Game, set and polo match

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- Credit: Archant

It’s fast, fun and coming to Suffolk on June 29. Sheena Grant finds out why everyone can enjoy polo and spoke to Selina Tollemache Hopkins and her husband, businessman James Hopkins, who are involved in organising the event, about a whole host of other things too

slb-013-james-and-selina-hopki

- Credit: Archant

AS THE daughter of a former international dressage rider it’s no surprise to learn that Selina Tollemache Hopkins has been riding horses for longer than she can remember.

International Polo at Trinity Park, Ipswich, last summer

International Polo at Trinity Park, Ipswich, last summer

In fact, it really is no exaggeration to say she has been riding since before she could walk.

Selina - daughter of Lord Tollemache, Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, and former international dressage rider turned garden designer Lady Xa Tollemache - was introduced to horseback at the age of just six months.

“My mother fixed me into a wonderful saddle basket, that both she and my grandmother used, on a pony at six months and I have loved (riding) ever since,” she says.


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Several decades on, Selina, who is married to James Hopkins, founder and executive chairman of Hopkins Homes, is using the same basket to introduce their year-old daughter, Lily, to riding.

“She’s already showed signs of loving being on a pony and is using the same saddle basket on a tiny little pony called Poppy, who is the height of a big Labrador,” says Selina, who grew up at Helmingham Hall, the Tollemache family’s home for more than 500 years. “So yes, it’s in her blood.”

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Given her life-long love of horses being invited to join the committee organising Hopkins International Polo, which takes place at Trinity Park, Ipswich, on June 29, was an offer Selina found impossible to refuse.

It’s the perfect role for someone who loves the game and has all the contacts needed to really make a mark. On top of that, Hopkins Homes is the event’s main sponsor for the first time this year.

Selina is the one who knows about horses and polo but her husband, the man behind one of the region’s most successful house building companies, is equally keen to help widen the game’s appeal.

James Hopkins is a man who defies easy categorisation - he’s a phenomenally successful businessman but also an organic farmer and philanthropist who in his youth worked as a volunteer at a night shelter, an experience he says taught him never to judge anyone.

He built his business from scratch after he and a business partner bought and renovated a single cottage in the 1980s. Before that he was not even involved in property. He started out buying fish in Lowestoft and selling it to restaurants in Essex and further afield.

So why the move from fish into property?

“I’ve always had an interest in property and my first project was an old cottage that a business partner and I bought and renovated,” he says. “That proved to be successful and so we bought another cottage and then another. That was really the start of Hopkins Homes and today we are the largest independent house builder in East Anglia – it’s been quite a journey.

“In those days (the 1980s) young people in their mid-20s could borrow money from banks and building societies. Young entrepreneurs nowadays don’t find it very easy to obtain finance for a building project, or any project come to that. I don’t think you would be able to start a business as we did unless you were able to borrow money from family or friends. Banks now won’t support fledgling businesses in the way that we were supported and I think that’s a real concern for the future.

“These days Hopkins Homes is a big employer and we sub-contract about 2,000 people at any one time and yet we would never have got the chance to do that if we hadn’t had the support of the banks all those years ago. For any young ‘James Hopkins’ out there now, aged 25 or 26, how are they ever going to get started?”

After the cottage renovations of the 1980s came the first new-build housing development - nine houses in Wenhaston before the decade was out.

Since then the company has continued to grow but has never forgotten its founding ethos - good design is at the heart of everything, whether it’s a smaller village development or a larger scale project, perhaps in an urban setting.

“From the start my ambition was to build and run a business I could be proud of,” says james. “Back then national house builders were not building particularly attractive homes. Some still don’t. We wanted to build houses that had a traditional look with solid construction methods but with none of the maintenance problems older properties have. From the start we found our properties sold incredibly well. There was a gap in the market and we filled it.

“We really started to hit our stride at Church Farm, Aldeburgh, where we built 60 homes. That is when we honed our knowledge about Suffolk vernacular architecture and good design. We built on that expertise and pride ourselves on building homes that stand the test of time and complement the local area.”

The award-winning Melton Park development (where the company’s impressive glass-fronted offices are located) was begun in the mid-1990s and finished in 2008.

“Melton Park is one of our flagship developments, it is also where our head office is based and it couldn’t be a better endorsement of what we do and what makes us different,” says James.

“Some people think we only work on small rural developments but actually we do large strategic sites as well, up to 400 homes and also brownfield inner city regeneration projects. We have designed contemporary schemes as well, for example we developed what was the old Norwich City FC grounds into an exceptionally modern mix of apartments and town houses for which we won a design award from the Norwich Society.

“Councils actively encourage Hopkins Homes to come into their area to raise the standards of design in their district and we’ve won a lot of national and regional design awards. Nowadays it is not just about the traditional look, it’s about good design in the right setting.”

He speaks with passion about architecture but it’s not the only subject close to his heart.

He also owns Brook Farm, Bramfield, which he runs as an organic farm with pedigree livestock.

“We’re very proud that we’re producing quality food for local consumption,” he says.

He bought the farm, which bordered his home, when it came up for sale a few years ago and since then a huge amount of conservation work has been done to create a haven for wildlife, including the restoration of hedgerows and creation of headlands on arable fields.

Then there’s the charity work both he and Selina support.

“For several years now I have been involved with the Suffolk Foundation which does a fantastic job of supporting many local charities,” he says. “Hopkins Homes is very much East Anglian based and I feel it is right and proper that we help others in our community. The way that the Suffolk Foundation works, through giving grants, is a brilliant way for companies like mine to be involved.”

Among the charities the foundation has supported over the years is the St John’s Housing Trust in Lowestoft, where James fittingly did some voluntary work when he was younger.

“I helped there when I was in my early 20s. I used to go and work in one of their night shelters for homeless people. Although very rewarding it also gave me an appreciation of how vulnerable some people are and, I think, instilled in me an interest in charity work that is still with me.

“I also support individual charities and I am involved with an organisation in India call the Banyan Tree. It supports three or four centres in remote villages, helping people out of poverty and providing medicine and education programmes.”

And while he may not play polo himself, he enjoys watching the game and feels there’s a “good fit” between Hopkins Homes and the international event it is sponsoring.

“It’s really good for Suffolk to have something like international polo and hopefully the event will grow and grow in much the same way as the very popular Suffolk Dog Day has. It’s going to bring something different to the county that everyone can enjoy; come along and bring a picnic, and it’s supporting the Suffolk Agricultural Association as well – which I think is a very good thing.”

Hopkins International Polo is at Trinity Park, Ipswich, on June 29. For tickets and more information visit www.internationalpolo.co.uk

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