the park is so important.

There’s never a dull moment for Hektor Rous. The son of the so-called “Aussie Earl” moved to Suffolk from Melbourne in Australia to take on the management of the family’s 3,500 acre site near Southwold in 2004. Since then he has made it the home of the Latitude Festival, breathed new life back into old buildings and even has plans for a new hotel and spa. When he’s not meeting planners or festival organisers, he’s learning how to maintain ancient oak trees, overseeing building projects, dealing with tenants and local farmers whose animals graze the land and generally living life at the sharp end of running an estate. He enjoys brewing the odd pint of beer, works seven days a week and admits sleep isn’t always an option. Yet despite the hard work and responsibility, he couldn’t be happier.

“I really love it here,” he says. “I have a natural affinity with the property and with England. I feel much more English than I do Australian, though my accent may say otherwise.

“I feel completely invested in the park now. It’s one of those rare jobs that you completely love; it’s a real privilege and a pleasure to be here.”

Hektor already had a long history with Henham, having visited as a child and then helping to manage the property from Australia. But, trying to deal with planning and licensing laws from the other side of the world proved almost impossible and to do the job justice Hektor knew he had to become resident.

“We were coming up against what seemed like baffling issues which was disheartening. So I didn’t really have a vision as such, my expectations when I came here were really just to clean it up and try and preserve the park and its history.”

Within a couple of months of moving to his new Suffolk home however, Hektor realized the park had masses of potential and was completely under-utilized having, at that time, no events.

He set about putting that right and in 2005 welcomed back the Grand Henham Steam Rally – which had been staged at the park in years gone by - as well as the new Wings and Wheels Festival, which combines a car rally and flying display. The following year saw the first Latitude Festival at Henham. “Suddenly you start building up momentum and that also enabled us to do a lot of the properties up and so we have done a huge amount of work and repairs to parts of the estate that had been let go,” said Hektor.

A combination of fresh income for the park and also the new impetus of having someone in charge and driving projects forward means that, in just a few years, Hektor has made a big impact.

Of the properties already renovated are The Stables, which are now let and run as boutique accommodation, as well as his own home and offices. Most recently the walled garden has been brought back to life and will welcome an event of its own when the first Flavours of Suffolk food festival is staged in May. The garden had been an “awful mess” full of the spoil from when Henham Hall was demolished in the 1950s.

“In September we finally got some money to clean it up and level it out and it was a really satisfying job and is an example of the upward trend of the place.

“The Flavours of Suffolk event is going into the walled garden which is now an incredible venue and we are fortunate enough to have an event that is appropriate and different. I am really looking forward to that. It’s about trying to promote local produce and it’s good for me because I’m a bit of a glutton and to have the demo kitchen 150 yards from my house is going to be fantastic.”

He is now working on plans to convert a cluster of barns into permanent facilities for the estate’s thousands of visitors including a restaurant, coffee shop, craft gallery and brewery.

But the headline act for Henham and central to its renaissance has been the Latitude Festival. Created by London-based Festival Republic, Latitude has a reputation for being a friendly, family-orientated affair for 35,000 guests. Headline acts for the 2012 festival announced last week include Elbow and Paul Weller while Jack Dee will be performing on the comedy stage. A study in 2010 revealed the festival boosted the local economic to the tune of £12million.

“When I first came here and I’d walk around I found ideas started to pop out at me and finding a music festival was something that came on quite early and luckily Festival Republic were looking for a place for Latitude so we sort of met in the middle, it was perfect timing.

“Those guys (Festival Republic) organize it and create it and put it together and as much as I would like to take credit for what the show is, because it is an incredible festival and experience, I am also glad I am not the one dealing with it because it is a huge task,” laughs Hektor. “In terms of the way the property is used and utilising different areas of the park and dealing with some issues then obviously I am always on call.

“The event itself is brilliant. These guys are the best at what they do and very passionate about the event – there are so many little touches that make Latitude what it is – lighting up all the trees and putting on performances in the woods that you just chance upon, it’s fantastic.”

The success of Latitude has also given him ideas for staging theatre and opera and maybe even drive-in cinema.

With Hektor at the helm, Henham is making great progress. He is a great people person who now understands that some of the baffling issues he faced when in Australia are not insurmountable and he soon realized that many of the bodies he works with also love the property and have its best interests at heart.

“My family have had this place for 480-odd years so you play the long game,” he says.

“There are all sorts of bodies and local councils we work with but what makes it easy is that they all love the park and if things are done sympathetically and doing them encourages more people to come and visit, then they are extremely supportive and to be honest it is hard to fault them.

“I’d rather we were going four or five times faster than we are,” he smiles, “it’s much slower than I would like but we have been lucky – it’s easy when people have affection for the place.”

It’s a similar story with tourism bodies because attracting 85,000 visitors each year not only benefits Henham Park but also the wider economy as people who come spend their money in local shops and restaurants and use local services.

“Everyone has been supportive of what we are trying to do in getting more people here, more events, accommodation and facilities. If people come here for an event then they get to see Suffolk and you can guarantee that 80% of them will come back for a holiday because a lot of people don’t even realize its less than 100 miles from London and its extremely quiet and we have a beautiful coastline, lovely towns, great food and good beer.”

The son of the Aussie Earl has made Henham his patch. He won’t be drawn on his favourite event, but says the smell of the steam engines when the rally returned transported him back to his childhood. His working day is a million miles from banking and the dealing rooms where he spent his early career.

“Here within a 24 hour period I could be with the forestry guys, dealing with storm damage, moving stuff from the barns, seeing a lawyer later, then there’s the grazing and our tenants.

“If there is any downtime there’s always a lunch or a dinner or a pub to research or a beer to trial. Everything is trending in the right direction.”

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