Even though the mortality rate for human beings is 100% you’d think billionaires might be able to buy a get-out clause. I was sad to read Gerald Grosvenor who was the 6th Duke of Westminster and a billionaire nine times over had died suddenly at just 64. When I was a lad and saw this rich chap interviewed a few times I felt determined to resent such a toff however he was disarmingly earthy, likeable, unaffected and hardworking.
I was going to Wales for a couple of days and while passing Chester I took a detour to Eccleston village to see Gerald’s headstone in the church cemetery. I’d visited this cemetery before to find the grave of a soldier and seen the previous dukes graves lined up in the family plot. I parked the motorhome on the main street (with a woman in a car waving at me frantically to pull over to the side of the road even more) and had a coffee. I left my mobile phones on the seat as I knew I’d be back in ten minutes. There’d be no hour-long search for his grave as I’d found the headstones of Gerald’s mum and dad before and just knew he’d be buried next to them.
He grew up on an island in Ireland but things went a bit wrong went he came to England for education. His strong Ulster accent didn’t help at school and he gained just two O-levels. He had the burden of a dukedom pushed onto him whether he wanted it or not, being just 15 when he was told it would come to him. There were two sisters but Gerald had a willy so he copped for the responsibility. Despite the magnitude of the inheritance he was a decent duffer of a bloke with a conscience and a sense of humour. He remained here in Cheshire and never moved to London, put his kids at the local school and didn’t hide a nervous breakdown. Even though he went all over the world to visit soldiers, businesses and charities (2o0 a year) he ascended a couple of notches in my book when he’d been forced to do a mercy killing of a deer he’d found on his estate. A Heinz can was rusting into its face and it was slowly starving to death.
The Territorial Army was his main love. He joined as a trooper aged nineteen. He’d already enlisted in the regular army but left due to family estate responsibilities. Over the years he rose through the TA to lieutenant and then major. Here people treated him normally rather than with deep envy.
Where did the billions come from? If you walk round the squares, crescents and rows of cream stucco mansions in Mayfair and Belgravia you feel like you’re in a different world. Gerald owned most of this though oddly it arrived in the seventeen century from a young girl called Mary Davies. When she was 12 her dad put her up for auction. With her came a dowry of approximately 300 acres of boggy fields. Lord Berkeley and Thomas Grosvenor bid for her, the latter winning with the highest bid. Thomas wasn’t well-known but lived in Cheshire and was doing well from mining in Wales. Those badly-drained fields that came with Mary would become Mayfair and Belgravia.
It was time to go. I patted Gerald headstone (as I do with all the stones I visit.) In keeping with his modest way a private funeral was held here. Even his chum the Queen didn’t attend to shed a tear. He died young at 64 - not even the three-score-and-ten you expect – a life of chain-smoking probably didn’t help. Despite all the millions of pounds and acres of land something so small as a pump brought premature death - in August 2016 he was shooting on a hill on his Abbeystead estate in Lancashire with a gamekeeper when his heart gave out. He was rushed to the Royal Preston Hospital where he died leaving a wife, three daughters and a son.
I went into the church and dropped jaw at celestial light streaming in through the stain-glass windows, said a prayer for my mum, preached to an imaginary flock (see pic), put 50p in the charity box, signed the visitor’s book and set off for Wales.
With his mum and dad…
While here I just had to say hello to Alfred Ind, recipient of a Victoria Cross medal…
In Eccleston village where the church is…
Gerald was at his Abbeystead estate in Lancashire on a hill with a gamekeeper when he had a heart attack...
Royal Preston Hospital where Gerald died…
When I visited Eccleston village a year or two earlier I spotted a young couple dressed sharply and said they were the first people in the village I’d seen. “Give it an hour and it will be busy,” the woman said as her friend was getting married. She also told me all the large houses around us were rented (not owned) from the Duke Of Westminster. She said most of the village was part of the Duke’s estate and his own home, Eaton Hall, was “just up that road.”
After a chat I said goodbye then decided to head “just up that road.” Being nosy I ignored the “PRIVATE ROAD” sign, keeping close behind a small car in front of me – perhaps it was Princess Beatrice or the Marquis of Cowpooh Palace? Further up the road buildings gave way to countryside and a tall fence ringing the estate. The people in the car buzzed security and gates opened but I stayed behind, pulled in to one side and decided to make a cheese salad sandwich.
I knew I was on a camera as it kept swivelling about but didn’t expect to see, in my rear view mirror, a black Land Rover coming down the drive. Hope it drives passed, I thought. I was in the middle of preparing a sandwich, spreading on mayonnaise, cutting slices of cheese. The gates opened and the security man pulled up beside me, window down. What a bummer. He was a friendly chap, asked me what I was doing. “Having a cheese salad sandwich. Do you want one?” I said. He could see all the sandwich material on the passenger seat. I was hoping I could befriend him, get invited up the security lodge and have a look around the Duke’s snooker room - but no way.
I had a bit of chat with him and asked if I could at least finish my sandwich before moving off. “I’m going to have to ask you to move on,” he said. He could see I was a nosy thing and said, “If you want to get up here there’s a bit of an open day next month. It’s £7 for a local charity.” His demeanour was that of an ex-policeman. He could see steam rising from my coffee cup and apologised that he’d have to move me on at the point of biting sandwich. He told me to park up near the river to have a sandwich but I’d rather have gone up to the big house for a look at some priceless oil paintings. He said another security vehicle would come down soon he hadn’t moved me on soon. He was right and another was now coming down the drivel.
“You haven’t come all the way down the drive just for me have you?” I asked. Yes he had - had probably left a cup of coffee going cold. He waited for me to drive off though and put his vehicle diagonally across the road until I was out of sight (I managed to get a quick photo.) I parked up at the recommended pretty spot by the river for the sandwich but I’d have preferred to snoop about the dark corners of Eaton Hall.