The ‘most bonkers estate in Britain’?

It’s a bold claim, by no less an authority than Country Life magazine (which must have profiled some eccentric estates in its time). The comment relates to Fawley Hill, near Henley-on-Thames.

You can see why the esteemed magazine on country matters might make the claim. Various animals roam free on the estate, some from zoos which don’t have room for them any more, others from the animal rescue hospital Tiggywinkles. The estate website says they are home to, among others:-

‘red, fallow, roe, axis, sika and hog deer, sitatunga, addax, barasinga, wallabies, reas, emus, peacocks, tapirs, capybaras, alpaca, guanaco, llamas, racoons, coatis, meerkats, porcupines, maras, chinchillas, rabbits, tortoises and lemurs’

Or there’s the onsite Ironhenge. No, not Stonehenge – Ironhenge. It’s an arrangement of columns from the undercroft at London St Pancras station, kept here for their own preservation.

But Ironhenge is a clue to the main attraction at Fawley, on the occasional days it opens to the public (such as today). The estate was owned, until his death in 2018, by Sir William McAlpine, director of the famous construction firm – and a great supporter of railways. Sir William spent £25,000 to bring the Flying Scotsman home from the USA after its previous owner was bankrupted. He was bitten so badly by the railway bug that he had a private railway constructed at Fawley. It’s nearly a mile long and contains a 1-in-13 gradient, making it the steepest standard gauge railway track in the world. There’s also a museum containing all manner of railway artefacts and memorabilia which Sir William collected.

Judging by the happy expressions on the many adults and children who visited Fawley today to look round the museum and take a ride on a steam train – and maybe to get the occasional glimpse of an ostrich or two – this isn’t necessarily bonkers. Eccentric, maybe, although many people love railways; obsessive, perhaps, like many collectors and fans. But ‘the most bonkers estate in Britain’? Shurely shome mishtake.

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