Peter Mitchell speaks to Mark Nicholls about the joys and challenges of becoming managing director of the Holkham EstateUPLIFTING; that’s the sensation Peter Mitchell feels as he drives through the gates of Holkham Park to work every morning.
Seeing the park pan out before him, the estate buildings and the focal point of the 18th century Palladian-style Holkham Hall ahead, underlines the privilege of running the Estate as managing director.
Overseeing 15-20 separate rural businesses under the Holkham brand, working with a team of 280 and still learning more every day, it is a fresh and invigorating challenge after 14 years as managing director at Jarrold’s in Norwich.
He likens the move to transiting from the pivotal job at one Norfolk institution to another, with each role having the responsibility of sustaining tradition, innovation and advance at its core.
Is there such a vast difference between the two, I ask, as we sip coffee in the Courtyard Café at Holkham?
‘It’s a lovely mix,’ he replies. ‘About two thirds of what I do is familiar – in a visitor-facing business with the elements of customer service, events, branding, marketing, leading teams and motivation. The other third is entirely new.’
He’s talking about farming, gamekeeping, and maintaining the Holkham National Nature Reserve – aspects of ‘the business’ at Holkham that are led by career specialists with years of experience and expertise under their belts.
Peter took up the post in March with the summer events programme and activities already planned for 2018. Although he wasn’t giving much away, you sense that his eye is already on 2019.
‘I saw this move as an opportunity to become part of a destination business,’ he continues. ‘It is an inspiring place to work and when you come through the gates and make your way into Holkham Park, it is truly uplifting.
‘There are very diverse businesses here, connected by geography and brand identity, and my role is to join them together in a way that is worth more than the sum of their parts to help define where the estate is going over the next 10-15 years.’
Working closely with Lord Leicester, his realm of responsibility is the visitor and leisure aspect of the grounds, the six-acre walled garden, events and activities, and halls tours, along with the Beach and Courtyard cafes and the Victoria Inn, with its bar, restaurants and 20 rooms. Land management is a critical aspect of his brief, of which property, farming and the nature reserve stretching down from the main road across marshes to Holkham beach are the major components.
‘It is a large estate of 25,000 acres. We farm about 7000 acres ourselves, with 14,000 acres farmed by tenants. We grow salad potatoes – which is our speciality – winter and spring barley, oilseed rape, maize and wheat on a six-year rotation,’ he adds, reminding me that Holkham is where one of the great agrarian advances was invented, with Thomas William Coke, the 1st Earl of Leicester and better known as Coke of Norfolk, pioneering the principle of crop rotation farming 200 years ago.
What he also emphasises is how each aspect of the business dovetails and interacts with those around it, notably with the showcase Field to Fork exhibition near the Courtyard café.
While ancient tractors stand outside, within is a modern, innovative and interactive display reflecting the history of farming at Holkham and what is offered from the estate today.
‘It explains the processes and the connection between what we grow on the farm to what goes onto the plate, helping children and families to understand that side of the history of the estate.’
That synergy between the elements of the Holkham estate continues in the cafes and restaurants. Produce from the walled garden underpins seasonal dishes, while the estate’s Belted Galloways herd – cattle suited to grazing on the salt marshes – produces beef cuts for the Victoria’s chefs. Deer
from the Park also provide venison.
The walled garden, undergoing a restoration, is a gem, growing fruit, vegetables and flowers, with a vineyard and events space for outdoor films and theatres.
Holkham Hall is open three days a week for people to visit the hall itself, with stunning state rooms and artworks, but is still very much home for Lord Leicester and his family.
Will there be any major changes to the way the estate is run?
Not in the foreseeable future, suggests Peter, who is married to Sarah with three children and lives in North Norfolk.
The events will evolve, the popular pop concerts – such as the appearance of Lionel Richie in June – will continue, and the facilities will develop, such as the addition of The Lookout café and toilets along Lady Anne’s Drive down toward the beach.
‘The estate is in very good shape with a great team of people,’ emphasises Peter, who away from work, enjoys cycling, swimming and spending time on his boat off Blakeney.
‘My predecessor was very successful in developing the estate over the eight years that he ran it, working with Lord Leicester. We had a good programme in place for 2018 and I have enjoyed watching the team deliver on that so there has been no urgency to make changes.
‘There will be challenges…like all visitor businesses, we are trying to develop what we can offer and attract more people.’
Logistically, it can be demanding, such as when the car parks and cafes are full on a hot summer day, hosting 11,000 fans for a concert or 1300 triathlon competitors while staging outdoor cinema and theatre events.
And the demands – and barometers of success – vary from one part of the estate to another. While the prolonged summer sunshine brought in the visitors, it saw the farm teams anxiously looking for rain to provide much-needed water for the crops on the fields.
‘Related to that, we have the challenge of balancing the impact of visitors on wildlife as the designated body responsible for the Holkham National Nature Reserve,’ he continues. ‘It is complex and complicated, with the different habitats.’
Bringing these diverse aspects together, maintaining and sustaining Holkham as a business, keeping the 300,000 people who visit the estate and hall every year happy, and managing the array of rural businesses centred on one of the great houses of the realm, is a job that Peter is clearly relishing over the years ahead.