Kent Character: Nick Sandford
PUBLISHED: 12:39 30 August 2015 | UPDATED: 12:39 30 August 2015
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Nick Sandford on his three years as CLA chairman and the delights and challenges of managing the estate at Godinton House & Gardens, Ashford.
When Nick Sandford arrived at Ashford’s Jacobean gem, Godinton House, in 1997 he left behind him a huge support network which, he admits, he’d enjoyed and possibly taken for granted over the past decade in his work with the National Trust.
At first it was a bit of a culture shock. “When I started I didn’t have anyone,” he says. “I arrived and thought gosh, it’s just me – a house in need of desperate repair and a study with just a desk and a chair in it.”
One of his first actions was to join the Country Land and Business Association and the CLA remains his first port of call for its “fantastic” advice network, which he still uses for problem solving at Godinton.
And gradually, through word of mouth, Nick built up his own contacts and now wouldn’t have it any other way. “The lovely thing about coming to Godinton is that basically it’s ‘big fish, small pond’ situation, as it’s just one estate, but I get involved in and am also responsible for everything that goes on here,” he explains.
“In the National Trust they have a special person who deals with conserving and cleaning pictures, for example. Here I had to organise and find people to do not only that, but also everything from restoring porcelain and mending curtains to unblocking drains. It’s a Jack of all trades sort of job and you do pick up all sorts of skills you never thought you had.”
Another revelation has been discovering the wealth of skilled tradespeople and craftspeople in the Ashford area, which means he can keep everything as local as possible, from the tearoom using Pluckley Tea Company and Wye-based The Wooden Spoon to helping a stone mason who came looking for a corner to use years ago and who is now working out of 6,000 sq ft within the estate and employing half a dozen people.
Nick hs needed all the local specialist help he could gather, as the last phase of improvements at Godinton had been in the 1920s, resulting in a house in very poor condition indeed.
“The last owner, who’d lived in the house almost 50 years was very fond of it and cared for it but didn’t do any major works, so when I came here 18 years ago the first thing we had to do was a complete overhaul of the house.
“We had the roof off, replumbed, rewired, put in new heating and did lots of timber repairs – it was a major refurbishment but one that has put the house in good order for the next 100 years.”
Godinton has absorbed the history and culture of its region for 600 years, withstanding the rise and fall of a score of monarchs, uprisings, rebellions, Civil War and the threat of invasion.
It has been fortunate, and unusual among its neighbours, in having only two changes in ownership in those 600 years.
And while he may not have cared much for ‘major works,’ final owner Alan Wyndham Green had the excellent idea back in 1991 to establish the Godinton House Preservation Trust, to secure the future of Godinton House and its contents, grounds and parkland ‘for the public benefit’.
Wyndham Green made it clear that he didn’t want the house to become an impersonal museum after his death.
The Trustees would continue to honour his wishes, incorporated in the Trust Deed, to preserve Godinton for the appreciation, benefit and education of the public.
“It’s thanks to Wyndham Green’s foresight in setting the Trust up that we can maintain the property and let the public enjoy it,” says Nick.
“He also had the foresight when he appointed the Board of Trustees not to ask his friends but rather their sons, and two of the original members, now in their sixties, remain, which has given us wonderful continuity over the years.”
I ask Nick what he loves best about his role and his eyes light up: “I love the sheer variety – it’s fascinating to get right up in the roof space and see the old timbers and work out how to solve some of the problems for yourself.
“And I like the pleasure the house gives people, I like the fact that we are not totally driven to be commercial the whole time so we don’t have to ‘milk’ every opportunity with our visitors.
“We like to treat people individually and let them have the run of the place, almost as if the owner has just left for a few days. We still buy odd things for the house at auction and art sales and move furniture around to keep it fresh. It’s like managing your own house, except it’s 100 times bigger and 100 times more complicated!”
Beyond this ‘living house’ lie superb gardens and a vast estate that is a mixture of farmland, forestry, houses and cottages, small business units and craft workshops.
The land and woods are private and this is a working estate so there is grazing stock, arable fields and farm machinery, while the historic parkland is maintained by a tree-planting regime to ensure the longevity of the landscape.
Wildlife is encouraged to thrive with bird, owl and bat boxes and areas are managed to provide habitats that are safe and undisturbed. The River Stour, which runs through the estate, is now undergoing a conservation project to improve it and is a haven for a huge range of wildlife.
Most of the traditionally managed woodland on the Godinton Estate is sweet chestnut coppice and the majority of the timber is turned into wood chip which fuels the estate’s biomass boilers, providing heat and hot water to the house and buildings. The better-quality timber is used for fencing and saw logs.
Nick married his wife Jackie in 1996, which means they have lived here for most of their married life. Their twin daughters, now in their final year at Cranbrook School, were born here and enjoyed 900 acres as their playground.
As a child himself growing up in Tunbridge Wells Nick remembers “lots of country walks and going to places like Scotney Castle,” as well as visits to his grandfather’s farm in Hampshire.
It’s no wonder the rural-based CLA, with its broad membership of land owners, farmers and people with land interests, fits him like a glove.
After attending The Judd School in Tonbridge he went to Kingston Polytechnic to study to be a chartered surveyor, but never enjoyed it and after a couple of years he switched to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester.
Not only much happier, the move led to him working for a firm of land owners and then the National Trust, as he’d realised by then that he really wanted to work in the heritage industry – and brings us right up to date.
Nick’s time as Chairman of the Kent branch of the CLA ends this November after its three-year term and although it’s been time consuming it is a role he has clearly relished; Kent Life readers have certainly enjoyed his monthly columns.
“You get involved in a whole range of things: members’ events, EU reform, liaising with KCC, with the police on rural crime matters. It’s not dissimilar to Godinton, where we do everything from building repairs to VAT and open-air events like our sculpture trail and Scout camps – both roles are very diverse. There is no typical day and a never-finished list of things to do.”
CLA’s main purpose is to act as a lobbying organisation to influence Government decisions and it has a small head office team and a national president, plus 35,000 members around the UK, about 1,000 of those in Kent.
When he took up office, Nick’s stated priorities were local water supplies and rural broadband and they remain at the top of the list, although a lot of his time has also been taken up with Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) .
“The proposals for housing development in Kent are significant but no one has come forward with a water infrastructure solution, which we ought to do soon as we are a very dry part of the UK. And without irrigation our fruit growers will struggle to produce the quality of food for which Kent is famous,” Nick warns.
“Looking ahead, the issues for the rural sector are huge and there is a problem with falling commodity prices, which means production costs have been reduced and profit margins are being squeezed in the sector.
“At the same time there is increasing pressure on rural landowners and farmers for environmental protection and improving standards – but it’s far easier to put more back into the environment if you have a healthy business than if you’re struggling to make ends meet.”
The issue of littering in the countryside is a personal bugbear, as it also impacts on his role at Godinton. “It’s not just fly tipping but the general littering in Kent is shame making. I am ashamed that visitors to Godinton have to travel down a lane covered in fast-food wrappers.
“I’m always filling up bags whenever I walk the estate. We have very responsible walkers but it’s still amazing the number of energy drinks and crisp packets I come across. Litter bins in beauty spots don’t work, they quickly overflow then you see the old mattresses and fridges appearing.
“Rural crime won’t go away but the Country Eye app (a police-backed scheme that harnesses the GPS power of smartphones to report and share incidents) which we launched at the Kent County Show will be brilliant.
“Overall, we are vey fortunate to be living in such a lovely county with so much going on.”
My favourite Kent
Walks: Godinton estate, which I walk for pleasure as well as work, even though we are quite close to Ashford and the A20 there are bits of woodland you can go into and feel as if you’re miles from anywhere. My favourite time of year is May and June.
Visiting: North Downs around Crundale and the coastal stretch along from Sandgate, The Old Ship down there is lovely. I love the yews in Alkham churchyard, they’tre huge and at least 2000 years old.
Hobbies: I like to fish in the River Stour, for trout mainly, and I shoot in the winter,
I cycled round the Kent coast with Hugo Fenwick when he was High Sheriff and that was wonderful, I even saw some bits of Kent that were new to me. I also play a bit of tennis and am a keen gardener and enjoy growing vegetables.
Eating out: We don’t eat out much – Jackie was a professional cook before I married her so the standards she sets are very high. We did enjoy a nice Turkish meal recently in Canterbury and tend to choose different cuisines because Jackie is so good.
Interests: I am a Governor of Spring Grove School and also involved with the local church in Hothfield and Westwell. My faith is important to me and I help run services and give talks sometimes.
Get in touch
Ashford TN23 3BP
01233 643854 or firstname.lastname@example.org
House and tearoom open until 4 October 2015, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays & Bank Holiday Mondays 1pm-5pm
Gardens open until 1 November 2015, daily 1pm-6pm
House & Gardens: Adults £9, children (under 16) free, except on some event days
Gardens only: Adults £5, children (under 16) free, except on some event days