Heaven & Hell: Hugh Somerleyton 

High Somerleyton

High Somerleyton - Credit: Claudia Leisinger

Hugh is owner of Somerleyton Estate, north Suffolk, which includes the private members and holiday club Fritton Lake. A regenerative farmer, rewilder and conservationist, he’s also a trail runner, wild swimmer and agitator for change. In 2020 High founded the WildEast Foundation to make a decisive impact across East Anglia to re-educate, restore and reconnect people and nature to ensure sustainable abundance and greener lives. He speaks with Gina Long... 

What is your connection to East Anglia?  

I was born here, am a farmer here and live at Somerleyton, my family home. I am a founder of WildEast, a movement which aims to return 20 per cent of East Anglia back to nature to create what will be known as the WildEast nature reserve - one of the biggest in Europe. As part of that mission we have personally set aside 1,000 acres of the Somerleyton estate, which includes Fritton Lake, to this endeavour. My co-founders Oliver Birkbeck and Argus Hardy are also farmers from the East Anglia region. We’re old friends and we’re all small scale conservationists but recognise the urgent need for landscape scale recovery if we are to succeed. 

What is your East Anglian heaven? 

One of the things we have learnt on the WildEast journey, is about the potential of East Anglia, and how it is just as diverse as many other awe-inspiring places around the world. The likes of the Carpathian project in Romania, Tompkins Conservation in Chile, and Yellowstone National Park in America are incredible for their landscapes and apex predators, but WildEast country is just as diverse and has the potential for all metrics of wildlife to flourish (including us!) so my East Anglian heaven is really this potential.  

If I could bring together the ancient oaks of Kimberley Hall, the beach at Holkham and the garden at Helmingham and cluster them around Fritton Lake – I would have died and gone to heaven! 

What is your East Anglian hell? 

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I love the freedom of running and much as I love my runs around Somerleyton I really miss a more rugged landscape to run over. I get frustrated about the lack of collaboration across the key sectors with regard to the climate emergency, everyone is doing great things but not in a joined up fashion. We have been here before - and failed! - hence WildEast, a multi sector alliance, a common voice and brand for our region to rally behind and most of all show leadership. 

What are your favourite East Anglian restaurants? 

Well I would have to include the Clubhouse at Fritton Lake as the new head chef Chris Bartlett has really transformed what we are doing there, with a focus on seasonal and local produce. But other favourites include the Swan at Southwold; Adnams did a fantastic job renovating this landmark and it's always just great. I was heartbroken when Darsham Nurseries closed in the pandemic – probably the best food in the region. I also love the Company Shed, Maldon, Essex where the Haywards continue to be imperious oystermen. 

What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark? 

Well, the entirely undervalued Ness Point in Lowestoft should be celebrated like Land’s End or Cape Wrath but its best days lie in the future. I have a curious soft spot for Beeston bump (long story) but I think for many of us the war memorial on the A11 / Thetford in the Brecks region is the homecoming bellwether for us all. 

What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year? 

Red Rooster? Latitude? A county show – maybe a hybrid of these events. 

What is your specialist Mastermind subject? 

Trees probably...or Palestine. 

What is always in your fridge? 

Godminster cheese, quince and I hate to admit it but Champagne is quite a regular guest but never for long… 

What’s your simple philosophy of life? 

‘Don’t be so broad minded your brain falls out’ is one I try and heed – liberalism for example suffers this fate and often I do too. 

What’s your favourite film? 

Terminator obviously, but I've come to really respect Avatar. The Mission if we are talking classics, Love Actually somehow always makes me cry, I don’t know what that means, maybe it's because I am in it! 

What was your first job? 

Teaching tennis at the Briar School of English in Lowestoft under John Swan, much loved tennis coach and, for me, life coach too. 

Hugh Somerleyton in the woodlands at his estate

Hugh Somerleyton in the woodlands at his estate - Credit: Contributed

What is your most treasured possession? 

Somerleyton - light of my life that she is… 

Who do you admire most? 

Dad for his sense of duty and honour. Mum for her mercurial wisdom. Both for their insatiable sense of fun. 

What is your biggest indulgence? 

INov8 running shoes. I am the Imelda Marcos of running shoes! 

What do you like about yourself most? 

The Patterdale terrier within. 

What’s your worst character trait? 

Dreaming dreams that may be too big. 

Where is your favourite holiday destination? 

Northern Pakistan is the most beautiful place on earth so it's going to be there but for the moment I love Wales, land of my forefathers, and the Alps. Not so much for skiing but the imperious climate. 

Best day of your life? 

The engagement, honestly! 

What’s your favourite breakfast? 

Shakshuka. 

What’s your favourite tipple? 

Champagne (vintage). 

What would you like played at your funeral? 

I haven’t planned that far ahead, thank you! But I'd like someone to read my version of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Mother, who art the Earth, hallowed by her name. Earth was meant to be our heaven, giving us our daily bread…. 

Tell us something people don’t know about you? 

I am a lifelong passionate supporter of Les Bleus. 

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you? 

You may need a separate edition for all the things that have been written that could go here but – probably ‘you're not the man your father was’; the truth hurts. 

Tell us why you live here and nowhere else? 

It’s a full time job! 

What do you want to tell our readers about most? 

Most definitely WildEast, a nature recovery initiative that aims to join up all the natural spaces across the East Anglia region. We’re asking people who live here to pledge just 20% of whatever they have back to nature. We’re talking to everyone here too, from the council about grass verges and public spaces, schools about their playing fields, farmers, churchyards, and individuals with a small garden. It’s a democratic approach which unites everyone with the same stake in the initiative. Our goal is to achieve this in the next 50 years, by 2070, a period of time we call ‘The Great Recovery’. 

A dream for the future for us and our children to live in – wilder, wetter, woodier landscapes connecting wild and sustainable farming systems, riverine landscapes meandering with water buffalo, (pelicans), beavers and eagles, flowing through green towns watched over by white storks (and peregrines) and bursting with blossom and birdsong. WildEast dreams of a farming and food production economy that puts nature at the heart of every decision and a consumer that does so too. 

We express this through the Map of Dreams – your dreams – where anyone can record their witness statement, what they did to help avert climate catastrophe. Society broadly accepts there is a climate emergency but isn’t yet grasping the changes and compromises we all need to make to have any chance of lessening the impact. The pandemic has shown we can act societally for the greater good and make significant sacrifices to do so. What we haven’t seen clearly is that Covid was ‘nature’s yellow card’ and the next ones are likely to be red. WildEast wants to accelerate the pace of change, the urgency and the noise around climate recovery and most of all make it about everyone – a big societal shift – a regional revolution – let’s make WildEast not just the best farming region but one of the wildest, most connected and most bio-restored landscape on earth. 

If you recognise Mother Earth is our heaven and you want to help restore her, to pay your debt to the natural world on which we have unwittingly inflicted so much harm, if you are a proud East Anglian and recognise planet saving is about WE not I – then please please express this on the map of dreams and help inspire societal change wildeast.co.uk/the-map-of-dreams 

I am always looking for interesting people from Suffolk and Norfolk to feature in my Q&A. Please contact me at gina@hallfarmfornham.com or follow me on Instagram @ginalong_geewizz