Michael More-Molyneux on Loseley Park, Guildford Cathedral, supper with film stars and 'retirement'
PUBLISHED: 07:06 11 May 2015 | UPDATED: 14:25 11 May 2015
With his family roots at Guildford's Loseley Park dating back more than 500 years, Michael More-Molyneux is a man with his finger firmly on the Surrey pulse. Currently chairing the multi-million pound campaign to save Guildford Cathedral, as well as overseeing the renovation of his historic home (not to mention putting up the occasional film star), there's never a dull moment, as Matthew Williams discovers
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2015
On saving Guildford Cathedral...
As a flag-waving schoolboy, Michael More-Molyneux was at Guildford Cathedral from the very start, kneeling on the grass “for what seemed like days” as the Queen arrived for the consecration on May 17, 1961.
“My father was actually inside for the service, so we’ve been involved since the beginning,” says the 63-year-old, who is now chairman of the appeal to ensure the building is preserved for future generations. “Over the years, we’ve all worshipped there. My late son Christopher had the most wonderful memorial concert, our daughter got married there in the snow, and more recently my father had his memorial service there; very special occasions.”
The last cathedral to have been built and consecrated in the 20th century, not many would claim it to be among the prettiest but it is certainly among the most striking; a modern masterpiece that in its position high up on the hill can be seen from miles around.
“It captivates people,” says Michael. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful modern buildings; certainly in the south-east and probably in the country. The simplicity of the arches and proportions is just stunning.
“It’s also just as special if you’re alone, admiring the light streaming through the windows, or when it’s full, there’s singing and a whole other life comes to it.”
Ever since it was built, Guildford Cathedral has needed money – in fact, they needed to borrow to finish it in the first place. A community buy-a-brick campaign is proof that crowd-funding isn’t by any means an invention of social media.
“It really is the people’s cathedral,” continues Michael. “They haven’t had the huge endowments that some of the older cathedrals have, and there were problems we needed to work out even before we discovered the issues with the ceiling.”
It was no small undertaking either. When the appeal committee first sat down, they were facing the challenge of raising £1.3m by August 2014 in order to secure a further £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund – which had just been granted as Surrey Life went to press. However, as well as dealing with urgent problems such as the ceiling’s asbestos issue, the appeal also created the opportunity to bring the cathedral up to date.
“Although it’s only 50 years old, technology moves on so quickly and the cathedral needed to embrace tomorrow’s century, as we say,” says Michael.
“The whole project has been just so exciting, with so much passionate feeling involved. We’ve just had our Heritage Lottery Funding, so now we just have the last £800,000 to raise – of course, this can sometimes be the hardest part.”
So, what could have been a huge negative has, perhaps, instead proved to be a timely reminder to people that the cathedral is part of the town rather than an isolated place on a hill for worshippers?
“I think that’s fair,” he says. “I’ve spoken to plenty of people with no religious leanings, who were still happy to support the project. It was speaking to these people that really made me realise we would be able to achieve what we were setting out to achieve. Guildfordians had no interest in seeing the place crumble.”
Historically, cathedrals have always been meeting places and recent efforts have seen Guildford branch out: from dinners in the nave to concerts by world- renowned musicians, via art exhibitions, wildlife celebrations and more.
“The team have done an amazing job,” says Michael. “It’s all about encouraging people to come in. It keeps the place alive and will ensure it remains a fixture of the town for many years to come.
“I’ve been truly astonished by how generous people have been. How they’ve wanted to do their part to ensure its survival: whether that’s by opening up their cheque books or giving their time. There are a lot of people from all over the county who have helped make this amazing project happen.”
A county comes together...
The spirit behind the Guildford Cathedral appeal appears to match a general upsurge in pride in Surrey as a whole at the moment, something that Michael, a former High Sheriff of our county, is pleased to see.
“For far too long, people have been slamming Surrey,” he says. “The likes of Jeremy Clarkson calling it the patio of London; Lonely Planet saying ‘you’ve got to get across Surrey to get to Hampshire’ or whatever it was; those sorts of unhelpful comments. When you consider there are over one million people in Surrey, with all these amazing villages, pubs, walks, gardens, history etc to explore, it’s hard to understand why it’s so quickly overlooked by people who live outside the county.”
From a man whose family has lived in Surrey for over 500 years, at the historic Loseley Park near Guildford, I wonder what it is that he thinks has instigated this?
“I think that we’ve perhaps got a little better about talking about ourselves in some ways,” says Michael. “The similarly minded people are now working together more and we have things like Visit Surrey and, of course, Surrey Life who are doing their bit to celebrate things. It’s really helped to bring people into the county, but also made those that live here a bit more aware of what’s going on.”
That spirit of togetherness is perhaps summed up by the village of Compton, on the doorstep of Loseley, where an artists’ village is blooming – and largely thanks to ingenious fund-raising and hard graft.
“It’s been fantastic seeing the success of Watts Gallery,” says Michael. “It’s not only a bit of an inspiration to everything we’ve been trying to achieve with Guildford Cathedral, but they are another string to Surrey’s bow.
“One of the things that has been so impressive about the cathedral campaign is that people like Perdita Hunt, director at Watts Gallery, have been so happy to offer advice from their experiences.”
Among those joining Michael on the Guildford Cathedral Appeal committee itself are the likes of Dame Penelope Keith and Baroness Virginia Bottomley, who need no introduction; Peter Hutley from the Wintershall Estate in Bramley; and Sir Ray Tindle, who at nearly 90 is still running his successful newspaper group from Farnham. It’s a motley collection of some of Surrey’s most successful and proactive figureheads; and it’s notable that they by no means all live in Guildford.
“In the past, I’ve been vice president of appeals where you write one letter and that’s kind of your lot. With this, everyone has been so eager to keep meeting and progressing. I think that bodes very well for the future of Surrey, as well as the cathedral itself. There are a lot of people who care deeply, and we’re lucky that they also happen to be a very talented and well connected bunch. People are also working together a lot more at the moment – and sometimes that can achieve far more than even the excellent sum of the parts.”
There are few, however, who can demonstrate a stronger commitment to the cathedral than Michael; indeed, if any of the others were at the consecration in their shorts, none have admitted to it yet.
Life on a country estate...
If you happened to accidentally find yourself at Loseley Park (which closes for the colder months) this winter, you would have found the Elizabethan mansion resembling something more akin to the Mary Rose than a country house: with its roof beams only saved from the elements by a giant tent-like scaffold!
“Considering the house was built in 1562, it hasn’t done too badly,” laughs Michael. “It has been reroofed before but this is only the second time. Yes, we’re used to having visitors, but it is a little different being surrounded by builders – it’s curtains closed and breakfast by candlelight.”
Back in the 1500s, Sir Christopher More, a lawyer by trade, was asked to sort out a dispute between the two families that owned Loseley – then the original house and some 1,500 acres of land. He fell so in love with the place, he convinced both families that they should sell it to him. The current house was built between 1562 and 1568, and the More family have been there ever since, with Michael living there his whole life.
“Going up the scaffolding in my hard hat is an experience I’ve never had before,” he continues. “It’s incredible to have that view of the history. It’s not something you get to see very often. We haven’t found any hidden family gold though sadly.”
Buried treasure, as the regular TV shows highlighting the plight of our nation’s country houses suggest, is something that most landowners could do with these days. While Loseley is still very much a family home, it also has to work hard to keep itself in fighting shape.
“My dad came back from the war and Loseley was very run-down,” says Michael. “He had to work jolly hard to turn that around, and we’ve always had to work to keep it alive, rather than sell the family silver. We’re so lucky though to live in a beautiful place like this and have an almost moral obligation to share that. It’s important commercially but also from a family point of view. We would certainly hope our family could be here for another 500 years.”
Once upon a time, agriculture – and latterly ice cream – was a staple of the Loseley portfolio but these days they have become increasingly visitor-based.
“This is, in part, a necessity,” says Michael. “There are moments when we’d probably like to tuck ourselves away, but people visiting is what makes places like Loseley – or Guildford Cathedral – breathe. We were at a point where 300-acre farms weren’t viable any more and so now all our farming areas are let. The tenant who looks after the arable land now has about 2,500/3,000 acres of crop and combine harvesters as big as our Great Hall. To offset the costs, they have to go bigger and bigger all the time.”
Nowadays, as well as the many exciting events that fill the diary over the year (Surrey Sculpture Society, The Garden Show etc), Loseley also acts as a particularly picturesque business park (“our workshops and offices benefit from free parking spaces with their rent – not bad just outside Guildford!”) and Michael’s wife Sarah is a wedding florist.
“She loves nothing more than meeting brides and working out what they want, before getting up at some ridiculous, unprintable hour to get up to Covent Garden to select the flowers,” Michael laughs. “She gets great satisfaction from that. I’m very lucky to have been married to an energetic and enthusiastic Northumberland girl for over 30 years and we have been very privileged to live here.”
All being well, life at Loseley should be back in full bloom – with the scaffolding and mansion-depicting screen down – towards the end of May when the house and gardens open again to the public.
Hanging out with the stars...
One of the ways that many country estates make money these days is to open their doors to film companies looking to capture some of the past with a little integrity.
“Mum and dad started allowing filming in something like 1948,” says Michael. “Since then, we’ve had a huge number of location managers come in and look around. For some it’s perfect, but usually it won’t be quite right.”
Even for those that don’t find the right fit, however, a quick dig into the files at a later date can result in the perfect match – as happened recently with The Man Who Knew Infinity starring Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel.
“The director wasn’t 100% convinced that it was going to work, to be honest,” explains Michael. “He’d walked into one room and worried it was a little rich. Fortunately, the set designer stepped in and said she could easily ‘dumb things down’ a little! It was his trust in her that made them not look elsewhere.”
A lot of trust must also be in place for a homeowner to throw open their house to cast and crew, but at Loseley, things took an even more surreal turn – and possibly, I jest, offered another future revenue stream…
“It was the director’s first film, and the location manager asked whether he could stay the night before filming to relax things,” laughs Michael. “I said that we’d of course put him up for the night, give him supper, a glass of vin ordinaire and that he could make use of the grounds to have a stroll and think.
“Anyway, the next thing we know, Jeremy Irons has caught on to this and thinks it sounds like a great idea. So he appeared too. Finally, on the last night, they over-ran a little and we ended up with Dev Patel and a number of others as well. So we had all these amazing people around the kitchen table for supper; as you can imagine, it was absolutely hysterical. One of the nicest film crews we’d had for some time – and we charged them a fair rate.”
Then there’s the time that Foyle’s War built a wall across the drive (“from a distance you’d look at it and think ‘well, we’re stuck with that then’ and it was only when you got up close you realised how temporary it was”) or when scouts from War Horse thought they’d be the perfect setting if it wasn’t “for those five 300-year-old oak trees over there…”.
“They’re incredibly imaginative people and usually a lot of fun to be around,” says Michael. “Sometimes, when you see the final film though, it can be a little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. They’ll have spent the week here and then you’re sitting there wondering if you’ve missed it.
“It’s amazing the level of detail they concentrate on, though, even for potentially brief sections of a film. I remember having to change a relatively small clock that was barely in shot for one film. People do spot this stuff though.”
If you’ve ever watched the likes of Midsomer Murders, Marple, Sense and Sensibility or Emma, however, then you just might have spotted this particular country house before.
Thoughts on ‘retirement’...
One of the things that the Guildford Cathedral Appeal, re-roofing Loseley and, perhaps, supping with Hollywood stars has reinforced is that Michael is in absolutely no mood for retirement.
“What would I do, play golf?” he laughs. “No, the cathedral appeal has thoroughly excited me – we never collectively said it, but I think we all thought ‘how is this going to happen?’ at the start. So it’s hugely exciting to see it reach this stage.”
That said, he and Sarah are planning to step aside at Loseley and let the next generation take the reins of the estate at the end of 2016.
“They need a timetable to work to because otherwise time slips away and it can be a horrible surprise when the years suddenly flick by,” says Michael. “It’s also important that the handover is at a point where it becomes their home, rather than at a point where they are parachuted in and told ‘you will love this place!’ Our son Alexander will be the boss and people won’t be able to pop around the corner to ask me if he’s said no, but we’ll still help where needed. We want to move on when we are young, rather than old!
“We’re very lucky that there is a farmhouse on the estate that we’ll move to,” he continues. “It will be like being young marrieds moving house. What’s in Loseley stays in Loseley, so we’ll have to get some new furniture. I’m quite relaxed about it at the moment, but I know when it comes to the time I’ll be accidentally driving back to the wrong front door and such.“
Still working seven days a week, Michael is involved with various charities, as well as with the likes of Visit Surrey and the Historic Houses Association, finding it incredibly rewarding. He’s also “enjoying researching our family more and restoring our pictures” but is “not going to be getting the carpet slippers out anytime soon.”
“People seem to have been talking about my retirement for such a long time,” he says, “but I’m only 63, so I’m far too young to spend my time chasing golf balls into the woods!”
And you suspect that there will be a lot of people in Surrey who will be very grateful for that too.
Catch up on Surrey Life’s interviews with Penelope Keith and The Very Revd Dianna Gwilliams about the Guildford Cathedral campaign. With a further £800,000 still to be raised, get involved at guildford-cathedral.org
Loseley Park reopens to the public from May. Entry to the house, gardens and grounds is £9 for adults and £4 for children, with concession prices available. For more information, see online at loseleypark.co.uk