Nina Barbour on running the 200-year-old Bolesworth Estate
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 December 2019
For Nina Barbour, an equestrian spectacular on New Year's Eve will be the culmination of an exciting, but unforeseeably tough, year. Here she talks about the very modern challenge of keeping her 200-year-old family estate in business
For 2019, it is an anomaly of day. We're in the dying weeks of autumn, just before winter's true chill splinters the air, here to photograph and interview Nina Barbour, Managing Director of the Bolesworth Estate - a modern day lady of the manor if you will. Falling leaves flutter against crisp blue skies. It wasn't like this weeks ago when I first visited, her assistant Sarah showing me around the grounds, pointing out the spots that could make great backdrops (which, as you might guess, is much of it). That had been a wellies-on, umbrellas-up kind of day where the globulous, pounding rain had refused to pause even for a minute - the weather that has characterised much of this year; weather that has proved to be Bolesworth's biggest foe.
'It seemed to hit on every event we had which was really galling,' says Nina, an accomplished horsewoman 'at a high-ranking amateur level', who at 39, has been at the helm of the events side of Bolesworth for the last 11 years and is now very much in the saddle when it comes to shaping the future of the business. Only this isn't just business, this is her home too, her family history and future.
She moved into Bolesworth Castle - not technically a castle if we're splitting hairs but most definitely a turreted country house - with her father Anthony, mother Diana and sister Cleo in 1987. The estate has been in the family since her great grandfather Robert bought it in 1856. Anthony Barbour, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2007, had been a visionary of an estate owner, creating a village of businesses across its thousands of acres and beyond. It is the ongoing challenge of any modern landowner; figuring out how to make it pay for itself. Opening it to the public, in one way or another, is often the answer. Nowadays the estate not only hosts its own international horse show every June but it also provides the staging ground for other events and festivals, most notably Chris Evan's CarFest.
'Sharing it with other people is such a great thing to be able to do - normally,' Nina says. 'But this summer has been really challenging because, with the wet weather, the big events have done such enormous damage to the ground. It's not until you have a lot of people on site you realise what that level of damage is like,' she says.
'After CarFest I actually had to go away for a few days because just looking at the big machines pulling things off, tearing up the ground, was horrific to watch. It was fairly heartbreaking for a week or so.'
Aesthetics aside, there are other, more serious, implications of course. Earlier in the year she had to close much of the Equerry Bolesworth International Horse Show to the public because the sodden ground wouldn't be able to take it. 'It's devastating financially,' Nina admits. 'Luckily this time around we were insured but cash-flow wise it's months before we see that so it can be difficult. It's been a tough one this year.'
And yet despite it all she is more excited about the business than she's ever been. Because Bolesworth is thriving. This year has seen it go through a major rebrand; something that might not mean much to you and I but signifies the intention and ambition of Nina's vision. 'A couple of years ago I really realised that the business and the horse show was growing and the two international horse shows were really growing but without the systems and resources keeping up across the whole business.' She brought in a strategy company. Reading between the lines it was a case of bringing in the right people and relieving the wrong ones in order to move forward. She calls it 'an HR-heavy couple of years'.
'It can be hard when you're making changes to people and teams,' she says. 'It's tough on the people who've got used doing things for such along time. It's been a steep learning curve of actually how to run a business commercially and equally quite liberating to make quite big changes and bring in new, really competent people.'
And so now they are all building towards the climax of 2019; the Liverpool International Horseshow, a four-day spectacular of showjumping and dressage that is the only one of its kind in the region. 'There aren't many big international events in the North of England - for good reason; it's a battle to get people in,' she admits. 'Filling that stadium at Liverpool for consecutive nights is a mission.'
But the challenge is what spurs her on as is the thrill of creating such a fantastic production. 'We literally ship 1000 tons of sand into Liverpool just before Christmas to create the all-weather surface,' she says. 'There is a shopping village. You can sip champagne whilst watching the horses warm up. There are motorbikes and live music. We put a lot into the production. I love that you can be really creative and just really get that atmosphere electric. This year we finish on New Year's Eve so we see in midnight in the arena.'
That all means that Christmas itself is, for Nina, unlike many of us, 'the calm before the storm'.
'We can't go into the arena for Christmas Day and Boxing day so that's just a nice couple of clear days to relax.
She'll be spending Christmas with her mother, sister and new niece at Bolesworth. 'It will be the baby's first Christmas.'
She elegantly bats away the questions via which I'm clearly trying to discover what life is really like when you own a country estate in 2020. How Downton Abbey is it nowadays? For example, Christmas - will the staff be tending the turkey? 'Cooking is not my strong point and my sister is really good at cooking so I tend to leave her to do it,' she says. So no Cook then? 'We generally do it ourselves. There are always people about here. We have a few members of staff living on site but generally it's just a nice quiet family affair.'
Her day-to-day life is much like everyone else's she insists. 'I have a bit of help cleaning the house. But generally I fend for myself. I quite like at the end of the day coming home, shutting the door and being quite private. Her favourite way to unwind? 'Box sets! I've just discovered the new series of Suits I've never seen.'
Suits, the American TV drama in which Meghan Markle once starred. Do royalty ever come to Bolesworth I wonder? I don't know how it works in the upper echelons of the estate owning classes. Are the aristocracy forever popping in? Far from it she says. The only famous names are those connected to show jumping who've visited for events. In fact, she says, traditional estate life is something she's actively tried to distance herself from. 'I've always gone my own way,' she says. 'Shooting happens here but it's not really my world.' Up until recently she never thought she'd suffered from sexism, growing up, taking over from her father becoming a female boss in what has traditionally been a male-dominated environment. 'But then actually when you delve a little deeper into the Estate world, it is still a little like that. It doesn't bother me that much but it's one of the reasons I've tried to move out of those circles and recruit people from normal business where it's not like that anymore. That just makes life easier because then everyone is equal.' Because it can, she says, be a bit of 'a boys' club'.
And so to 2020? Her plan is simple; to keep moving forward, to build on everything she has accomplished this year.
The future's bright for Bolesworth, thanks to a very modern vision to keep its legacy going strong.